Driving from the far reaches of Western Cape to Cape Town during a recent holiday in South Africa, I switched on the car radio to listen to the news.
That morning, the news included only three items that did not concern cricket or rugby. The stories, however, illuminated what I think are among the most important problems facing Africa: misguided foreign policy, corruption and disrespect for human rights.
According to the broadcast, the South African government “acknowledged” Saddam Hussein’s capture by American forces, but “ventured no opinion.” The announcement was a sample of the way the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation would report on Saddam’s detention for days to come. According to the SABC, the Iraqi “president” refused to cooperate with his American “captors” and so on.
There is legitimate disagreement among people in the United States and elsewhere about the wisdom of expending America’s blood and treasure in the deserts of Iraq. Nonetheless, most people welcomed the demise of one of the world’s most bloodthirsty and corrupt dictators and, unlike many African governments — including South Africa’s — those people “ventured” an opinion.
So, why do some African countries pick meaningless fights with the United States and engage in grandstanding on issues that win them no friends and make many Americans question whether Africa is worth caring for?
The case of South Africa is illustrative. Over the past 10 years, relations between South Africa and the United States cooled considerably. Nelson Mandela, for example, claimed that President Bush “cannot think properly” and “wants a holocaust.” During his address to the Non-Aligned Movement in 2000, South African President Mbeki singled out the United States as a country of increasing racism and xenophobia. During the U.N. Conference Against Racism in Durban, the anti-American and anti-Israeli hysteria ran so high that the United States pulled out. The list goes on.
South African anti-Americanism has deep roots in the ideological background of the African National Congress, which President Mbeki heads. But it serves no useful purpose today. The ANC should recognize that it no longer is a Marxist revolutionary movement, but a governing party, which should act in the best interest of South Africa. Making Americans mad is hardly the wisest of policies, especially because President Mbeki’s plan for African renewal (NEPAD) depends, in large part, on American investment.
Concomitant with growing anti-Americanism is the increasingly interventionist South African foreign policy. The ANC government has recently made commitments to spend over 100 billion rands ($16 billion) on upgrading the South African armed forces. Considering how poor most South Africans are, that expenditure is a waste — especially when one considers that South Africa faces no foreign threat.
Greater military spending is, however, essential for Mbeki’s vision of himself as the leader of Africa. Because the United States has (wisely) decided to stay away from African conflicts, Mbeki assumes that it is his responsibility to bring an end to African civil wars. But if U.S. taxpayers are unwilling to pick up the tab for solving the perpetual conflicts in Africa, why should South Africans do so? Has anyone asked them if they want to pay for peacekeeping in Burundi and Congo? Let us hope that 20 years from now we will not look at misguided foreign policy as a contribution to South Africa’s economic collapse.
The second item on the news show was the following bizarre story: A policeman on patrol in Johannesburg noticed a fully loaded police car, which he then followed into an industrial suburb. When the car stopped, he approached it and was shot in the chest. The heroic policeman somehow managed to return fire and killed his assailant. The assailant turned out to be a high-ranking police officer who supplemented his income by stealing sheep from surrounding farms and selling them in the city.
That story reminded me of the jubilation of Kenyans after the long rule of Daniel Arap Moi — a corrupt dictator — which came to an end in 2002. As many Kenyans remarked, their neighborhoods became much “safer” because policemen were called back into their barracks. They weren’t harassing the populace. A year later, I participated in a conference in Mombasa, Kenya. One of the participants came from Uganda. She told me how difficult it was for her to get to the conference — policemen routinely stop travelers along the road and demand bribes. They are, in effect, Africa’s highwaymen.
Of course, corruption among Africa’s officials is endemic. A reason why Americans should be suspicious of President Bush’s decision to spend $15 billion on fighting AIDS in Africa is … corruption. Consider a South African estimate that approximately 50 percent of all drugs delivered to the country’s government-run hospitals are stolen.
Politicians are the most corrupt members of African societies. Joseph Mobutu of Zaire — who changed his name to the more widely recognized Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (which translates to “the earthy, the peppery, all-powerful warrior who, by his endurance and will to win, goes from contest to contest leaving fire in his wake”) — stole about $8 billion. Famously, he enlarged the airport in his hometown to accommodate landings by Concordes— which he leased from Air France-all the while his people starved. Nigeria’s Sani Abacha stashed away $4 billion. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe just moved into a $6 million villa in Harare, even though 50 percent of his countrymen face famine. The list is inexhaustible.
According to the last item on the newscast, the Nigerian government declared that it would arrest or “kill” anyone who tried to kidnap Charles Taylor. Taylor, who resides in Nigeria, is the former strongman of Liberia and a man responsible for much bloodshed in that country. He has also been indicted by the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone, which accused him of “the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law” in Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war. An international warrant for his arrest carries with it a $2 million reward.
The Nigerian attitude epitomizes the way African leaders, even those who commit gross abuses of human rights, continue to be gently treated. Take the supposedly reformist government of Mwai Kibaki in Kenya. One of the first things Kibaki did after coming to power was to declare that Daniel Arap Moi, a corrupt dictator, who ruled Kenya for two decades, would be left alone. Mengistu Haile Mariam, otherwise known as the “Butcher of Addis Ababa,” lives happily in Zimbabwe under the protection of Robert Mugabe. Famously, Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko escaped, or were allowed to escape, punishment.
The exception to the rule is Frederick Chiluba of Zambia. Having replaced Kenneth Kaunda by promising to stamp out corruption, Chiluba proceeded to embezzle millions of dollars during his 10-year rule. As he famously declared only two weeks after coming to power, “power is sweet.” Chiluba currently faces corruption charges in Lusaka. But, the case stands. African leaders, treated with utter deference while in power, seldom have to answer for their actions when they are out of power. That too has to change.