Copyright The Atlantic
JUBA, South Sudan — In an extraordinary pair of articlesÂ published this week, TheÂ Washington PostÂ has filled in the picture of how the U.S. military and intelligence establishments have worked to create a network of a dozen or so air bases for spying purposes across Africa. What is most remarkable about the articles are not the details themselves, which involve small, specially equipped turboprop aircraft flying surveillance missions out of remote airfields in the Sahel and in equatorial East Africa.
What stands out most about the articles, instead, is the way that this news hasÂ castÂ the African continent as a place where serious American interests are at play. Such things are all too rare for the mainstream media. Far more typically, the media chronicles African political upheaval, violence and suffering as distant and almost random incidents or miscellany with little connection to life outside of the continent.
The Africa of our day-to-day coverage is dominated, in other words, by vivid splashes of color, by scene and emotion, and it is largely bereft of form or of pattern, and of politics and ideas that could help connect one development to another or connect the whole to the rest of the world. Some of this may be changing slowly with the recent sharp rise of China’s profile throughout the continent, which has drawn a belated response from a United States suddenly eager to avoid watching Africa get snatched away from the West, as some fear.
TheÂ PostÂ pieces ultimately were as remarkable for what they didn’t say as what they did, though. And in this regard, they highlight the need for the media to hold the actions of the Unites States up against its rhetoric, much as it is wont to do with regard to China, whose rote-like discourse on Africa emphasizes terms like “win-win,” and “non-interference.”
By helpful coincidence, theÂ Post‘s stories, which detail the ongoing militarization of Washington’s policies toward Africa, were published at the very same time that the Obama Administration was unveiling its purportedly new strategy toward the continent.
The leading messenger for this was Hillary Clinton, whose talk yesterday about economic opportunity for American businesses in Africa was as welcome as it was overdue. As a spate of recent articles hasÂ madeÂ clear, she spoke of the Africa as a place of strong economic growth and the continent with the highest returns on investment. It is precisely Chinese firms’ awareness of this that has been driving them, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants, to Africa in recent years in search of opportunity.
In policy briefings for the press, however, and in Clinton’s own statements, the promotion of democracy was given pride of place in a new American agenda for Africa, and this is where the rub comes between rhetoric versus reality.
TheÂ PostÂ piece reveals that the key American allies in Washington’s military and intelligence push are the leaders of Burkina Faso in West Africa and Uganda in East Africa. These two men, Blaise CompaorÃ© in Burkina Faso and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, have been in power respectively for 25 and 26 years. Both came to power by force. Both have resisted real democratization in their countries. And both have been prolific and mischievous meddlers in neighboring countries, where their adventures have sown death and havoc, routinely employed child soldiers for themselves or for allies within their regimes, and have involved lucrative arms trafficking as well as the organized pillage of natural resources.
Another American ally, this one emerging, as described by theÂ Washington Post, is the year-old state of South Sudan, a country that Clinton described as a “success.” That will come as a surprise to many of the people here, whose own president has recently acknowledged the looting of $4 billion by his own associates from state coffers.
If Washington wishes to be taken seriously by Africans it has as much work to do as China in squaring words and deeds. Yesterday, the White House said its new policy commits the United States to advance democracy by strengthening institutions at every level, supporting and building upon the aspirations throughout the continent for more open and accountable governance, promoting human rights and the rule of law, and challenging leaders whose actions threaten the credibility ofÂ democraticÂ processes.
One of the biggest impediments to the continent’s emergence, however, is the very existence of leaders like CompaorÃ© and Museveni, who come to see themselves as irreplaceable, confusing their own persons with the state and seeking to remain in power indefinitely.
If Washington genuinely wishes to prioritize democracy in Africa, it might wish to privilege relations with the already substantial and growing number of states that are governed more democratically than places like these. For old friends like Museveni and newer ones like CompaorÃ©, meanwhile, it is time to reexamine the question of what friendship is for and to ask whom does it really benefit?
If American policy is really about fighting an endless succession of enemies, which is what seems to drive the security agenda that the Post has so helpfully lifted the veil on, then candor should require admitting that building democracy is really important only when it is convenient.