Mayhem at the Hay Adams

Security teams for two African leaders cracked skulls -- literally -- at the White House's big leadership summit. That should never be allowed to happen again.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which concluded last week in Washington, convened more than 40 heads of state and top business leaders from across the African continent to discuss a host of important policy issues. But the summit, which was billed by the White House as a chance to fulfill the Obama administration’s oft-repeated commitments to promoting prosperity and human well-being throughout Africa, stumbled on fulfilling its nobler tenets. From the outset, it was clear the event would focus overwhelmingly on investment and efforts to expand business opportunities, using the language of development and human rights as a moral warrant.

While a combined $33 billion of new commitments to the continent announced during the summit should be applauded, America’s “no questions asked” approach, particularly when dealing with leaders who boast dubious human rights records, underscores broader problems of its dealings on the continent. And incidents just outside the cordoned confines of the gathering highlight the need to elevate issues of good governance and human rights in future summits, and to work more closely with Africa’s democratic standard-bearers, not retrograde tyrants.

On the summit’s second day, peaceful demonstrators converged on the swanky Hay Adams Hotel in downtown Washington, where The Gambia’s long-time dictator, Yahya Jammeh, was staying. I actually dropped by early that morning and mixed with the crowd, speaking to many people who had fled the country due to death threats, political persecution, and a generally dreadful — and deteriorating — human rights environment. Confronted by the crowd, Jammeh’s security team assaulted several protesters. The following day, the team lashed out again, kicking, stomping, and allegedly using brass knuckles against the protesters, including Fatou Camara, a prominent exile and former presidential press secretary. Camara and a colleague were sent to a local hospital for the treatment of a concussion. No arrests were made, and those alleged to have participated in the assault went home to The Gambia under the cloak of diplomatic immunity.

Also during the summit, the security detail of the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, was caught on camera attacking Congolese human rights activist Jacques Miango. The video shows a district police officer gently ushering the attacker away, while Miango struggles to get to his feet. I learned later that Miango suffered a concussion and had six teeth knocked out. Again, the attackers will likely avoid prosecution, enjoying the same impunity they so often do in their home country.

The third major incident took place on Thursday, when Swaziland’s Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini publicly threatened to “strangle” two activists. Dlamini’s remarks, made in an address to members of his country’s parliament, were directed at labor unionist Vincent Ncongwane, and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze, who were both in Washington to attend an African civil society conference organized alongside the summit by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (my own organization), among others.

Dlamini’s comments came in the immediate wake of the arbitrary imprisonment of two other prominent Swazi human rights defenders, Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, who were each sentenced to two years in prison for criticizing the country’s lack of judicial independence. Swaziland’s King Mswati III, the last absolute monarch in Africa — and a guest at the summit — has set an ominous standard for such remarks and has provided routine license to incite violence against would-be dissenters and those who criticize his 28-year reign.

Due to the threat against their lives, both Ncongwane and Gumedze have sought refuge in an undisclosed country. In conversations, including with local journalists — and in text messages I have seen — the prime minister has promised to inform local chiefs, who wield enormous influence in Swaziland, to “deal with” both men and their families upon returning home.

These three instances are examples of the human rights abuses that all too often occur in countries where impunity is the norm and where human rights abuses are rampant. Demanding that the integrity of law be upheld should be a priority for the United States as it works more closely with African governments. This would go a long way toward protecting activists, as well as ensuring that the impacts of new investments are maximized: The rule of law — and the respect for basic human rights that comes with it — is integral to sustainable economic development, as it helps to foster safe and stable investment environments, as well as the upwardly mobile consumers that U.S. companies depend upon for growth.

America’s strength has always been promoting rights and democracy as core components of economic development, and it cannot lose sight of that. The natural constituency that the United States should be trying to reach is the more than 1 billion Africans who are now, more than ever, agitating for democracy and good governance — not the handful of leaders who are merely enriching and entrenching themselves at the expense of their citizens, while, as witnessed during the summit, cracking down on those who stand in their way.

Unfortunately, only two hours out of the officially scheduled 53 at this year’s summit were devoted to issues that fell broadly under the “governance” rubric.

Forthcoming U.S.-Africa summits — which Obama has now publicly committed to — can improve in three principal ways. First, in order to ensure that good governance receives its due attention (as I’ve written previously), the White House should invite full participation from African civil society instead of sidelining their voices in a separate event, as occurred this time around.

Second, the White House should capitalize on its commitment, announced during the summit, to double participation in its Youth African Leadership Initiative (YALI), which aims to build a new generation of ethical leaders. The YALI program was highlighted extensively throughout the summit, and its participants are likely to be featured in similar future events. However, YALI tends to focus disproportionately on Africa’s business class and on individuals who are already emerging entrepreneurs, at the expense of civil society and human rights activists who operate at the grassroots level. This shortcoming could be addressed by local U.S. embassy staff becoming more proactive and deepening relationships with domestic civic actors, putting them in a position to readily identify young leaders who are able to promote the rule of law, good governance, and overall accountability, both in the corporate and government sectors.

Third, the White House should carefully scrutinize the guest lists for future summits, not inviting leaders who deny fundamental freedoms to their citizens and violate international human rights standards. America should forge closer and more cooperative ties with leaders who stand at Africa’s democratic vanguard, including, most importantly, those leaders who come to power through free, fair, and credible elections. In doing so, the White House can adopt the guidelines already established in the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) — an independent aid agency meant to encourage good governance and democratic development — which in 2012 set a “democratic rights” hurdle that countries must pass in order to receive assistance. Instead of wasting time posing for awkward photos with shameless human rights abusers, who, like The Gambia’s Jammeh, use for domestic propaganda, Obama and his successors should instead focus attention on where it is most useful: on bilateral meetings (which were missing this time) with African leaders who share U.S. core values and advance mutual interests.

Turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and helping to entrench impunity, whether on African leaders’ home turf or here in the United States, is not good for democracy — or for business. Moving forward, a mature and mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relationship can, and should, be built on that foundation in which economic development and human rights are both given the utmost attention.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

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