Clinton's Africa policy: A thousand triumphs, a million dead

< Previous | Home | Next >
by Dr. Joseph Opala, James Madison University, Virginia, 24 April 2000

President Clinton recently proclaimed his Africa policy a great success.

Speaking to the National Summit on Africa in Washington on February 17th, he said his policy has resulted in thousands of triumphs.

His message to a largely black audience was clear--a vote for Al Gore will sustain this successful policy for years to come.

But Clinton's Africa policy is, ironically, not just bad, but the worst ever, and his high profile Africa tour in 1998 was mere window dressing.

Using his gift for political spin, Clinton has managed to project an image of sincere concern for Africa, while actually inflicting terrible damage on both Africa and US interests in Africa.

Every president has difficulty crafting a responsible Africa policy.

Our traditional stance of America as a force for good in the world runs headlong in that continent into more than fifty nations, many wracked by instability and endemic violence.

The US cannot possibly intervene in every African crisis, and after President Bush's well meaning but disastrous venture in Somalia in 1992, direct US intervention is now more problematic than ever. Sadly, standing by while thousands are murdered is a built-in hazard of US Africa policy, and charges of hypocrisy are never far away.

But President Clinton has gone far beyond the usual hypocrisy.

Although he proclaimed a new era of US engagement in Africa, his policy in too many cases has amounted to mere public relations gimmickry designed to create the appearance of responsible action while actually doing nothing of substance.

Worse yet, Clinton's spin doctoring cost lives.

By making public relations his priority goal in two cases of mass murder, he crossed a deadly line--the line between standing by while mass murderers do their work, and giving actual aid and support to those very murderers.

He took US Africa policy to a terrible place it had never been before.

Clinton crossed the line first in Rwanda.

In 1994, he deliberately suppressed reports of genocide in that country, not wanting to deal with that volatile issue in an election year. Moreover, his hiding of the facts contributed markedly to the international community's slow response to the crisis and, ultimately, to the deaths of more than 800,000 people.

Clinton's strategy in Rwanda was revealed in chilling detail in the PBS documentary, The Triumph of Evil.

Then, four years later, when a suitably contrite Bill Clinton spoke in Rwanda to the ragged survivors of genocide, he actually claimed not to have grasped the full horror of the situation in their country until it was too late. To children who had only recently seen their parents slaughtered before their very eyes, he apologized, vowing the US would never again stand by while mass murder rages in Africa.

But Clinton was already crossing the line again, this time in Sierra Leone.

The government of that West African nation disintegrated in the early 1990s, and in the resulting political vacuum bandits, calling themselves the Revolutionary United Front, launched a terror campaign throughout the country.

The RUF rebels, as they are called, inflicted horrific atrocities on thousands of women, children, and the rural poor. They burned hundreds of towns and villages and destroyed countless schools and clinics.

Foday Sankoh, the RUF leader, is a criminal psychopath with no political agenda, and his cold-blooded strategy for seizing power was worthy of a Steven King novel.

Knowing the US is unwilling to back its idealistic words with actions where Africans are concerned, Sankoh deliberately focused western media attention on his own crimes by doing the worst things imaginable to the most defenseless people.

With enough murder, rape, and mutilation, he was convinced that the US, embarrassed by its own failure to act, would eventually put the killers in power as the cheapest way to stop the killing.

Fortunately, though, Sierra Leone's neighbors came to the rescue.

ECOWAS, the 16-nation West African trade organization, established a multi-national peacekeeping force, called ECOMOG.

The African peacekeepers launched an offensive against Sankoh's rebels, but were soon taking heavy casualties and spending an estimated $1 million per day. Developing nations that could ill afford such costs pleaded for trucks, fuel, radios, and medicines, not US troops or weapons.

But Clinton gave the African peacekeepers only lip-service support and the barest minimum of material assistance--a mere $4 million in 1998, one percent of what the Africans, themselves, were spending.

Mid-level officials at the US State and Defense Departments, though, were sending urgent messages to their superiors calling for stronger US support for ECOMOG.

Their concerns were not for Africa, but the US. Sankoh has proven ties to international crime syndicates, and if he came to power, he would use Sierra Leone as a base for money laundering and drug smuggling to the US and Western Europe.

