Dan Simpson: The U.S. isn’t helping Africa

President Barack Obama waves goodbye after speaking to a crowd in Kenya on Sunday. Photo: Ben Curtis/AP

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We cause our African allies more problems than we help them solve

President Barack Obama’s choice of countries to visit in Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia, was understandable in political and personal terms. But visiting these two relatively successful countries on the African continent was the moral equivalent of hop-skipping across a pasture dotted with cow patties, seeking to avoid sticking his foot in one.

Even Kenya and Ethiopia raise difficult questions, though.

Kenya, awash in American military aid and involvement, has got itself into significant trouble with the violent Islamist al-Shabab movement in neighboring Somalia and with its own Somali minority by its actions at our behest. American military aid to Kenya is in the millions and the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia has led to major Somali attacks in Kenya itself, notably the Westgate Mall assault in 2013 and a bloody attack on a Kenyan university this year.

This problem, directly attributable to what Kenya has done for the United States in East Africa, has cost it a lot in investment and in its important tourist industry.

Ethiopia is another kind of problem. Its election results earlier this year gave the ruling party all 547 seats in parliament, a tribute not to the popularity of the party but more to the effectiveness of the repression it practices. Mr. Obama’s visit there was posited, in principle, on the presence in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, of the headquarters of the African Union, which the president addressed Tuesday. More to the point, perhaps, were the extensive military ties that exist between Ethiopia’s undemocratic, heavy-handed government and the U.S. military command for Africa, AFRICOM. The Ethiopian rulers appear to be the U.S. military’s kind of guys.

The Somalis have traditionally hated the Ethiopians. They have come to hate us over the years as well as we interfered in their affairs directly and through other African forces. The United States’ only solution to the Somalia problem for two decades has been to bomb and kill opposing leaders with drones launched from Ethiopia and tiny Djibouti, where we now have up to 4,000 troops based at Camp Lemonnier.

If Mr. Obama had wished to visit a country gravely in need, where U.S. policy has consistently failed as it’s drifted away from humanitarian goals since 1992, Somalia would have been it.

South Sudan would have been his second choice, if he were acting in terms of need and U.S. responsibility for making a mess. To understand the problems in South Sudan, it is necessary first to look at Sudan as it was before it began to fragment.

Sudan has always been a difficult country to govern. Fans of classic movies should not miss “Khartoum,” starring pre-National Rifle Association Charlton Heston as Gen. Charles G. “Chinese” Gordon and Sir Lawrence Olivier as the Mahdi, historical figures who meet in the movie but probably never met in person. In a nutshell, Gen. Gordon represents the British Empire; the Mahdi, an Islamist desert leader. In the end, the Mahdi’s people put a spear through Gen. Gordon.

We shall strategically duck the question of whether “Khartoum” was prophetic or symbolic, or just a good story.

Governments in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, have always struggled to hold together a nation replete with tribes, disparate regions and important segments of the population which are, variously, Muslim, Christian and animist. In the early part of this century, part of Sudan, Darfur, exploded into deadly warfare between different elements, creating a humanitarian crisis which continues. Many thousands of U.N. troops remain there at great expense trying to keep a tentative peace.

South Sudan, partly Christian and partly animist, was another difficult part of the old Sudan. Its Christians attracted the attention and support of some American fundamentalists, meaning that Washington was not permitted the liberty of letting the Sudanese sort out their problems among themselves. We thus supported South Sudanese independence, achieved four years ago. Its tribes, particularly the Dinka and the Nuer, then promptly began to fight each other, ruling out any prospect of useful national economic development in spite of the oil found there.

Now, matters are at the point where “the world,” including the United States, have told the two principal protagonists that they have until Aug. 17 to stop fighting and work out a means of living together, or else. No one is clear what the “or else” would be. Irresponsible South Sudanese “leaders” have shown a total willingness to fight on pointlessly no matter what happens. They pay for their weapons with oil money and aid from misguided countries such as the United States.

Mr. Obama attended a meeting in Addis Ababa to try to decide what should be done about South Sudan. Good luck with that.

There are other probably hopeless problems in Africa that Mr. Obama chose not to confront. One is Nigeria’s trial by fire with Boko Haram. The new Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, ended up cross during his recent visit to Washington because the United States has not agreed to provide aircraft and other weaponry to his corrupt government as it pretends to fight the Islamist organization.

As for Zimbabwe, nobody has any idea what to do about its 91-year-old ruler, Robert Mugabe, who has ruined the country. The AU just elected him president, in fact. Other African issues abound, including chaos in Libya and the undemocratic practices of Egypt’s Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and, newly added, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza.

I think I’d take a longer vacation in Hawaii if I were Mr. Obama, but he gets credit for trying.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ([email protected] com, 412-263-1976).

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