On Friday, November 19, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a scolding and patronizing lecture to Africa.
Blinken blamed increasing extremism and authoritarianism for endangering democracy and human rights on the continent. He seemed to make American military aid to Africa contingent on improved behavior.
Left unsaid was that returning under America’s wing is not the flight path to taking democracy off the endangered species list. Recent research by V-Dem, the Swedish based organization that tracks countries’ level of democracy, reveals the well hidden truth that the US and its allies account for "a significantly outsize share of global democratic backsliding in the last decade." Very few US allies experienced democratic enhancement, while many non-US aligned countries did. The New York Times comments that "The findings also undercut American assumptions . . . that U.S. power is an innately democratizing force in the world."
Though Blinken spoke about extremism and human rights, his speech was only possible with the advantage of historical amnesia. US military support in Africa has not translated into human rights. According to Nick Turse, the US supported and trained Congolese troops only for them to take part in mass rapes and other atrocities. As benefactors of US aid and training, Kenyan troops formed into death squads. US supported Ethiopian troops were involved in abuses, and human rights abuses were the product of US support and training in Chad. The same can be said for Cameroon.
Although the American military presence in Africa is often justified by the war on terror, US troops set foot in Africa prior to the fight against extremism or terrorism. And the result has not been stabilizing. In Tomorrow’s Battlefield, Turse reports that "Recent history indicates that as US "stability" operations in Africa have increased, militancy has spread, insurgent groups have proliferated, allies have faltered or committed abuses, terrorism has increased, the number of failed states has risen, and the continent has become more unsettled." Blinken can only lecture Africa by totally ignoring America’s role in the history of the problem.
Turse says that the State Department list of terrorist organizations reveals a steady increase in Africa that parallels the growth of US counterterrorism missions there. After years of US training and support, Nigerian forces responded brutally to a fringe group, turning them into the Boko Harem terrorist group.
The US green lighting of an Ethiopian invasion into Somalia just made things worse in Somalia. The US helped "midwife" South Sudan into existence, to use the words of John Kerry while they were "lurching toward the brink of genocide." They helped create South Sudan in the selfish hope that it would "bolster US national security interests," according to Turse. Instead, it led to a humanitarian crisis, ethnic conflict, civil war and a failed state.
Perhaps the most destabilizing event in recent history in Africa was the US invasion of Libya to take out Muammar Gaddafi, despite "two valid cease-fire opportunities” for “negotiations to effect Gaddafi’s abdication. . ..” Turse describes how that intervention helped send neighboring Mali "into a downward spiral." The UN Security Council’s Group of Experts found that the Libyan invasion led to a proliferation of weapons flowing throughout Africa, feeding conflicts and nourishing terrorist groups. Nigerian Islamist fighters who were forced out of Mali returned to Nigeria – the nation Blinken was admonishing without taking any responsibility – battle hardened with training and new tactics, not to mention heavy weapons.
The Libyan invasion also led to a coup in Mali that led to extremism and a humanitarian conflict. Only years later, according to Turse, did it "become clear that the United States extensively mentored the military officer who overthrew Mali’s elected government in 2012." The same may have been recently true in Guinea. So much for Blinken’s complaint about coups against civilian governments in Africa.
A Bad Record
Those coups were not anomalies. The US has a tragic record of both coups and support for authoritarian governments in Africa. Their record in South Africa was embarrassing in the apartheid years, and they were certainly not defending democracy or helping human rights when the CIA was instrumental in the arrest of Nelson Mandela in 1962.
And while hypocritically lecturing Africans on authoritarian governments and human rights abuses, Blinken forgot to mention America’s partnering with Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang who seized power in a coup thirty-five years ago. America’s partner has ruled since then with the very authoritarianism and human rights abuses that Blinken is admonishing Africa for. US military aid to the repressive Ugandan and Nigerian governments can be added to the list.
But African coups are nothing new for the US. In one of the first CIA coups,
the Congo’s democratically elected leader Patrice Lumumba was assassinated,
destabilizing, not only the Congo, but Africa.
