May 4, 2014
President Obama likes to pontificate about being on the “right side of history” and rhetorically clobber those who are on the “wrong side of history”. Debating Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and defending his own record, Obama said, “… they can say that the president of the United States and the United States of America has stood on the right side of history.” On numerous occasions, President Obama has invoked the moral commanding heights of “the right side of history” to proclaim American exceptionalism in the field of human rights. When Iranian protesters went into the streets in 2009, he proclaimed, “Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.” At the UN General Assembly a couple of years later, Obama rhetorically asked, “Who in this hall can argue that the future belongs to those who seek to repress that spirit [of change] rather than those who seek to liberate it? I know what side of history I want the United States of America to be on.” Right side?!?
President Obama likes to hector those who are not on the right side of history. Vladimir Putin is on the “wrong side of history” for annexing Crimea and supporting Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad. Assad himself is on the wrong side of history for visiting absolute misery on his people. All of the Arab dictators in the Middle East were briefly on the wrong side of history until President Obama absolved them of their transgressions; and arguably on the right side of history today. The U.S. never wavers from the straight and narrow path of the right side of history. “We’re on the right side of history now throughout the Middle East, because we believe in preventing innocents from getting slaughtered, and we believe in human rights for all people,” declared President Obama. As the protests faded in the streets of the Arab capitals, Obama switched sides in a heartbeat and joined the Arab dictators on the wrong-right side of history. Last week, Obama partially lifted the suspended U.S. military aid program following the military coup in Egypt last year by releasing half the annual U.S. aid package and authorizing the delivery of a dozen Apache helicopters considered to be the “world’s most powerful attack helicopters”. As the Obama Administration publicly announced resumption of its business as usual with Egypt, the Egyptian military sentenced 683 alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood to death in kangaroo court proceedings. Is Obama on the right side of history or the wrong-rightside of history?!
There is something humorously ironic about the fetish of the metaphor of “history”. Marx declared in his Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Hegel argued the “course of history” is irreversible. Mahatma Gandhi disagreed. “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” Will Durant instructed, “If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.” For Napoleon “history is but a fable agreed upon.” Regardless, Napoleon and all other dictators who came after him were eventually swept into the “dustbin of history” where they will spend the rest of eternity.
When President Obama visited Accra, Ghana in 2009, he intimated that there were two types of Africans and that “History is on the side of brave Africans”. His message to the brave Africans was inspiring, upbeat and passionate. “…You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people. You can conquer disease, end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can. Because in this moment, history is on the move.” He emphatically warned the dastardly African dictators, “…Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions… [G]overnments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful…”
In June 2013, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Kerry-ing on with African Dictators”. It was about American “diplocrats” and “diplocrisy”, (neologisms I was compelled to create to describe the attitudes, actions and behavior of forked-tongue practitioners of U.S. human rights diplomacy by hypocrisy). In that commentary, I predicted Kerry would downplay and soft-pedal human rights in Ethiopia and Africa in general during his tenure as Secretary of State. There would be a “Skerry U.S. human rights policy in Africa” without a “meaningful shift in U.S. human rights policy in Ethiopia.” I predicted that under Kerry, in much the same way as Hilary Clinton, human rights in Ethiopia and Africa will be sacrificed at the altar of political convenience and the “global war on terror.” The Obama Administration has indeed turned a blind eye, plugged its ears and pursed its lips in the face of crushing restrictions on civil society, theft of elections, repression of dissent and opposition politics, suppression of free expression, press and the Internet and the metastasis of corruption in Ethiopia. Obama’s Africa policy agenda today does not include human rights.
When Kerry visited Ethiopia last June, I had hoped that he would urge or even plead for an end to the crackdown on civil society organizations, press for release of political prisoners and insist on an end to suppression of the independent media and harassment and jailing of journalists and dissidents and opposition leaders. I was not just hoping naively or pipe dreaming. I took Kerry and President Obama at their words. In September 2008, candidates Obama and Joe Biden promised to “work for the release of jailed scholars, activists, and opposition party leaders such as Ayman Nour in Egypt.” On January 24, 2013 during his confirmation hearing Kerry said, “I’ve occasionally wrestled with that when I made a visit to one country or another and we have a primary objective and we’re trying to get it done, but I’ve never hesitated in any visit to raise human rights concerns, usually in the context of particular individuals where we are trying to get them out of a jail or trying to get them, you know, out of the country. And I obviously will continue to do that…”
When Secretary Kerry visited Ethiopia in June 2013, he invoked his right to remain diplocritically silent. He did not say a word about human rights to the thugtatorship in that country let alone “work for the release of jailed scholars, activists, and opposition party leaders such as” Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel, Ahmed Mustafa, Kamil Shemsu and so many others.”
As Secretary Kerry visited Ethiopia last week, his hosts greeted him with news of fresh arrests and detentions of opposition party leaders and members, journalists and bloggers and massacres of university students. It was a slap and a spit in the face. Those thugs in power in Ethiopia are so confident and so contemptuous of the Obama Administration that they embarrassed Kerry by presenting him with live evidence of their criminal activities as he stepped off his plane. “What you gonna do Kerry!?”
