By Howard W. French*
JUBA, South Sudan — In an extraordinary pair of articles published this week, The Washington Post has filled in the picture of how the U.S. military and intelligence establishment have worked to create a network of a dozen or so air bases for spying purposes across Africa. What is most remarkable about the articles are not the details themselves, which involve small, specially equipped turboprop aircraft flying surveillance missions out of remote airfields in the Sahel and in equatorial East Africa.
What stands out most about the articles, instead, is the way that this news has cast the African continent as a place where serious American interests are at play. Such things are all too rare for the mainstream media, which typically chronicles African political upheaval, violence and suffering as distant and almost random incidents or miscellany with little connection to life outside of the continent.
The Africa of our day-to-day coverage is dominated, in other words, by vivid splashes of color, by scene and emotion, and it is largely bereft of form or of pattern, and of politics and ideas that could help connect one development to another or connect the whole to the rest of the world. Some of this may be changing slowly with the recent sharp rise of China’s profile throughout the continent, which has drawn a belated response from a United States suddenly eager to avoid seeing the continent be snatched away from the West, as some fear.
The Post pieces were ultimately as remarkable for what they didn’t say as what they did, though. And in this regard, they highlight the need for the media to hold the actions of the Unites States up against its rhetoric, much as it is wont to do with regard to China, whose rote-like discourse on Africa emphasizes terms like “win-win,” and “non-interference,” etc.
By helpful coincidence, the Post‘s stories, which detail the ongoing militarization of Washington’s policies toward Africa, were published at the very same time that the Obama Administration was unveiling its purportedly new strategy toward the continent.
The leading messenger for this was Hillary Clinton, whose talk yesterday about economic opportunity for American businesses in Africa was as welcome as it was overdue. As a spate of recent articles has made clear, she spoke of the Africa as a place of strong economic growth and the continent with the highest returns on investment. It is precisely Chinese firms’ awareness of this that has been driving them, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants, to Africa in recent years in search of opportunity.
In policy briefings for the press, however, and in Clinton’s own statements, the promotion of democracy was given pride of place in a new American agenda for Africa, and this is where the rub comes between rhetoric and reality.
The Post piece reveals that the key American allies in Washington’s military and intelligence push are the leaders of Burkina Faso in West Africa and Uganda in East Africa. These two men, Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, have been in office respectively for 25 and 26 years. Both took power by force. Both have resisted real democratization in their countries. And both have been prolific and mischievous meddlers in neighboring countries, where their adventures have sown death and havoc, routinely employed child soldiers, and have involved lucrative arms trafficking as well as the organized pillage of natural resources either for their own benefit or for allies within their regimes.
Another American ally, this one emerging, as described by the Washington Post, is the year-old state of South Sudan, a country that Clinton described as a “success.” That will come as a surprise to many of the people here, whose own president has recently acknowledged the looting of $4 billion by his own associates from state coffers.
If Washington wishes to be taken seriously by Africans it has as much work to do as China in squaring words and deeds. Yesterday, the White House said its new policy commits the United States to advance democracy by “strengthening institutions at every level, supporting and building upon the aspirations throughout the continent for more open and accountable governance, promoting human rights and the rule of law, and challenging leaders whose actions threaten the credibility of democratic processes.”
One of the biggest impediments to the continent’s emergence, however, is the very existence of leaders like Compaoré and Museveni, who come to see themselves as irreplaceable, confusing their own persons with the state and seeking to remain in power indefinitely.
If Washington genuinely wishes to prioritize democracy in Africa, it might wish to privilege relations with the already substantial and growing number of states that are governed more democratically than places like these. For old friends like Museveni and newer ones like Compaoré, meanwhile, it is time to reexamine the question of what friendship is for and to ask whom does it really benefit?
If, on the other hand, American policy is really about fighting an endless succession of enemies, which is what seems to drive the security agenda that the Post has so usefully lifted the veil on, then candor should require admitting that building democracy is really important only when it is convenient.
*Culled from Howard W. French is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa and as a fellow for the Open Society Foundations, a forthcoming book on China’s relationship with Africa. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is a former senior writer and foreign correspondent for the New York Times. More