By Andrew Mwenda
How the West is seeking to usurp Africa’s struggle for freedom and democracy using a humanitarian language.
Since the end of the Cold War, a movement to save Africa from Africans has grown and gained momentum across the Western world. This movement is reflected in campaigns to end poverty by giving aid and canceling debt, to try African leaders at the International Criminal Court and to promote human rights. On the face of it, this movement seems humane and well intentioned.
But on close examination, this movement is an attempt to usurp the sovereignty and therefore democratic content of our continent’s struggle for independence. My interest in this article is the growth of a human rights police wielding a stick on the heads of elected African leaders.
Two governments in contemporary Africa have been very successful at an autonomous state building and economic reconstruction project – Rwanda under Paul Kagame and Ethiopia and the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. They have equally been victims of a near-jihad by the human rights police claiming to represent the real interests of their citizens. Two other countries have been unable to engineer an autonomous project of state and economic reconstruction. They have instead remained under management by the United Nations – Liberia and Sierra Leone. These are the darlings of the human rights community.
Why are Africa’s most successful governments at state and economic reconstruction vilified while those managed by donors are praised and presented as model examples? The answer is that their leaders take orders from London Paris and Washington DC. Perhaps I am overstating the case. However, there is reason to believe that some elements in Western society would like to create an Africa that in their own image. Anything that is not a reproduction of Western society is not only seen as abnormal but also a danger to be fought and annihilated.
For example, beginning mid last year, the international press (largely western based or managed) has launched a jihad against the government of Kagame in Rwanda. The ammunition for the this jihad is a shoddy and doggy report by a UN “panel of experts” that alleges Rwanda to be training and arming M23 rebels fighting the government of President Joseph Kabila of DR Congo.
The third party and cheer leader of this triumvirate is the international human rights community which has been leading the campaign against Kigali for nearly two decades. Given that the post genocide government in Kigali represents the most successful state attempt in post independence Africa to serve ordinary citizens, this should surprise us. Actually it should not and this is why.
International human rights groups largely founded and financed by the West have increasingly become powerful voices shaping politics in Africa. Their voice is respected by governments and mass media in the West. Given Africa’s dependence on Western aid, our leaders shape our politics around what these groups are saying. But this tends to undermine our sovereignty and nascent democratic institutions.
It also reflects growing success by Western countries to shape post colonial Africa in their own image. Kagame’s crime has been to place the interests of Rwanda and his people above the demands of these organizations. The price of this insistence on independence may be catastrophic for him and Rwanda. Indeed, it has been the experience of other African leaders who tried this before him – Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Milton Obote and Thomas Sankara.
Human rights groups are often single-issue organizations and seek to make their single issue the only issue on which to judge a country. Thus, they may pick one variable e.g. the arrest of one opposition politician and without reference to facts or context use their influence in western capitals to cause economic sanctions, cancelation of aid, diplomatic pressure and blackmail to bully a poor country to acquiesce to their demands. It does not matter whether the government has respected the rights of 10m of its citizens and done its best to serve them. This single issue would be enough straw to break the nation’s will.
This shows that these international human rights groups are opposed to sovereignty which African countries achieved through hard-won battles of national independence. They claim to represent universal human values that know no boundaries. Yet most of their campaign is actually based on Western values born of a specific historical experience. Meanwhile, these organizations are not answerable to anyone. Their leaders and executives are not elected. There is no democratic way to hold them accountable for their actions.
Thus, the beneficiaries of the activism by human rights groups have no recourse to elections to remove their leaders from office if they did not meet specific expectations. For example, Human Rights Watch’s campaign against the government of Rwanda has powerful implications on that country’s tourism, trade, investment and aid – all of which impact significantly on the livelihoods of the people of Rwanda. How can Rwanda’s citizens harmed by the negative campaign by HRW hold this organization and its leaders to account? In fact the hubris with which HRW leader Kenneth Roth speaks as the legitimate voice of Rwandans against its elected leaders can only be explained as racism.
The only accountability these groups have is financial – and to their funders in the West. These funders – the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the Open Society Institute are far removed – both physically and ideologically from the needs of the ordinary African who is most affected by the campaign of their client NGOs. There is no political accountability to the beneficiaries of the advocacy by human rights groups. The only accountability they do is by showing their work i.e. exposing human rights abuses. The structure of incentives here encourages these groups to name and shame human rights violators, a factor that leads them to vilify or even distort and blinds them from appreciating context.
Human rights are essentially political rights that beneficiaries gain by participating in political struggle. However, the beneficiaries of the activism by human rights groups are not members of these organizations and therefore not active participants in the struggle for their own emancipation. Indeed they are presented by human rights organizations as helpless victims of their local leaders and therefore beneficiaries of the generosity of international goodwill. Therefore, what they received from these groups are not political rights but charity.
These human rights organizations present themselves as the altruistic self-appointed representative of the marginalized. They deny the principle that governments, even when elected, are actual representatives of the people. Governments and their elected officials are to be checked by these unelected organizations. But more critically, these undemocratic (and effectively anti-democratic) organizations are not run by citizens of the affected country but foreigners living in Washington DC, London and Paris. What makes these organizations and their staff so kind and to expend their energies saving others?