A Sankoh government, they warned, would amount to a Noriega-style criminal regime on West Africa's Atlantic coast.

Then, in January 1999, Sankoh's rebels and rogue army units broke through the defenses around Sierra Leone's capital city. ECOMOG peacekeepers repelled them, but not before the rebels killed 6,000 civilians, burning whole families alive in their homes.

They kidnapped hundreds of young girls for use as sexual slaves, and amputated the hands and feet of children as young as 18 months.

Given the intense media coverage of these events in the capital city, though, Clinton could no longer hide his unconscionably small support for ECOMOG, and something had to be done. The same month he spent billions to save innocent lives in Kosovo, Clinton bought a cheap peace in Sierra Leone.

Just as the RUF's lunatic leader predicted, the US put the killers in power to stop the killing.

US Ambassador Joseph Melrose openly pressured President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to accept Sankoh into his cabinet and to grant the RUF killers a blanket amnesty.

Jesse Jackson, as Clinton's envoy to Africa, traveled to Sierra Leone, as well, to lend his personal support to the so-called peace agreement signed in July. Shocked that Jackson, a hero to most Africans, would support such destructive measures, Sierra Leonean reporters asked him a poignant question: Would you put the Ku Klux Klan in the US cabinet to prevent it from killing people in America?

Given US prestige and Sierra Leone's total dependence on outside aid, neither the president nor his people felt they had a choice.

A local newspaper headline read: America Kidnaps Kabbah.

America's betrayal shocked Sierra Leoneans all the more as the US had only recently backed their country's transition to democracy.

Energized by strong US support for elections in 1996, thousands of citizens battled soldiers in the streets to protect their ballot boxes, and when the elections succeeded, cheering crowds gathered spontaneously around the US Embassy to express their thanks.

Then, less than 3 years later, the US demanded that the very democratic government it helped usher into power in the first place accept mass murderers into its cabinet in clear violation of its constitution.

Thus, Bill Clinton took US Africa policy to the lowest level ever. To avoid taking positive action in Sierra Leone, he betrayed America's democratic principles and rewarded mass murderers with political power.

By doing so, he also sent a message to terrorist groups all across Africa--if you can kill enough people, if you can make it ugly enough, and if you can get it on CNN, the US will put you in power.

The implications for a continent wracked by political instability are almost too frightening to consider.

Mr. Clinton's Africa policy is a torch tossed casually into a barrel of gasoline.

Not surprisingly, the State Department has made strenuous efforts to hide its disgraceful actions in Sierra Leone.

Susan Rice, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and her deputy, Howard Jeter, have made false statements repeatedly to Congress and the media.

They claim the US supported ECOMOG thoroughly, and that far from pressuring President Kabbah, the US merely facilitated, so that Sierra Leoneans could do what they, themselves, want. These deliberate lies show that the president's advisors know their actions are indefensible.

Far from a thousand triumphs, Clinton's Africa policy is an embarrassment even to those who have helped shape and implement it.

Bill Clinton's disastrous policy came about just as Africa's relations with the outside world were changing dramatically.

CNN and other media outlets are now providing unprecedented day-by-day Africa coverage.

With shocking images appearing on their TV screens, Americans can no longer ignore atrocities in countries that, until recently, most of us had never heard of. The images demand action, and if most Americans do not favor direct military intervention, they still expect their government to do something.

Clinton responded to these new expectations, but failed to grasp the moral implications of a stronger US engagement with Africa.

Once the US accepts responsibility for helping in situations of mass murder, its actions must be substantive.

You cannot hide genocide to avoid responding to it. You cannot promise to stop genocide next time, and not mean it. You cannot put mass murderers in power to buy their cooperation.

Clinton's policy risks far more than just charges of hypocrisy.

It encourages the most violent elements in Africa, makes the US complicit in their crimes, and threatens our own national security.

Although Clinton talks of leading America into the 21st century, that is precisely what he failed to do with his Africa policy.

A policy of vision would mean helping Africans defend themselves by building regional security structures like those the US has fostered successfully in so many other parts of the world.

Security structures would greatly enhance current western efforts to improve security, trade, and economic development in Africa.

But without them, any other type of security assistance is, at best, a stopgap measure, and economic assistance is, at the very least, wasteful and unsustainable.

But regional security structures would also put the US on the right track in moral terms.

