In just ten days, leaders from several dozen African countries will converge on Washington, DC for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. President Joe Biden deserves kudos for seeking to focus attention on Africa, the world’s second-largest continent and home to 54 countries, 55 if Somaliland is included (as it should be).
The uneven bar to attendance, however, reflects strategic confusion.
First, consider the metric of government legitimacy. Biden appears to draw the line at those who have achieved power through coups. This is why, his spokesmen explain, he barred the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Guinea from the summit.
The problem here is he ignores others who won their positions through military overthrow.
Consider, for example, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. In 1979, he overthrew his uncle and has ruled the tiny West Africa country with an iron fist ever since. Cameroon’s Paul Biya likewise came to power in a 1982 military coup. Both, in theory, now allow multiparty elections, but these are more theater than real.
Then there is Denis Sassou, the president of the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville. He won election in 1979 but, after having lost power after his third term, decided he wanted back into the presidential palace. That is why he seized power (with the backing of the Angolan air force) in 1997, at the cost of perhaps 10,000 Congolese lives. In effect, rather than blacklist coup plotters, the White House appears to suggest that coups prior to Biden’s presidency are somehow more legitimate than those that occurred in the last two years. Perhaps the reason why coups seem to be back in vogue is because would-be coup plotters figure that if they can wait out the initial opprobrium, they will be embraced.
If Biden, however clumsily, seeks to signal that coups are beyond the pale, then why not other autocracies? Among those for whom Biden apparently will roll out the red carpet are the leaders of the Central African Republic (CAR), Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan. Freedom House gives Egypt 16 out of a possible 100 in its most recent freedom in the world rankings. That may be bad: Egypt’s political chill is apparent to anyone who visits the country today, but Egypt’s ranking is more than twice that of CAR or Somalia. Eritrea, meanwhile, repeats as Africa’s equivalent of North Korea. For those who believe it is not possible to enjoy less freedom than North Koreans or Eritreans, South Sudan proves them wrong.
Just as corrosive to governance on the continent are those leaders who have turned their back on their people. Here, the best example is Liberia’s George Weah. In just one term, he catapulted himself to be the continent’s prime example of an absentee kleptocrat. Most recently, he has abandoned his country as it suffers a food shortage in order to take a six-week junket to Qatar, Monaco, France, and now the United States. CAR’s Faustin-Archange Touadéra is not far behind: While his country suffers from insurgency, collapsing infrastructure, and a food and education crisis, he takes two or three days off each week to leave the capital and relax in his hometown.
Finally, there is Ethiopia. After conflicting reports about whether or not the White House issued Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, it now appears that Biden’s team has greenlit an invitation for Abiy, a man responsible for the collective punishment and deliberate starvation of an entire ethnic group in Ethiopia. Make no mistake: Any Biden-Abiy photo will be the equivalent of the 1983 Donald Rumsfeld-Saddam Hussein handshake. The stink will not wash off with the passage of time.
While the strategic confusion of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is unfortunate, there could be one redeeming feature: Forcing the continent’s most repressive, corrupt, or incompetent dictators or their representatives to confront the true feelings of the people. Should Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki or Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have the audacity to show their face in Washington, they should confront the reality of the anger their current and former citizens feel. Kurds humbled notoriously corrupt Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani by pelting his motorcade with eggs in London, and Turks and Kurds force President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to recognize the true feelings of the people toward him, the efforts of his bodyguards to treat Sheridan Circle like Taksim Square notwithstanding. The crimes of Isaias and Abiy are far greater. They should pay the price, at least for three days. At issue is not only Tigray, where Eritrean troops continue their campaign of rape and pillage, but also religious freedom, where the Isaias regime has imprisoned Fikremariam Hagos Tsalim, the country’s Catholic Bishop.
Confronting Weah would be just as important: He may entice some journalists at home to write paeans, but in an age of Whatsapp, Signal, and Telegram, images and videos of Africans and the African diaspora speaking truth to power can do much to advance accountability for the continent’s worst offenders.
Not only should the Secret Service do nothing to shield the leaders from lawful protest, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should also be out in force to prevent African leaders from infiltrating their own security forces or intelligence agents into crowds to photograph or intimidate would-be protestors in Washington, DC. There must be no more Sheridan Circles.
Across Africa, China’s strategy rests upon debt diplomacy coupled with significant but often unnecessary infrastructure. Russia, meanwhile, prefers to send in mercenaries to prop up despots and loot countries’ natural resources. What the United States currently lacks is its own model. Should the Biden administration think strategically, it will promote good governance, religious freedom, and democracy.
Forcing Africa’s worst offenders to confront truth on camera would be a good first step.
Expert Author Biography: A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.
Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Dr. Rubin has a PhD and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.
This piece has been updated since publication.