In 1957, Kwame Nkrumah helped create Sub-Saharan Africa’s first independent country, Ghana. Nkrumah was opposed to Western imperialism and neocolonialism and was an important leader of the pan-African and the nonaligned movements. In 1966, he was taken out in a military coup that was backed by the US. In Killing Hope, William Blum describes the CIA’s complicity in the coup, which took the form of financing, advising and supporting the coup plotters.
More recently, the US has supported and backed the government of General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi after Egypt’s first genuinely democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was taken out in a coup.
It is only with the most patronizing and insulting historical amnesia that Blinken could scold Africa for its coups, extremism, authoritarianism and human rights failings without admitting responsibility for America’s massive role in that profile.
America’s historical amnesia requires not just this long list of denial about their role in Africa but also an equally impressive menu of hypocrisy.
Blinken criticized African government for, amongst other things, rigging or postponing elections, arresting opposition figures and cracking down on media.
But postponing elections is exactly what the US has supported across the ocean in Latin America. The US has supported postponing elections in Haiti to help their government of choice hold onto power. They have interfered with elections by pressuring opposition parties in Venezuela to boycott elections in order to raise questions about their legitimacy. They have overturned elections in Venezuela and Bolivia by disingenuously challenging their results.
As for arresting opposition figures, while they oppose it in Africa, they applaud it in Latin America. Elections in Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru have all recently been determined by charging or arresting candidates that would have been elected but who were undesirable to US foreign policy. Brazil’s Lula Da Silva, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Honduras’ Manuel Zelaya, Paraguay’s Frederico Franco and Ecuador’s Rafeal Correa have all been charged or arrested to ensure the shape of their countries’ elections.
Though Blinken voiced opposition to cracking down on the media by African governments, he voiced no opposition when major US social media platforms censored Nicaraguan news outlets and journalists who supported the Sandinista. And it has certainly never been taboo in the CIA to interfere in other counties’ media.
And as for Blinken’s complaint about African coups, he seems to have no such complaint about the myriad Latin American ones. If not having a coup is a condition for US support for an African government, having one seems to be a condition for US support of a Latin American one.
Hiding the Purpose: Opposing China in Africa
If Blinken’s speech depended on historical amnesia to camouflage the hypocrisy and lack of responsibility, it depended on deception to hide the purpose. He only hinted at the military ingredient when he commented that results could determine arms sales to Nigeria.
But what do arms sales have to do with it? And since when were are arms sales or military support contingent on human rights records? As we have seen, they certainly weren’t in the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Cameroon or Chad. Nick Turse reports that there is US military involvement in forty-nine of the fifty-four countries in Africa.
But the true purpose may not be a suddenly discovered concern for human rights and democracy in Africa. The true concern may have nothing to do with the people of Africa. It may, instead, have to do with Africa becoming a new theater in the Second Cold War with Russia and China.
America’s real interest in Africa was always its resources. As China’s Silk Road Economic Belt ribbons to Africa, and as Chinese soft power aid, trade and infrastructure cooperation have blossomed, China has emerged as a crucial player in Africa. And this emergence, more than concern for democracy or human rights, may be the reason for the American military pivot to Africa.
Less than a month before Blinken’s speech in Africa, the US Senate delivered its proposed National Defense Authorization Act for 2022. When it came to Africa, it has the Pentagon creating a strategic competition initiative for the US Africa Command. "Strategic competition" is Biden’s code for cold war with China and Russia.
Sobukwe Odinga, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that, if the bill passes, it "will be the first security initiative expressly authorized by Congress since the Cold War to funnel military aid to African forces to counter Beijing and Moscow." Odinga says the proposed strategic competition initiative "lays new legal groundwork for a long-term bid to expand US military influence in Africa." The troops are in Africa, but the strategic competition is with China and Russia. Or, as the proposed strategic competition initiative puts it, it will fight "coercion by near-pear rivals" against the governments of Africa. "Near-pear rivals is code again for Russia and China. It says it will fight Russian and Chinese "coercion" by addressing the "sources of insecurity" in Africa. And that brings us back to the topics itemized in Blinken’s speech in Nigeria.
Blinken’s African address was patronizing. It relied on deception and hypocrisy. It was a Second Cold war address that may play well to American audiences with their historical amnesia. But it is unlikely that Africans have forgotten their recent history as fast as have Americans.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.