Since assuming office in early February 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry made his first trip to Africa from April 29-May 5. The six-day trip took him respectively to Ethiopia, South-Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Angola. This visit was long overdue given Africa’s growing strategic and economic importance in US foreign policy.
Secretary Kerry’s trip undeniably drew intensive media coverage and experts in various fields commented on US-Africa policy looking at centuries-old issues facing Africa including the nefarious legacy of colonization, the endemic human rights violations, ethnic and religious conflicts , poverty and the like. US interest in Africa and the massive expansion of China on the continent or Africa’s strategic value on the international scene were revisited. In a press statement the State Department said that Secretary Kerry’s visit to Africa was “to encourage democratic development, promote respect for human rights, advance peace and security, engage with civil society…and promote trade, investment and development partnerships in Africa.”
Ahead of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington scheduled for August 5 and 6, 2014, Secretary Kerry’s visit to Africa could be seen as a scene setter. Africans and human rights advocates have high hopes to reap substantial benefits from this momentous gathering. In addition to meeting Africa’s technological and trade needs, civil society and the general public across Africa call for more robust US support a more important issue: the democratization of the continent. This is the only path forward to successful and sustainable economic development, peace and political stability.
However, since President Obama challenged African leaders in 2009 in Accra, Ghana, by saying “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions,” time and time again his administration has equally failed to transition from former policies of supporting and working with dictators to standing unequivocally with civil society and for US principals and values.
One important aspect of Secretary Kerry’s agenda was to “engage with civil society” which is the prime catalyst for promoting democratic values and free African nations that remain hostage to a small number of political elites in control of state apparatus. Civil society’s role is essential because it helps open public space for wider political participation and the building of a viable democratic culture. For a fast track democratization of Africa, it is essential that civil society, unlike this time, be given the prominence it deserves during high level Africa engagement like this of Secretary Kerry or the upcoming US-Africa Head of States summit in Washington.
While in Ethiopia, human rights organizations called on Sec. Kerry to press the government in Addis Ababa on issues of human rights particularly the immediate release of the six bloggers and three journalists arrested three days prior to his visit. The most current US policy on Ethiopia is articulated in the US Public Law No: 113-76, section 7042 (d). In this law Congress explicitly addressed Ethiopia’s bad record on human rights violations including the reckless and massive land lease to multinational corporations at the detriment of the landowners. This scam of land grabs is a real threat to peace, food security and prosperity in Ethiopia and many parts of the developing world and cannot go unattended to.
The power struggle war in South-Sudanese between Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Rieck Machar topped the agenda as Secretary Kerry spoke with the regional leaders of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) on ways to end the civil war.
In the DRC civil society called on Secretary Kerry for US assistance in promoting the rule of law to help end impunity, particularly of war crimes. Secretary Kerry insisted on regional stability, justice and the respect of the constitution, particularly respect of presidential term limits. US officials, including the US Special Envoy to the DRC and the Great Lakes, Senator Russ Feingold, have publicly and privately said that President Kabila should respect the constitution (which prohibits him from running for a third term).
Angola, an emerging economic power with important oil reserves, has become the attraction in the region with the US, France and China outsmarting one another and battling for influence. Angola, like many African countries, suffers from poverty, structural corruption and the prospect of Angolans benefiting from their national wealth is not forthcoming. In addition, Dos Santos has been “president” since 1979 and his daughter Isabel is one of the richest women in Africa.
At the end of the day, on the long list of President Obama’s priorities before he leaves office in 2016, addressing African leaders’ routine modification of constitutional presidential term limits is crucial. There are several presidential elections which the Obama administration could focus on before he leaves office. They include the DRC, Burundi and many more. Progress in this area could improve many of the social, political and economic challenges facing the many affected African nations.