Kerry’s Trip to Africa Sends the Wrong Message

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Secretary of State John Kerry arriving in Ethiopia in May 2013.
Photo Credit: State Department

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to begin what is essentially his inaugural trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to this, his only travel to the region was to Ethiopia in May 2013. According to the official statement issued by the State Department, Kerry will use the trip to encourage democratic development, peace, and security, and to promote trade and investment between the United States and Africa. The problem lies in the countries he has chosen to advance these policies—Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Angola, some of the least democratic states on the continent. This selection sends a strong message that democratic governance is not a priority for the United States in sub-Saharan Africa.

Kerry’s itinerary should not come as a surprise given the White House’s prioritization of economic development and security in Africa. Ethiopia, for example, remains one of the United States’ closest allies in regional antiterrorism efforts and has been integral to the fight against Islamist militants in Somalia. Ethiopia is also the fourth-largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa and a poster child—deservedly or not—for African development. At his funeral in 2012, Ambassador Susan Rice referred to longtime prime minister Meles Zenawi as a “friend” of the United States.

Ethiopia might be a useful ally on security matters and a valuable trade partner, but it is certainly not a champion of democracy at home or abroad. In fact, Kerry’s arrival in Addis came only days after the Ethiopian government arrested six bloggers and three journalists on accusations of working with foreign agents to incite violence. These arrests fit a long-standing pattern of state suppression of civil society and political opposition. In 2005, Ethiopian security forces violently quashed public demonstrations over disputed election results, leaving at least 193 people dead and more than 4,000 arrested. This was followed by targeted arrests of opposition members and other repressive actions in 2009, ahead of deeply flawed elections in 2010.

Such undemocratic behavior has not been limited to domestic affairs. As chair of the African Union, Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn has been a vocal critic of the International Criminal Court, accusing it of focusing unfairly on Africans. He consequently supported the withdrawal of African signatories from the court’s founding Rome Statute. This record has made Ethiopia one of the least democratic countries in East Africa and on the continent as a whole. The notion that it will serve as a leader in promoting democratic governance and respect for human rights seems patently misguided.

Following his visit to Ethiopia, Kerry will stop in the DRC, which is still struggling to overcome decades of kleptocracy and armed conflict. He will then travel to Angola to meet with President José Eduardo dos Santos and commend him on his leadership in the Great Lakes Region Peace Process. While this praise might be warranted, dos Santos is far from a model democratic leader. In power since 1979, he has used his position to siphon off huge amounts of public wealth and become one of the country’s richest men. He has also overseen a dramatic closing of democratic space, including a violent reaction by security forces to antigovernment protests in 2013. Perhaps more alarming is Angola’s growing international influence, with the ruling elite increasingly investing in foreign media and telecommunications companies. Isabel dos Santos, the president’s daughter, controls an expanding portion of the media sector in Portugal, raising concerns among independent journalists that the Angolan leadership is now able to silence criticism and blunt investigative reporting overseas as well as at home.

Nevertheless, the same oil wealth that has underwritten the dos Santos regime and enriched its elite has made Angola an emerging economic and political power in Africa, demanding Washington’s attention. The country is Africa’s second-largest oil producer, and the United States is a major destination for its exports. In fact, Angola was the United States’ third-largest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa last year, with bilateral trade topping $10 billion.

Kerry should recognize the signal he is sending by visiting these three states during his first multicountry trip to sub-Saharan Africa. The White House’s strategy toward the continent consists of four pillars: strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, advancing peace and security, and promoting development. All of these are essential goals, but in the absence of democratic governance—with its orderly political processes, rule of law, and crucial checks on corruption—there can be little hope for achieving the rest in any lasting way. Democratic institutions are not a pillar, they are a foundation.

The United States alone cannot instill democratic governance and respect for human rights in sub-Saharan Africa. African citizens and governments need to play the leading role in this mission, just as they do in ensuring peace and stability and expanding regional trade. However, no such leadership can be expected from the current rulers of Ethiopia, the DRC, and Angola. These are the very governments that are pushing back against democratic forces, both at home and abroad.

Secretary Kerry should be visiting and rewarding African countries with established records of democratic governance. Instead of visits to Addis, Kinshasa, and Luanda, he should be strengthening bilateral ties in Accra, Gaborone, Pretoria, Windhoek, Dakar, or Port Louis, to name only a few. This would send a strong message to all the governments in Africa that Washington works with democracies first. It would also show African democracies that they are an integral part of a global democratic community that needs to push together for reform in authoritarian countries, even if those countries are their neighbors.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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