Kerry’s was in Ethiopia to discuss “security issues”, but not the security of Ethiopian citizens who are arbitrarily arrested and subjected to extrajudicial killings. Kerry was forced against his will to give lip service to the issue of the detention of over two dozen Semayawi (Blue) Party (youth party) leaders and organizers on trumped up charges last week. The detainees include, among others, Merkebu Haile, Solomon Fetene, Zerihun Tesfaye, Anania Esayas, Fasika Bongar, Jemil Shikur, Seife Tsegaye, Yeshiwas Asefa, Emebet Girma, Yonas Kedir, Eyerusalem Tesfaw, Abera Haile Mariam, Abebe Mekete, Blen Mesfin, Asnaqe Bekele, Mesfin, Tesfaye Ashagre, Iyob Mamo, Kurabachew, Tewachew Damte, Fikremariam Asmamaw, Eyasped Tesfaye, Gashaw Mersha, Tesfaye Merne, Habtame Demeqe, Getaneh Balcha, Nigest Wondifraw, Meron Alemayehu.
Kerry also found himself pleading for the release of journalists and bloggers jailed on trumped up charges of “working with foreign human rights organizations and using social media to create instability in the country.” Among those jailed include Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye, Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret and Befekadu Hailu.
The State Department’s reaction to the news of the fresh arrests was predictable. “Ho-hum!” Official spokesperson Jen Psaki “diplocratically” stated, “We urge the government of Ethiopia to expeditiously review the cases of these detainees and promptly release them. We have raised these concerns on the ground directly with the government of Ethiopia. And we, of course, reiterate our longstanding concern about the abridgment of the freedom of press and the freedom of expression in Ethiopia, and urge the government of Ethiopia to fully adhere to its constitutional guarantees.”
In June 2012 when independent Ethiopian journalists were convicted in kangaroo court and sentenced to long prison sentences, spokesperson Victoria Nuland said pretty much the same thing. “We are deeply concerned about the Ethiopian government’s conviction of a number of journalists and opposition members under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation… The arrest of journalists has a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression. We have made clear in our ongoing human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian government that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society.” Such is the practice of the art of human rights diplocrisy by the Obama Administration.
In his first inaugural speech, Obama said, “America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.” When Obama stands tall with African dictators, is he standing “faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.” One of America’s greatest founding documents, The Declaration of Independence, proclaims:
… Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness… [W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security…”
Is Obama on the right side of the Declaration of Independence when he stands by Africa’s thugtators and despots who govern deriving their unjust powers from the barrel of the gun?
The greatest of all American founding documents, The Bill of Rights, mandates that government
…shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances… No person… shall be nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…
Is Obama on the right side of the Bill of Rights when he provides billions of dollars to African dictators who massacre their citizens (last week BBC reported the regime in Ethiopia massacred 47 university students), jail and persecute journalists, suppress religious expression, persecute citizens for speaking their minds, harass and intimidate citizens who assemble peaceably and rip off their people in corrupt schemes with impunity?
Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Is President Obama on the right side of the “new birth of freedom in Africa” when he stands side by side and holds the bloody hands of Africa’s thugtators who have established governments of thieves (thugs), by thieves (thugs), for thieves (thugs)?
If there is a right, wrong, up and downside of history, then there is also the verdict of history. The verdict of history is that Obama is not on the right side of history and history is not on the side of Obama. He will always talk about being on the right side of history, but when the chips are down, he will side with those who are on the wrong side of history. Action, better yet lack of action, speaks louder than words; and the verdict on Obama is that he is on the wrong side of history in Africa.
The verdict of history is that Obama has done less for Africa than his immediate predecessor George Walker Bush. It is not my intention to compare Bush with Obama. (I did not vote or support George Bush. However, I must speak truth not only to power but also about those with power and how they have used, abused, misused and simply declined to use power.) Bush put his money where his mouth is and delivered billions of dollars to fight the spread of AIDS and help AIDS victims in Africa. Obama slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from programs on the frontlines in the global fight against AIDS. According to the Washington Post, Obama cut a whopping $214 million in 2012, “the first time an American president has reduced the U.S. commitment to fighting the epidemic since it broke out in the 1980s during the Reagan administration” Obama has proposed an additional $50 million cut for 2014. The verdict of history is that Bush made significant contributions for the eradication of malaria in Africa, one of the leading causes of death in Africa. Bush pushed for debt relief for some of the poorest African countries. Obama?!?
When Obama visited Africa last June, he announced an initiative to launch massive electricity projects to light up the Dark Continent. He promised to commit U.S.$7 billion to his “Power Africa” program over the next five years supplemented by more than U.S.$9 billion in leveraged private investments. So far, Obama has only empowered African thugtators with military and economic aid. When and if the promised billions arrive in sacks of empty promises in the Dark Continent, they will be lighting up the off shore accounts of the African kleptocrats like a Christmas tree.