Furthermore, although they seek to influence government policy and lobby their home governments to pressure their client regimes to comply with their demands, these organizations cannot pay the price for their advice. They deny local nuance and context which may shape specific governmental practices. They reject the necessity for compromise that is essential to democracy. For example, democracy in the US has grown through a series of compromises e.g. on slavery which today may sound reprehensible but which may have been absolutely necessary at the time to achieve the political union. Human rights groups can afford to ignore nuance and context precisely because they cannot be held accountable for the consequences of their advocacy and actions. Theirs is power without responsibility.
Human rights groups actually work as vehicles for the agendas of their home governments. The Western world possesses interests and a specific world view within which these interests are articulated. Human rights groups perhaps inadvertently stand in promotion of these interests and values. But it would be wrong to assume that the interests and values of the West are the values of everyone. Therefore, the aim of these groups is not to advance the cause of democracy and its two components – contestation and participation. Instead, it is to undermine participation of the citizen from politics so that they are reintegrated into the political process as passive spectators in the political struggles shaping their destiny. Indeed, human rights groups see beneficiaries of their advocacy as wards to be helped.
In many ways, this development is a recreation of the colonial project. The Europeans who promoted the colonial project claimed to be working in the best interests of the natives. One of their missions was to introduce commerce and trade in order to liberate natives from poverty. The other was to introduce “civilization” to emancipate natives from the tyranny of custom and the despotism of local chiefs. The third was to introduce Christianity whose aim was to save the natives from satanic worship.
The native was not an active participant in this process meant for his own emancipation. He was supposed to be a passive recipient of European paternalism. The heroes of the African people under this tutelage were David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and Cecil Rhodes. Hence cities and their streets, lakes and their ports, rivers and their falls and mountains and their peaks were named after them.
These lofty claims were not without justification. Most of Africa was still poor and backward and needed trade and commerce. Many Africans lived under the tyranny of custom and the despotism of local chiefs and warlords. Some of our religious practices were oppressive to women and children, some encouraged human sacrifice or the killing of twins. Many Europeans involves in the scramble for Africa were well intentioned individuals with a genuine desire to change the lives of natives for the better. Regardless of their cultural hubris and racism, their belief in the need to emancipate the souls of natives was sometimes driven by noble intentions. However, the road to hell is always pave with good intentions. Indeed, many of these lofty goals also served to disguise and justify racial domination and economic exploitation.
The anti colonial movement was an attempt to reject this narrative and bring the voice of the African at the center of the debate on his/her future. Western paternalism was exposed as arrogant and brutal. Africans needed to shape their own destiny. The period 1950 to 1990 was the era of this ascendance; the attempt by Africans to define who we are, what we want and how we want to achieve our goals. Our civic rights were to be realized through political struggle, not humanitarian assistance.
We were not victims waiting for the kind and generous to save us. We were to become active participants in shaping our destiny. The actors and heroes of this effort were to be African revolutionaries mobilizing, organizing, inspiring and leading the African masses. The names of Livingstone, Stanley and Rhodes gave way to Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Ben Bella. This is the period when colonialism was in retreat philosophically and literally.
The political and social movements that had emerged during the anti colonial struggle evolved organically from our communities. They were membership-based organizations rooted in our existential needs – hence farmers’ cooperatives, political parties, trade unions, student movements, professional and occupational associations – for drivers, lawyers, teachers, traders etc. These demanded direct participation in the political process. They rejected the notion that African interests were to be articulated by kind Europeans.
This was the first flowering of democracy in Africa. Armed struggles like the Mau Mau, PAIGC, FRELIMO, MPLA, and later NRA, EPLF, TPFL and RPF carried a similar attitude. Even in the church, the colonial stranglehold over our souls was challenged by Christian revival movements. Our emancipation was to come from our own political struggles, sacrifices and compromises and NOT as charity from altruistic Europeans.
Beginning in 1980s but especially after 1990, western attempts to re-capture this initiative from Africans gained momentum. It came in the wake of prolonged failures on the continent and therefore seemed to be justified by immediate necessity. So the workers’ unions and the cooperative societies were deliberately strangled by Structural Adjustment reforms promoted by the IMF and World Bank. In their stead, a new “peoples’ representatives, the western funded NGO took center stage; the revolutionary politician gave way to the aid worker. Yet the NGO is disarticulated from the society it serves. It survives by begging from abroad to pursue an agenda designed and developed from elsewhere.
Thus, when you visit Africa today, our public policies are designed by the IMF and World Bank, the hungry are fed by World Food Program, the ill are treated by Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, refugees are cared for by UNHCR, those in conflict are “protected” by UN peacekeepers, our Malaria is fought by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, our story is told by The New York Times, our poverty is fought by Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, our crimes are tried by the ICC, our public serves are financed by a generous international aid community, our debts are cancelled, our press freedom is defended by Reporters without Borders and CPJ, our human rights are promoted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Our heroes are Angelina Jolly and George Clooney, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy.
The tragic thing is that we African elites have been complicity in these processes to usurp our sovereignty and democratic rights. Whether this has been due to opportunism or ignorance, naivety or ideological bankruptcy or the sheer weight of our accumulated failures, we have actively aided and abated these developments. The challenge of our generation is to resist this neocolonial project dressed in the old language of human rights that seeks to demote us from citizens actively fighting for their rights to mere recipients of international charity and hence relegated to playing the role of spectator in the struggles shaping our destiny.
 This is an expanded version of the original article that was published in The Independent under the title “Power without responsibility”.