Africa: Taking Pictures with Tyrants

In this cleverly snide blog post at Harper’s magazine, Ken Silverstein points out the irony in President Bush criticizing Democratic presidential candidates for offering to talk to tyrants, given some of the autocrats that Bush has met with in the oval office.

WPR has no position on the question of meeting with the likes of Ahmadinejad, Castro or others. We would only point out that there is the possibility of a happy medium, depending on the situation, between glad-handing in the Oval Office and closing off all diplomatic channels.

And yet, as the photo evidence indicates, African heads of state, including theleaders of Equatorial Guinea and Angola, figure prominently among those unsavory characters Bush administration officials have seen fit not only to talk with, but to confer upon all the benefits of very public, high-level meetings.

World Politics Review Contributing Editor Blake Lambert has been a consistent advocate of judging African leaders by the same standards as other world leaders when it comes to their performance on human rights, economic stewardship, corruption and other aspects of good governance.

In the cases of Angola and Equatorial Guinea, Lambert notes that U.S. energy interests go a long way toward explaining the willingness to turn a blind eye on abuses.

See, for example, this September 2007 piece by Lambert on the influence of oil money on U.S. Africa policy:

Lust for oil can overpower a country’s democratic ideals and common sense, and the United States is not immune.

Consider Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s rhetorical embrace of Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, in April 2006.

“You are a good friend and we welcome you,” she said.

Two years earlier, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations disclosed how Rice’s “good friend” and his family held multimillion dollar accounts, gleaned from government revenue, in Riggs Bank, which was eventually convicted of violating America’s Bank Secrecy Act.

When not ripping off the state treasury, Obiang has eliminated dissent against his regime, which has been accused of torture by human rights groups. State radio has declared him God.

In 2004, President George W. Bush welcomed Gabonese President Omar Bongo to the White House after Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell, made the first-ever trip by a secretary of state to the country two years earlier.

Those visits were arranged after the Senate’s investigative committee revealed in 1999 how Citibank, the largest U.S. bank, moved $130 million of Bongo’s money through its system, almost all of that cash coming from government funds.

Despite being Africa’s longest-serving head of state, entering the 40th year of his rule, Bongo’s regime is sensitive to criticism: This year, it temporarily shuttered a satirical newspaper and jailed a publisher for insulting and offending the president, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Unsurprisingly, Washington imported between 46 million and 84 million barrels annually of Gabonese crude oil and products from 1993 to 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

And in this January piece on Angola, which joined OPEC in 2006, Lambert examined how the country’s leaders have utterly failed to invest the country’s oil wealth in a way that benefits the country’s people:

. . . oil-rich countries in Africa often achieve macroeconomic growth, but less often manage to spread the benefits of that growth to ordinary citizens. In Angola’s case, key quality of life indicators such as under-five child mortality are among the worst in the world.

. . .

But the elite will no doubt benefit as OPEC encourages greater production. In 2003, the independent newspaper Angolense reported that 10 people in the country, including President Eduardo dos Santos, possessed fortunes greater than $100 million, while another 49 Angolans held more than $50 million.

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