The verdict of history is that Obama offered Africans empty words and filled them with empty hope. He made fresh promises about old broken promises. He promised to “launch a new program that’s going to give thousands of promising young Africans opportunity to come to the United States and develop their skills at some of our best colleges and universities.” What about the millions of young Africans watching their futures evaporate under the sweltering oppression of African thugtatorships?
The verdict of history is that Obama has been a sore disappointment to those in Africa who believed in his promise of “hope and change” and followed his clarion call to go “Forward”. His “audacity of hope” proved to be an audacity of indifference and a source of disillusionment for millions in Africa. Obama offered “change we can believe in.” The verdict of history is that “we can’t believe nothing changed!” No one in Africa believes in Obama anymore, except the thugtators and their cronies. Obama’s “Yes, We can”, in action became, “No we cannot do anything to improve human right conditions in Africa.”
I enthusiastically supported and mobilized to get Obama elected. Let me make it clear. I am not feeling buyer’s remorse. When I supported Obama in his presidential bid in 2008 it seemed like a very good idea. In 2012, I was faced with a Hobson’s choice. What can I really say about Mitt Romney?! Jon Huntsman, Jr. was not on the Republican ticket. Perhaps in 2016.
But my decision to support Obama in 2008 was not based entirely on wishful thinking and sentimentality about the first African American president. It was based on careful scrutiny of Obama’s record in public service. I studied his meager legislative record in the U.S. Senate and appreciated knowing that he supported HR 2003 (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007”). I was impressed by his commendable efforts in the Illinois Legislature to restructure that state’s welfare program and provide subsidies for low income families and tax relief for working families. I appreciated his efforts to protect workers facing layoffs and plant closings in Illinois. I was inspired by his lofty and eloquent speeches and excited by his informed and principled policy statements. I enjoyed reading his compelling memoir about the “dreams from his father” (in one sitting), books, articles and speeches. I was proud of his leadership role at the Harvard Law School and academic commitment teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. As a teacher and practitioner of constitutional law myself, I found a kindred spirit in Obama.
The fact that Obama could be the first African American to become president was the icing on the cake, but not a pivotal factor for me. It was inspirational for me and millions of others to see the coming to pass of the prophetic words of Robert F. Kennedy who said in May 1968 that “in the next 40 years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother [President John Kennedy] has…” Obama’s election as president of the United States was received by millions of people around the world, especially in the U.S. and in Africa, as proof of the “audacity of hope” in America itself — the impossible is possible in America. Obama’s paternal heritage in Kenya gave me and millions of Africans hope that he would raise Africa’s profile in U.S. foreign policy formulations, with human rights taking a central role. For these reasons, I had the audacity of hope to believe in Obama.
In the last couple of years, I have been struggling with the mendacity of hope, with Obama’s broken promises and the dashed hopes of millions of Africans. In his book “The Audacity of Hope”, then Senator Obama approvingly quoted President John F. Kennedy on the aims of U.S. foreign policy founded on human rights:
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required, not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
In his prescriptions for change, Senator Obama wrote, “In almost every successful movement of the last century, from Gandhi’s campaign against British rule to the Solidarity Movement in Poland to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, democracy was the result of local awakening. We can inspire and invite other people to assert their freedoms… we can speak out on behalf of local leaders whose rights are violated; and we can apply economic and diplomatic pressure to those who repeatedly violate the rights of their own people…
As for “speaking out on behalf of local leaders whose rights are violated” and who were “inspired and invited to assert their freedoms”, has President Obama said a word on behalfof Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel… Merkebu Haile, Solomon Fetene, Zerihun Tesfaye, Anania Esayas, Fasika Bongar, Jemil Shikur, Seife Tsegaye, Yeshiwas Asefa, Emebet Girma, Yonas Kedir, Eyerusalem Tesfaw, Abera Haile Mariam, Abebe Mekete, Blen Mesfin… Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye, Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret and Befekadu Hailu…? Such is the birth of the mendacity of hope from the womb of the audacity of hope! “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
Obama has turned a blind eye to tyranny in Ethiopia and in Africa. Over the years, President Obama has offered praise for President Ronald Reagan. Perhaps he could take a lesson on history from the Gipper. “Every form of government has one characteristic peculiar to it and if that characteristic is lost, the government will fall. In a dictatorship, it is fear. If the people stop fearing the dictator he’ll lose power. In a representative government such as ours, it is virtue. If virtue goes, the government fails. Are we choosing paths that are politically expedient and morally questionable? Are we in truth losing our virtue? . . . If so, we may be nearer the dustbin of history than we realize.” Could the end of history come in a final Armageddon between the virtue of human liberty and the vice of abuse of power?
The verdict of history is that President Obama will be remembered for generations to come as Africa’s most illustrious and renowned prodigal grandson. For Africans who have now abandoned all hope in Obama, I commend them to heed the steely words of Frederick Douglass, a great American who escaped slavery to become a champion of freedom. “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and those will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
What are the limits of endurance for the people of Ethiopia? The people of Africa?
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
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