President Obama in Africa: Making Liberal Americans and African Dictators Smile

In the many years that I spent working as a civil and human rights activist across East, West, Central and Southern Africa, I quickly learned that there is a surefire way to get a visa into Africa’s most repressive countries. When filling out the little box that asks for your purpose of visit, just say you are “promoting women’s rights.”

Not only will you instantly be handed a visa, your immigration officer is likely to smile broadly and wish you luck in your mission.

If on the other hand, when applying for a visa, you were to try writing “freedom of the press,” “democracy promotion,” “civic education,” “religious rights” or, heaven forbid, “human rights” on your immigration documents, you would likely find yourself frowned at, sent to the back of a long line, left alone in an airless interrogation room, quizzed, your belongings searched, and your hotel carefully noted down for onward surveillance. You might not get in at all.

Women’s issues are the key to a better life for everyone on the planet. But providing women and girls with access to education, fair wages and birth control, and freedom from sexual violence are not really controversial subjects among the governments of Kenya, Ethiopia, and the United States. There’s plenty of progress to be made, but we’re all on board with those goals.

So why are the rights of women and girls, and homosexuals, for that matter, the starring attraction in Obama’s remarks on human rights during his latest African tour?

Because these are the most innocuous human rights topics that President Obama could possibly have chosen to address. No government in Africa is threatened by a discussion of women’s or gay rights. Any dictatorship is delighted to trot out a speech about all the excellent programs it has to end FGM. Gay rights is a flashpoint issue in the African media, but African publics and governments are firmly on the same side of the subject. So much so that gay rights can be easily dismissed by autocrats as “cultural imperialism,” and quiet proof (nod, nod, wink, wink) that the foreign donors really don’t get it with all this human rights stuff. (Gay rights is a favorite punch line of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for example, who recently joked that he would like to marry President Obama now that gay marriage is legal in the United States.)

Obama should have talked about women’s and gay rights, but he should not have co-opted them as tools for avoiding more politically risky subjects. This is talking about human rights to avoid really having to talk about human rights. Let’s face it, women’s and gay rights are the two magical subjects that make both liberal Americans and African dictators smile. 

How disheartening to see President Obama playing this game.

How disheartening to see President Obama speechifying on women’s rights in a stadium that held over a thousand Somalis hostage, but not saying the words OPERATION USALAMA WATCH.

How disheartening to see President Obama standing in Ethiopia, silent on the subject of the eighteen brave Muslim protestors who will die in prison as “terrorists,” many journalists and opposition leaders alongside them, and mouthing the words “democratically elected” to describe the 100 percent election victory by Ethiopia’s ruling regime.

Speaking of Ethiopia’s ruling regime! The tiny ethnic minority that is represented by the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front has dominated political and economic power in Ethiopia for close on twenty-five years. But those heights of repression are conveniently not captured by the phrase “term limits.” (Perhaps even more egregious was Mr. Obama’s failure to criticize his erstwhile ally in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, who has enjoyed both a twenty-nine year term in office and hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and training from the United States.) 

These are the kind of comments that would have gone to the heart of the repression and human rights abuses perpetrated by President Obama’s hosts. In avoiding them, he served America’s security interests but not our core democratic values. Unfortunately, the two remain in conflict. 

Bronwyn Bruton is the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. 

Image: Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia and President Barack Obama of the United States converse before lunch during the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland on 18 June 2013. Photo by Pete Souza.