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USA: From Tunis to Tigray, African crises test Biden’s commitment to democracy

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 18 August 2021 07:14, updated on Monday, 23 August 2021 18:46

Then US vice-president Joe Biden addresses the US-Africa Business Forum in Washington 5 August 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President Joe Biden came into office promising to make democracy in Africa a priority. However, is the light-touch approach of his administration working? Crises such as the Tunisia coup, Ethiopia's civil war and Nigeria's security emergency will test the commitment to human rights of the Biden team.

“We must all work together to advance our shared vision of a better future,” Biden told participants of the 34th African Union Summit via video message in early February. “A future … committed to investing in our democratic institutions and promoting human rights [for] all people.”

In the six months since, the new administration has coordinated with its European allies to sanction a slew of autocratic countries including China, Belarus and Myanmar. In Africa, however, Biden has pursued a less confrontational approach.

Whether it’s responding to the conflict in Ethiopia, human rights abuses in Egypt and Nigeria, questionable elections in Uganda and Benin, or kleptocracy in Equatorial Guinea, the US has so far opted for a relatively light touch. This has left some African activists, human rights advocates and members of Congress demanding more.

The US should consider bolder moves, such as launching a public review of all financial assistance…

Many now see the response to the constitutional crisis in Tunisia, a country whose democratic transition has been a US priority for the past decade, as a bellwether of Biden’s commitment to the continent.

The US President “has made a lot of promises during the campaign and [since] that … defending democracy and standing up to dictators and autocracy is one of [his] main priorities,” Radwan Masmoudi, the founder and president of the nonprofit Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, tells The Africa Report. “Well, here’s the test. Here’s the big opportunity for the Biden administration to shine and save Tunisia and send a message.”

Tough talk, gentler touch

Coming on the heels of a president who famously referred to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “my favorite dictator,” Biden won an election last November that inspired democrats across Africa.

5,000 miles from Washington, Rogatien Biaou (Benin’s former foreign minister-turned-opposition figure) penned a 12-page memo that month for the incoming administration. The region, Biaou wrote, is in “democratic decline” and is looking to the US for inspiration and support.

Eight months later, Biaou says it’s time for Biden’s administration to catch up to its rhetoric. “There’s not so much a disconnect as there is a lack of engagement, which could be much more visible and much stronger,” Biaou tells The Africa Report. “If they raise their voice and demonstrate that the fight to restore democracy is a priority, anywhere in the world, I believe the people in power in Africa will … change tack.”

The Biden administration insists that fighting for freedom in Africa is a priority. “We will stand firm behind our commitments to human rights, democracy and access to justice,” a State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

We are not going to be shy … about our concerns about democracy, human rights…

The US has taken certain steps in that direction, including cutting economic and security assistance to Ethiopia over human rights abuses in Tigray. Its State Department has also issued visa bans to unnamed Ethiopian and Eritrean officials in response to the conflict. Travel restrictions have also been issued to Ugandans deemed responsible for “undermining” democracy after a flawed election saw President Yoweri Museveni win a sixth term in January.

Elsewhere in Africa, the Biden team has extended pre-existing sanctions regimes targeting Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic. Sanctions on Israeli magnate Dan Gertler’s mining interests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – which the Donald Trump administration lifted in its final days after a massive lobbying campaign – have also been reinstated.

“The license previously granted to Mr. Gertler is inconsistent with America’s strong foreign policy interests in combating corruption around the world,” the Treasury Department said in March.

Values and interests

Some activists are however convinced that the Biden administration can do more, such as enacting additional Treasury sanctions that ban US individuals and entities from doing business with perceived bad actors.

Last month, the State and Treasury departments jointly praised the British government for slapping anti-corruption sanctions against Equatorial Guinea’s vice-president Teodoro Obiang Mangue. However, Tutu Alicante – the founder and director of the nonprofit EG Justice in Washington – noted that the US has not followed suit.

US companies are major players in the oil and natural gas sectors of the energy-rich country, Alicante said. After four years of Trump’s ‘America First’ approach and China’s ongoing inroads into Africa, the Biden administration has vowed to engage respectfully with international partners, notably by hosting a summit for democracy that will include African allies and partners.

Carrots and sticks

“I think right now they’re waiting before they start on a ‘stick’ approach to[wards] Africa, waiting to rebuild some relationships,” Alicante tells The Africa Report. “Particularly ones where the US has strategic interests.”

Still, he said, some actions are particularly egregious. EG Justice and Human Rights Watch filed a complaint against Obiang under the Global Magnitsky Act in January 2020 and Alicante said he plans to follow up with Treasury officials later this month. He’s not alone in pressing Washington to step things up a notch.

There are democracy challenges all over Africa…

Jeffrey Smith, a lobbyist for Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine, said the visa bans announced in April were a “well-received start”. However, he said, the US should consider bolder moves, such as launching a public review of “all financial assistance” to Uganda, suspending security assistance and temporarily recalling the US ambassador to Kampala.

Benin’s Biaou has also hired lobbyists to help. Underwhelmed by the US response to a flawed 11 April election that saw President Patrice Talon win a second term, he wants the Biden administration to demand that Talon release political prisoners and hold a national dialogue with the opposition.

Meanwhile Masmoudi has been making the rounds among his contacts on Capitol Hill and the State Department to press them to respond to President Kais Saied’s suspension of parliament with “serious language and an angry face”.

“I’m advocating increasing economic and military aid, and of course health assistance right now because of Covid-19,” said Masmoudi, who is a member of the political committee of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. “But conditionally. Make that aid conditional [to ensure] respect [of] the constitution and the rule of law.”

Washington running out of patience

Calls for tougher action are also ringing out in Congress, which has control of the country’s purse strings.

Lawmakers upset with Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara are holding up drone sales to Rabat. Moreover, a $875m sale of a dozen attack helicopters to Nigeria also faces a congressional roadblock, with senate foreign relations committee chairman Robert Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey) calling for a “fundamental rethink of the framework of our overall engagement” amid allegations of human rights abuses under President Muhammadu Buhari.

Some members of Congress have also objected to the Biden administration’s decision to move forward with an almost $200m missile sale to Egypt despite the President’s campaign promise of “no more blank checks” for President Sisi.

With regards to Tunisia, Menendez and his Republican counterpart on the senate foreign relations committee, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, issued a joint statement last week demanding that Saied “recommit to the democratic principles that underpin US-Tunisia relations”.

…if countries are choosing a more autocratic path, it will constrain what we can do together.

Biden turns up the volume

The Biden administration also appears to be running out of patience. During a 26 July phone call with Tunisia’s President, secretary of state Antony Blinken said he had warned Saied to return to the “democratic path”. Last week, the US government dispatched USAID administrator Samantha Power to Ethiopia, where she made clear that the agency’s more than $1bn in annual aid could be at risk if the violence continues and humanitarian access is hindered.

Meanwhile undersecretary of state for political affairs Victoria Nuland travelled to South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania and Niger last week in what she described as an early demonstration of the Biden administration’s “commitment to re-engage strongly with Africa, and particularly with the African democracies”. She told reporters after her meeting with Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan that she’d raised “concerns” about the arrest of opposition leader Freeman Mbowe.

“There are democracy challenges all over Africa. There’s backsliding,” Nuland said during an online press conference on 5 August. “We are not going to be shy … about our concerns about democracy, human rights. [And] frankly if countries are choosing a more autocratic path, it will constrain what we can do together.”

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