Butterfly Effect: Biden's Credibility Problem in Africa
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The new U.S. president wants to build a coalition of democracies. In Africa, he'll first need to break with dictators.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
When Natalie E. Brown, the U.S. ambassador to Uganda, attempted to visit the country’s most prominent opposition leader, pop star Bobi Wine, earlier this week, President Yoweri Museveni’s administration was quick to rebuke Washington. “What she has been trying to do blatantly is to meddle in Uganda’s internal politics, particularly elections, to subvert our elections and the will of the people,” a spokesperson for Museveni’s government said.
The 76-year-old Ugandan president is an autocrat who has ruled with an iron fist for 35 years, and he won another term last week after a controversial election that saw a groundswell of street support for Wine go mysteriously unrepresented when it came to votes. Wine — at 38, half Museveni’s age — has challenged the results, and promptly been placed under house arrest.
But if Brown was trying to show concern over the election, Museveni’s response was a firm reminder to the U.S. that in Uganda and much of Africa, America’s support for genuine democracy enjoys about as much trust as China’s commitment to a free press. Washington’s closest friends in Africa are dictators like Museveni.
That crisis of credibility threatens to undercut President Joe Biden’s assertion that he will restore America to its leadership position in the world by strengthening global democracy. Biden, who took office yesterday, had promised during his campaign to bring together the world’s biggest democracies to jointly tackle humankind’s biggest challenges, including the threats posed by China and Russia. Appearing for a Senate confirmation hearing, Biden’s secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken on Tuesday said he viewed China’s crackdown against Uighurs in Xinjiang a genocide. He has criticized Egypt for arresting human rights activists.
But on the world’s second-most populous nation in particular, America’s actions with regard to democracy have been very different from its fine words. First during the Cold War and then for the past 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has consistently settled for “stability” — thinly veiled code for pro-American regimes — over democracy. It’s that track record that gives autocrats the confidence that they can draw a line in the sand beyond which they won’t put up with homilies from Washington.
In 1998, Bill Clinton hailed Museveni as part of a “new breed” of African leaders who he described as pillars of democracy. By then, Museveni had already been in power for 12 years and was clearly intending to stay put. Two presidents later, Barack Obama hosted the Ugandan leader at the White House in 2014. Under Trump, America increased its aid to Uganda. The U.S. also supports Ugandan peacekeeping forces in Somalia. Such has been Museveni’s bipartisan love for Washington that when Trump reportedly called African nations “sh*thole” countries, the Ugandan president defended his counterpart. “I love Trump,” he said, crediting him for speaking tough truths.
The moment is ripe for Biden to try and change America’s reputation.
Cameroon’s mostly absent President Paul Biya — in power for 45 years — has likewise enjoyed consistent U.S. support across multiple administrations in Washington. Relations have soured just a bit in recent years, but while America now cites Cameroon’s human rights record, that shift interestingly coincides with the country’s growing warmth toward China.
Gabon leader Ali Bongo, a dynast whose family has ruled the oil-rich West African nation since 1967, is another of America’s closest allies. The country has no democracy worth speaking about, but how does that matter when it can lend critical strategic support to America? While the rest of the African Union resisted Western intervention against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, Gabon used its seat as a rotating member of the United Nations Security Council to back resolutions moved by the Barack Obama administration against Gadhafi. After Obama came to power in 2009, Bongo was the first African guest he hosted at Blair House, the U.S. president’s guest residence.
And for decades, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was one of America’s most trusted partners — ditched by Washington only under the irresistible force of the Arab Spring. When the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power in a coup in 2013 by current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Washington stayed quiet.
That sordid history doesn’t mean America needs to continue to cultivate dictators in Africa. The moment is ripe for Biden to try and change America’s reputation. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union cited their existential struggle to justify coups and undemocratic acts across the world, including in Africa. Popular movements against allies were reflexively seen as fronts for the other superpower.
Today, the continent is bubbling with youth-led pro-democracy movements that even their biggest critics can’t label as anti-America. Against all odds, these movements have already forced dictators to cede power in Algeria, Gambia, Burkina Faso and Sudan in recent years. Calls for change are gaining steam in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Uganda. Others will follow.
Sure, there’s a risk to breaking with dictators. If Biden follows through on Ambassador Brown’s approach, Museveni might seek closer ties with China. But in the long run, even strategically, the future belongs to Wine’s generation and those even younger. Alienating them can’t be smart.
If Biden once again decides to continue backing autocrats, it means America sees Africa’s future as no different than its present. That it believes Africa can do without democracy as long as its leaders support U.S. strategic interests. Think about it: Is that really less insulting than what Trump apparently said about African nations in 2018?
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi