Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kwaheri (goodbye), Obama

On his high-profile visit to Kenya and Ethiopia Obama declined to address some of the really big problems in both countries.

What to do about Kenya’s refugee problem? The Dadaab refugee camp for displaced Somalis has now existed 23 years, having grown from a tented village to become a small city that houses over 300,000 stateless people. According to Human Rights Watch, Kenyan security forces deployed to Dadaab since the 2011 invasion of Somalia have committed abuses and human-rights violations against refugees. Last year police had rounded up thousands of Muslims—mainly women and children—and detained them for three weeks on a soccer pitch a few hundred meters from the stadium where Obama was speaking. Kenya has demanded that the UN move the refugee population back to Somalia, and given a three-month deadline to do it. Human-rights groups pointed out that the move is, under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, illegal.

Obama stressed the Ethiopian military’s ruthless “efficiency” in fighting Al-Shabab in Somalia and Addis Ababa’s contribution to United Nations peacekeeping efforts. The emphasis on security cooperation speaks to the fact that, from Nigeria’s Boko Haram to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s Al-Shabab, under Obama, the U.S. has increased its military footprint in Africa. U.S. strategic priorities in sub-Saharan Africa have largely knocked democracy promotion and human rights off the radar. Obama’s trip to Addis Ababa comes in the aftermath of a lackluster May election, in which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) “won” all 547 seats in the national parliament, improving on 2010’s 99.6 percent rate. This is why Ethiopian human rights and free press advocates fear Obama’s visit will be construed as an endorsement of the EPRDF’s quarter-century hold on power. The EPRDF has devastated free press and civil society through a slew of draconian laws that equate dissent with treason. The political space has significantly narrowed. Opposition politics is criminalized. Ethiopia’s civil society institutions are brittle. The country’s storied economic progress, including double-digit GDP growth over the last five years, has benefited only those who are politically connected. Resentment is rife over EPRDF hard-liners’ domination of the top brass of the military, the security forces and the commanding heights of the economy.

Obama has, in fact, continued some of the most egregious US policies towards Africa: US soldiers remain in Djibouti in a never-ending "war on terror" with drone attacks launched, while Washington participated in the 2011 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation intervention in Libya that has left that country anarchic and spread instability across the Sahel region. China's media are pouring cold water on President Barack Obama's visit to Africa, saying U.S. attention to the continent is largely due to concern over China's growing influence there. China's two-way trade with Africa in 2013 was a record $200 billion. U.S. trade with Africa has fallen, meanwhile, hitting $85 billion in 2013.

The United States earmarked $80 million in 2005 to support a UN-initiated project to fight malaria in Africa. A government investigation later found only 5 percent of the 80-million fund was spent on bed nets, 1 percent on drugs, while the rest was mostly paid out in salaries to staff members and advisers. Obama’s Africa tour is just one more piece in a long jig-saw of misguided American involvement in the affairs of the continent.

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