Six years after Barack Obama first visited sub-Saharan Africa as a presidential messenger of democracy, he faces a more complicated task in turning back to the continent next week. Obama hosts Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, on July 20, and then flies to Kenya and Ethiopia. As he does, the continent’s security threats and its urgent need to address ongoing poverty are forcing him to balance priorities and messages, say two former assistant secretaries of state now at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, July 20, 2015. Buhari met with Obama to strengthen relations and to discuss the fight against Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group carrying out deadly rampages across northern Nigeria.
Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Stephen Crowley

In 2009, Obama chose to visit Ghana and address its parliament, congratulating the country for its democratization and increasing stability. Johnnie Carson and Princeton Lyman, both former assistant secretaries and longtime Africa specialists who now serve as senior advisors at USIP, noted that this time, Obama must somehow fit democracy promotion into a visit to Ethiopia and Kenya, two countries that have emerged as key security partners.

“The United States needed to show some immediate recognition” of Nigeria’s democratic advance. – Amb. Johnnie Carson

Human rights groups have criticized Obama for his planned talks in Ethiopia, which jails figures such as leaders of religious freedom groups and just declared that its ruling party has won all 546 seats in its May elections. An annual index of political rights and civil liberties by the non-profit Freedom House has evaluated Ethiopia as “Not Free” for five years straight. Kenya, too, restricts free speech and its press, according to human rights groups and the State Department’s 2014 human rights report. It has been “Partly Free” for 13 years in a row, according to Freedom House.

The country that the U.S. administration is congratulating now is Nigeria, which holds Africa’s largest population and economy, and which this spring saw its first peaceful transfer of power between elected presidents. But the visit of President Buhari also will have to focus on helping Nigeria face the threats of the Boko Haram extremist movement, the country’s deep corruption, and poverty that had deepened even before the country’s biggest income source, crude oil, plummeted in price over the past year.

Among Carson and Lyman’s observations in a July 17 briefing for reporters were these:

On Supporting Nigeria’s Struggles Against Corruption:

With Nigeria’s democratic transfer of power between political foes, “the United States needed to show some immediate recognition,” said Carson, and thus invited Buhari to visit. The talks will focus heavily on confronting the threat of Boko Haram. In addition to military action, “equally important is a redevelopment strategy in the northeast that provides greater health care, water” and jobs, as well as “hope and opportunity for what is probably the most impoverished region in Nigeria,” said Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Bilateral relations stumbled with former President Goodluck Jonathan, Carson and Lyman said. Tensions arose as the U.S. applied its laws barring assistance to military units that have abused human rights. Members of Nigeria’s army are responsible for “participating in, sanctioning or failing to prevent the deaths of more than 8,000 people murdered, starved, suffocated and tortured to death," according to the Associated Press, which cited a report last month by Amnesty International. Such a death toll would dramatically increase the current estimate of 13,000 killed in the six-year conflict with Boko Haram.

A big challenge for Buhari is to find effective, uncorrupted commanders for the government’s battle against the militant group, said Lyman, a former ambassador to Nigeria. “He just replaced all his military chiefs, a good sign,” he said.

The U.S. role in combatting violent extremist groups in Mali and Somalia -- supporting regional and international military operations but not sending U.S. troops  -- signals how far the administration is prepared to go in Nigeria, Carson said.

“If you limit your assistance to information-sharing, intelligence and training, [and providing] non-lethal equipment, I think you can keep a safe distance from turning this into an American problem instead of a Nigerian problem,” he said. The U.S. is likely to offer equipment such as communications systems and night-vision goggles, he said.

But “Nigeria needs “a more sophisticated military strategy driven by intelligence—one that spends more time on capturing [Boko Haram leaders] and not alienating citizens in the population,” said Carson.

On Engaging Ethiopia’s Repressive Government:

Carson and Lyman underscored the political repression in Ethiopia, but said Obama needs to engage the country’s leaders anyway because of its weight in the region. It is Africa’s second-most populous nation, with 90 million people. The Obama administration’s overture also reflects its policy of engagement with a range of foreign powers, even as it criticizes their practices on human rights and other issues.

“Unlike Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, and Kenya, one of its most fragile democracies, Ethiopia is an authoritarian state,” said Carson. He noted that human rights activists have urged Obama not to meet Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn because of his government’s arrest and mistreatment of dissenters.

“Ethiopia is the classic example of where you’re balancing interests and they run up against each other,” said Lyman. “Ethiopia is providing peacekeepers at a critical time,” he said, both for United Nations missions and in the African Union (AU) force backing Somalia’s new government against al-Shabab. Obama “can’t fail to take account of how important Ethiopia and Kenya really are to the security arrangements in East Africa,” Lyman said.

Both diplomats urged Obama to press Ethiopia for democratic change. Carson urged Obama to “use as his foundation stone” his July 2009 speech in Ghana praising that country’s strengthening democracy.  Obama has to encourage Ethiopia’s leaders “to take risks” for democracy.

Obama is likely, for example, to encourage the government to end its tight control on the economy. Ethiopia shuts out foreign investment in telecommunications, banking and insurance, and it has “ring-fenced for the ruling party” other sectors such as road transportation. Obama should encourage the government to change these practices, said Carson.

On the African Union:

In his visit to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Obama will meet leaders of the African Union, the 13-year-old regional grouping of states.  

“The AU is the most important [political] body on the continent” and is playing a better role on security and democratization than did its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, in part by applying its commitment to suspend the membership of any state whose government comes to power through armed coups or other illegal means, said Carson.

Obama’s show of support for the African Union should underscore “the importance of maintaining the principle that you can’t be a member if you’ve come to power in a coup,” said Lyman, who as assistant secretary handled U.S. relations with international organizations.

The U.S. president will meet with the chairperson of the AU Commission, South Africa’s Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the first woman to lead the AU. Under her leadership, Lyman said, the African Union has been active in promoting economic integration among its members and greater opportunities for women.

On Dangers in South Sudan:

Lyman underscored the rising dangers of the 18-month-old civil war in South Sudan and what he called a “broken” regional peace effort.

“I would hope he [President Obama] would discuss with the AU how to reconstruct the peace process for South Sudan,” said Lyman, who served from 2011 to 2013 as the U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.

Uganda and Sudan now are pursuing “a quasi-proxy war in South Sudan,” as Ugandan troops back President Salva Kiir and Sudan helps the opposing force of former Vice President Riek Machar.

It’s necessary to “step in and say this isn’t working,” Lyman said.

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