MADRID: President Barack Obama’s much discussed Cairo speech represented not only the demise of George W. Bush’s ideological drive to reconstruct the Muslim world through a democratic revolution; it marked the end of American liberalism’s quest to remake the world in its own image.
Instead, Obama’s administration is guided by a relativist political realism that assumes respect for cultural and religious distinctions. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, underscored this tendency during her first visit to China, where her unmistakeable message was that order and stability take priority over liberty and human rights.
But what about Africa, the forgotten continent that has been conspicuously absent from Obama’s hectic agenda? There, both the resilience of the local political culture and strategic imperatives are converging to define the limits of the West’s capacity to impose its values.
A fortnight before Obama’s Cairo speech, a delegation of the United Nations Security Council visited four African countries to express concern about the resurgence of unconstitutional change on the continent. Africa does indeed present a gloomy picture, with countries virtually crumbling to dust as a result of autocracy and stagnation.
But the emerging Obama doctrine suggests that “elections alone do not make true democracy, and that, as has been the case in the Arab world, any abrupt move to democracy is bound to produce chaos. Moreover, in Africa post-authoritarian rulers are not necessarily respectful of human rights and decent governance.
The West’s attitude toward democracy in the Third World has always been erratic. It applauded the military takeover in Algeria in the early 1990’s aimed at curtailing the democratic emergence of an Islamist regime, and is happy to conduct business with authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab world. Yet, public infatuation with the external trappings of democracy is usually the norm.
Take Guinea Conakry. After years of turmoil, lower-ranking officers headed by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara took power in December 2008 in what was a widely supported and peaceful takeover. Both the European Union and the United States immediately reacted by threatening the ruling junta with a total cut-off of aid unless constitutional rule and elections were restored.
Though President Camara eventually succumbed to pressure and declared elections for the coming fall, he has a valid point in insisting that he first must secure stability so that elections do not become a mere prelude to civil strife. The case of neighbouring Guinea-Bissau, where a blood-bath has just taken place ahead of general elections, should serve as a warning.
Why should the West insist on elections in a country that since 1984 was ruled by a Western-backed dictator, Lansana Conté, who himself came to power in a military coup? He maintained a constitution, and held elections, but this did not make him a democratic ruler, nor was he able to extricate his country from appalling backwardness despite its tremendous potential for economic development.
The problem in Africa is one of effective government, not of elections and high-minded constitutions. Rulers should be encouraged instead to engage in bottom-up democracy building, create an honest police force and judicial system, and allow civic organizations to flourish. Training police forces to secure law and order without resorting to bloodshed is no less important than elections. Elections and constitutions in Africa – Zimbabwe and Gabon’s dictatorship have both – have never been a safeguard against tyranny and human rights violations.
Camara’s test – indeed, the test for most African rulers – consists in protecting civilians and their property, in establishing law and order without oppressive measures, and in fighting corruption. Highly responsive to international pressure, he was recently praised by Human Rights Watch for his “very important effort in recognizing the destructive role of corruption and drug trafficking, and for launching an official crackdown on both.
Order and stability, even in the absence of constitutional rights, is what makes countries like Libya and Tunisia legitimate in the eyes of the international community. To recover the confidence of the international business community and the world’s mining giants, who were enraged in recent years by forced renegotiations of existing deals by governments in Congo, Mongolia and Guinea, Camara was also wise to retreat from his threat to renegotiate existing mining concessions.
The West is right to insist on norms of decent government, but it risks losing its capacity to influence events in Africa when it automatically links aid to elections. For as it does, China is using its colossal financial firepower to expand its strategic position on the continent, without linking aid and investment to pesky demands for good governance. China’s drive to retain a significant say in the pricing of iron and bauxite, of which Guinea is the world’s major producer, means that it can always receive a warm welcome from officials tired of being lectured to by Westerners.
It is not good news for Western human rights champions if China ends up training policemen in countries like Guinea. Not much imagination is required to discern what norms the Chinese might inculcate into the 1,000 Central Asian policemen and judicial officials they are currently training.
As Obama understands, such authoritarian aid is a serious challenge to the West’s geo-strategic interests, including the fight against drug traffic (Guinea has become a transit point on the route from South America to Europe). It is also undermining the opportunity to lay the basis for true democratic reform throughout the continent.
Shlomo Ben Amiis a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).