Today I took an early lunch break to participate in a Washington, D.C., demonstration sponsored by the African Faith & Justice Network and the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition. Held not far from the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit, the group of mostly African dissidents made some important points that do not get much play in the U.S. media. Here’s a brief summary of what I learned:
- U.S. aid to Africa has to be re-examined. It makes dictators and their inside circles rich, but rarely helps the citizenry as a whole.
- At least five sub-Saharan Africa dictators have been in office for more than 25 years (four more than 32 years). They are so entrenched and enriched — “presidents for life” — that it makes it relatively easy for them to rig elections and stay in office.
- While the dictators get rich, many citizens suffer from inadequate education, health care and economic opportunity.
- It is very dangerous for the citizen’s of these countries to speak out against the dictators. They end up imprisoned far away from their families. Some disappear for a long time or are never seen again. Some are tortured. Others are found murdered.
- For the above reasons, the more educated citizens of these countries who can often flee to safer societies in Europe or the U.S. and ones that offer any kind of economic opportunity.
- Political and economic elites in the U.S. and other affluent countries too often cozy up to the dictators of these countries for political or business reasons.
While some of the sessions at this week’s U.S. Africa Leaders Summit addressed human rights and good governance issues, I got the sense from the demonstrators that even the multi-billion dollar pledges from U.S. country for business investments would not change this situation. In fact, they could lead to even more corruption unless the business investment is coupled with democratic reforms including presidential term limits, authentic elections, and an end to torture of dissidents.
As we have written about in this blog, the last election in the Democratic Republic of Congo was far from fair. In January 2012, Catholic bishops in DR Congo condemned the elections, complaining of “treachery, lies and terror.” DRC President Joseph Kabila has made his friend Israeli businessman Dan Gertler a billionaire through various mining contracts and has no doubt also made himself a very wealthy man. The Congo remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
This corrupt system is no secret, at least among Africans. While conversing with my Ethiopian taxi cab driver on the way to the demonstration, I mentioned where I was going — to protest torture in African prisons — and boy did I get an earful about how dangerous is was to speak out against the government in his country!
Then in today’s New York Times I read about how Tony Blair is making himself rich as a middleman between some of Africa’s notorious dictators –notably Rwanda’s Paul Kagame – and outside business interests. No surprise there!
Interesting to me is that the young Africans I talked to today, and early this week at a news conference hosted by Friends of Congo, said they were not opposed to the summit or business investment in their countries. They are just opposed to U.S. support of dictators and deals done with outsiders that don’t benefit most people in their countries.