05/08/2010 18:48:04
White House Party for Africa Leaves Out Leaders
DAKAR, Senegal — Many of Africa’s leaders have spent part of their summer shuttling between capitals, congratulating one another on 50 years of independence. One capital they will not be visiting together is Washington.
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President Obama convened a forum this week to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of 17 African nations, but he did not invite a single African leader to help him do so. The African news media and independent commentators see this as an expression of distaste for abusive rulers, as well as of Mr. Obama’s own conviction — already enunciated — that bad government is at the heart of the continent’s woes and that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

The State Department denies such an intent behind the forum, noting that American officials meet with African leaders in other venues. Nonetheless, commentators on the continent and in the West note a sharp contrast between this week’s event in Washington and the summer’s other major 50th anniversary commemoration in a Western capital: Paris.

At a celebration on July 14th, Bastille Day in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy was flanked by the leaders of Cameroon and Burkina Faso, Paul Biya and Blaise Compaore, both of whom have been sharply criticized on human rights and governance, while 11 other African heads of state, some with equally dubious records, joined him on the reviewing stand.

There, they surveyed a parade of uniformed troops from African armies, some of which had taken part in large-scale abuses over the previous decade. The Senegalese press, for one, was roundly critical of the event. Not only did it dress down the African leaders for heeding the call of the ex-colonial ruler (the irony of celebrating African independence in the seat of a former colonial power was lost on few observers), but it also criticized Mr. Sarkozy for hosting presidents who mistreat their citizens.

Unlike the French president, Mr. Obama stands no risk of being photographed in the company of rulers accused of flouting democracy and human rights. By contrast, he summoned 115 under-35s from civil society, journalism and business to a “President’s Forum with Young African Leaders” this week to help him in “looking forward,” as a State Department official put it.

“We’ve got to look for the next generation of leaders,” said Bruce Wharton, deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy.

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama bluntly addressed issues of corruption and press freedom in speaking to the group at the White House, saying “sometimes the older leaders get into old habits, and those old habits are hard to break.”

When asked about President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Mr. Obama told the young people at the forum, “I’ll be honest with you — I’m heartbroken when I see what’s happened in Zimbabwe. I think Mugabe is an example of a leader who came in as a liberation fighter and — I’m just going to be very blunt — I do not see him serving his people well. And the abuses, the human rights abuses, the violence that’s been perpetrated against opposition leaders I think is terrible.”

African news organizations read the president’s forum as having more to do with the current generation of leaders than with those he invited, seeing it as a rebuke to the older generation.

“50th Anniversary of African Independences: Barack Obama snubs the African dictators,” read a headline in the Cameroonian newspaper Le Messager.

Mr. Obama is giving a “kick in the nose to African leaders, whom he seems to be royally snubbing,” said the Fasozine of Burkina Faso.

Here in Senegal, the newspaper Walfadjri ran a headline saying “Obama snubs Wade and company and unrolls the red carpet for civil society,” referring to the President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal. So desirable is the association with Mr. Obama that Mr. Wade’s government once put a notice on the front page of a local newspaper saying merely that the Senegalese president had spoken with the American president on the telephone, without divulging the conversation’s contents.

“The American president is extremely sensitive on the subject of democracy,” said another Senegalese paper, Kotch. “Proof: he’s going to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of African nations without inviting a single head of state.”

Mr. Obama has made an overt pitch for the more widespread diffusion of democracy on the continent before during his presidency, a pitch often recalled in the African media. In a speech to the Ghanean parliament in July 2009, the president said it was a “fundamental truth” that “development depends on good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long.” Mr. Obama added that it was up to Africans themselves to add this “ingredient.”

Mr. Obama’s choice has been met with frosty silence, mostly, in African presidential palaces. But it clearly has the potential to sting. Governments lacking internal legitimacy on the continent often derive their credibility from international recognition, from going to conferences, and being met and greeted by other heads of state, as scholars are increasingly pointing out.

“International recognition endows African state actors with a domestic power of command,” wrote Pierre Englebert, a professor of politics at Pomona College, in his recent book “Africa: Unity, Sovereignty & Sorrow.”

The absence of presidents and their retinues at the Washington gathering is thus seen as no accident.

“By refusing to invite them, and welcoming them in Washington, Obama is clearly telling them, ‘If you want to engage with us, you have to behave,’ ” said Mamadou Diouf, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. “It’s a way of questioning the choice made by Sarkozy.”

Other analysts agreed. “You take one look at Sarkozy and his buddies, that’s not the picture Obama wants to convey,” said J. Stephen Morrison, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

A French foreign ministry official rejected the widespread criticism of Mr. Sarkozy, calling it “a sterile polemic.”

“The two initiatives are complementary,” the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said of the two approaches taken by Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Obama. “A country can’t be reduced just to its leaders and civil society. For a democracy to function, you need both.”

As for the general populace, though, Mr. Obama’s choice has been “saluted by African public opinion,” said a Senegalese opposition leader, Abdoulaye Bathily, “because the emerging forces are not to be found in the leadership, but in the civil society movement.” Mr. Bathily added: “The leaders have failed the African people.”


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