If, for instance, a West African Treaty Organization proposed a peacekeeping mission in a member state, and the US approved, it could provide logistical support at relatively little cost. If the US did not approve, though, it could still negotiate terms with WATO under which it could offer American support.

The important thing is that something could be done at an acceptable cost. Good policy means not just promising to do the right thing, but having the practical means to do it when the occasion arises.

In recent years, the best opportunity to create that practical means was when ECOWAS, the West African trade group, established its military wing. African governments were trying, with ECOMOG, to build a security structure of their own. But rather than provide it with meaningful assistance so that Africans could succeed at tackling their own problems, Clinton withheld resources until ECOMOG withered for lack of basic logistical support, then branded it a military failure and abandoned it. He refused to help Africans perfect a structure they, themselves, had conceived, a structure in the obvious mutual interest of both Africa and the US. This is foreign policy at its worst.

Clinton's alternative to ECOMOG is a UN peacekeeping force, and troops from as far away as India are now charged with enforcing Sierra Leone's so-called peace agreement.But Sankoh, now holding the rank of vice president, reneged on his promise to disarm, and his rebels quickly relieved hundreds of UN soldiers of their guns and vehicles, a feat they never achieved against ECOMOG.

Whether the UN force ultimately succeeds, or not, it will cost the US much more than it would have to equip ECOMOG in the first place.

And unlike ECOMOG, the UN force, even if victorious, will leave no lasting precedent for successful peacekeeping organized by Africans themselves.

Americans are right to be wary of direct US military intervention in Africa, but the US has a stake, nonetheless, in that continent's future.

We cannot allow Africa to become a lawless no man's land where criminal regimes hold sway under the camouflage ofnational sovereignty.

But by helping African governments build their own capacity for regional peacekeeping, we can promote long-term progress on that continent while enhancing our own security at the same time. With its limitless natural resources, a secure and prosperous Africa will inevitably play a vital role in America's future.

Al Gore recently backed away from Clinton's promise never again to stand by while mass murder rages in Africa, arguing in a recent PBS interview that the US must examine each case individually.

This is straight talk compared to Clinton.

But Mr. Gore is wrong if he thinks the US can sustain a policy of choosing which African children we save, and which we do not, on the basis of US national interests narrowly defined.

Those days are over, or soon will be, and anyone who doubts that underestimates two things--the rising power of global TV news and the moral character of the American people.

But Clinton's public relations gimmickry is also headed for the junk heap. By the end of this decade, Americans will be as well informed about Africa as any other part of the world.

US citizens, especially African Americans, are already visiting Africa at an ever-increasing pace. Africans, themselves, including many professionals, are also migrating to the US in large numbers.

In these circumstances, the US cannot maintain for very long a strong public commitment to peace and security in Africa, coupled with a private determination to avoid acting on that commitment no matter what the moral cost, no matter what it takes to hide US duplicity.

Those days are also numbered.

Sooner or later, a US president will pay a heavy price for his Africa policy.

When the American people finally catch on to what their government is doing in Africa in their name, the heaviest blame will not fall on previous leaders, not even on Clinton, but on the president currently in office.

Clinton's successor would, therefore, be wise to make reform of US Africa policy a priority issue.

Given the many lives at stake, and our own country's reputation abroad, we must hope he does. But to achieve that goal, he will need some virtues all too rare in Washington--political vision and moral courage.

Looking back, we can see that Clinton's misuse of Jesse Jackson was among his worst mistakes.

A man respected by millions in both the US and Africa was used as a mere prop to conceal a policy of image over substance.

Jackson is no Africa expert, as the record shows, but he is an expert at something else--moral suasion.

Convincing the US public, African leaders, and our Western allies to support regional security structures in Africa would be an enormous task, but if anyone can do it, it is Jesse Jackson.

The next president could find no better partner for crafting a respectable Africa policy--a policy he would not have to conceal at all costs from the American people.

Joseph Opala is an American anthropologist who lived in Sierra Leone for 23 years.

He lectured at Sierra Leone's Fourah Bay College, and was co-founder of the Campaign for Good Governance, Sierra Leone's most successful pro-democracy civil society group.

Christopher Rees, August 30 2010, 5:05 PM

Start a NEW topic or,
Jump to previous | Next Topic >

< Previous | Home | Next >