Column:  President Obama’s troubling dinner party


The Obama administration erred on the side of inclusion in deciding which leaders to invite to its ambitious U.S.-Africa summit this week — at least in the view of human rights advocates.

The guest list featured some of Africa’s nastiest tyrants, including autocrats such as Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who traveled to Washington for the summit, which included an official dinner at the White House.

Usually, leaders with such dismal records on democracy and human rights aren’t welcomed at White House galas. This time, however, Obama excluded only four of the continent’s leaders (Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe along with the leaders of Eritrea, Sudan and the Central African Republic).


That left some of Africa’s most admirable democratic presidents, such as Ghana’s John Dramani Mahama and Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete, having to compete for attention with some of its most authoritarian. Obiang, for example, who recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of the military coup that brought him to power in 1979, has jailed or killed virtually all of his political opponents.

But the three-day summit wasn’t primarily about democracy and human rights. It was about ways the U.S. government and private enterprise can form partnerships in Africa to promote the continent’s promising economies.

To be sure, the challenges of building the institutions of “civil society” were on the agenda too, but only as a sideshow. “It’s not possible to succeed for your people unless they have a chance to shape the policies of their government,” Vice President Joe Biden told an audience of African civic leaders Monday. “Democracy has taken root, and now it’s trying to grow; it’s trying to flourish in places where it’s very difficult.”

But few of the African leaders were in the room at the time. And if there was any blunt talk about human rights in places such as Angola and Equatorial Guinea, it happened in private.

The theory, U.S. officials say, is that lecturing African countries about the virtues of democracy — or even helping them build civil institutions such as an independent judiciary — isn’t always an effective way to nudge them toward more open political systems.

Instead, the underlying theme of the summit was that security against terrorism and economic development must come first, and that — if all goes well — political progress will naturally follow.


But that message has dismayed traditional advocates of human rights.

“It’s been enormously disappointing,” Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch told me. “Promotion of human rights and democracy is very important to this administration, but only after it gets done promoting security issues and business.”

In Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria, he charged, the United States has gone easy on human rights violations because it counts those governments as allies in the struggle against Islamist extremists. And throughout Africa, U.S. government funding for democracy promotion has been cut while economic aid has grown.

Administration officials bristle at the suggestion they’ve relegated human rights to second place. “We’re committed to supporting strong democratic institutions in Africa,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, told reporters before the summit.

But other officials acknowledge that human rights can’t always come first. “Let’s be honest: At times … we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear,” national security advisor Susan Rice said last year. “Still, over time, we know that our core interests are inseparable from our core values, that our commitment to democracy and human rights roundly reinforces our national security.”

In Africa, the picture has been complicated by a new factor: the rapidly growing economic presence of China. China’s trade with Africa has far outpaced U.S. commerce there in recent years, and China’s investment in the continent has been growing fast.

The problem, officials say, is that Chinese investment flows into African countries without pressure for democratic governance or demands that countries crack down on corruption.

Obama’s announcement Tuesday of $14 billion in new investments by U.S. companies — many of them in a program called Power Africa aimed at bringing electricity to the continent’s underdeveloped interior — was intended to help close the U.S.-China investment gap.

“These projects are a way we can compete with the Chinese for influence,” one official said. “We need to be on the playing field, even if we don’t play the same way.”

Obama was even more pointed in an interview with the Economist last week. “My advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai.”

For autocratic leaders in Africa, dealing with Beijing may be easier. But the administration will have work to do to ensure that U.S. economic investments also contribute to progress for human rights and democratic values.

The advocates of civil society in Africa have a good product to sell. Power Africa and other U.S. investments should be used to help them get that necessary foot in the door.

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus