The Dawn of a New Era in U.S. Human Rights Policy in Africa: Is Ethiopia Next? [Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam]

“… We express America’s values from the State Department. We represent the American people. We represent America’s values, our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over, and that message has never changed… I don’t believe anyone doubts the American people’s values or the commitment of the American Government or the government’s agencies to advancing those values and defending those values…. I’ve made my own comments as to our values as well in a speech I gave to the State Department this past week…. The President speaks for himself [regarding] his values.”  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, August 27, 2017.

“… Nowhere is [hate speech] an American value. We do honor, protect, and defend freedom of speech, First Amendment rights. It’s what sets us apart from every other government regime in the world, in allowing people a right to expression. These are good things. But we do not honor, nor do we promote or accept hate speech in any form. And those who embrace it poison our public discourse and they damage the very country that they claim to love. So we condemn racism, bigotry in all its forms. Racism is evil; it is antithetical to America’s values. It’s antithetical to the American idea.” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, August 18, 2017.

Author’s Note: “Just Say No to U.S. Aid to African Dictators!”

In my February 2017 commentary, “Join Me in My Letter to President Trump”, I urged the Trump administration to “just say no U.S. aid to African dictators.”

Lo and behold, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week just did that!

Tillerson notified Egypt that the U.S. will withhold $95.7 million in military and economic aid, and would only release $195 million in additional military aid after it makes progress in its human rights record.”

These words are music to my ears.

But Tillerson did much more than that. He stood up for real American values such as free speech and against hate speech calculated to incite violence. He unreservedly condemned “racism [and] bigotry in all its forms. Racism is evil; it is antithetical to America’s values. It’s antithetical to the American idea.”

I have been a voice in the wilderness preaching every Monday for over a decade that U.S. aid must be linked to human rights improvements in Africa, particularly Ethiopia.

Obama turned a deaf ear to my pleas to align American aid with American values. He lip-synced my song of human rights to his empty lyrics of the “right side of history” while wining and dining those African dictators on the wrong side of history at the White House.

President Donald Trump likes to talk about “fake news” propagated in the U.S. by the “establishment” media. Is there such a thing as “fake diplomacy”?

Since 9/11, the U.S. has conducted fake diplomacy in Africa in the name of counterterrorism and national security.

The Obama and Bush administrations embraced and coddled the most ruthless African dictators who not only massacred, jailed and tortured their citizens but also engaged in widespread waste, fraud and abuse of U.S. aid. Barack Obama displayed shameless pandering to African dictators when he declared the Thugtatorship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (T-TPLF) “democratically elected” even though the T-TPLF “won” one hundred percent of the seats in “parliament”.

By his statement, Obama effectively gave a green light to all of Africa’s dictators to steal elections in broad daylight by 100 percent and  guaranteed them full support of the U.S.

Is Trump pulling the curtain on Obama’s fake diplomacy of coddling African dictators and thugtators in the name of counterterrorism and national security?

The scaremongering foreign policy experts, professionals, consultants drinking at the U.S. aid trough along with the has-been diplomats have been predicting the sky will fall on Africa under the Trump Administration.  They condemned Trump for his ignorance  and for ignoring Africa. They said Trump will flip-flop in his Africa policy and cut back on aid causing millions of Africans to die.

I was one of the doubting Thomases who made audacious claims that Trump will continue in Obama’s  footsteps and ignore human rights in Africa. I was simply resigned to the fact that there will be no policy change under Trump.  I even said half-jokingly that I would “eat crow” if the Trump administration made any changes to Obama’s “see no evil, say no evil and hear no evil” about African dictators policy.

I began seriously thinking about eating crow (vegan style, of course) with a side of humble pie after I pondered over the questionnaire the Trump’s transition team presented to the State Department. Truth be told, I was stunned by the four questions because those were the same exact questions I have been asking week after week for 11 years.

I could not get over the irony of the twist of fate. The man I opposed so vigorously as a presidential candidate was asking the same questions I have been asking about Africa for over a decade.

I believe asking the right questions almost always yields the right answers. It is clear now the Trump administration has the right human rights answer: “No human rights improvements in Egypt (by implication in all of Africa), no U.S. aid.”

I must confess that some have complained to me privately that I stick out like a sore thumb writing approvingly of Trump’s Africa policy. Truth be told, some privately wondered if I had lost my marbles in suggesting that human rights issues will likely figure prominently in the Trump administration. Others snickered.

As I have previously noted, I do not care about the motives of those in power when they do the right thing. I rarely question when the right thing is done for the wrong reason. It is never too late to do the right thing; but there is never a right time to do the wrong thing.  The Trump administration is doing the right thing by insisting on human rights improvements as a condition for receiving U.S. aid. What could possibly be wrong with that?

But I remained steadfast in my claim of a likely new day for human rights in Africa in the Trump administration.

No human rights, no U.S. aid?: Should “America First” mean “human rights first” in Africa?

“May you live in interesting times,” goes the old saying.

No time in living memory has been as “interesting” as living in America today.

Of course, the operative word is “interesting”. Does it mean amusing? Fascinating?  Dangerous? Uncertain? Unpredictable? Desperate?

Last week, Egypt cancelled “a meeting with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s envoy and son-in-law, after the State Department decided to withhold and withdraw millions of dollars in aid over human rights concerns.”

The Washington Post reported that “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson notified Egypt it would not give Egypt $95.7 million in military and economic aid, and would only release $195 million in additional military aid after it makes progress in its human rights record.” The U.S. has “for a long time made a point of mentioning their concerns about human rights abuses in Egypt.” A U.S. official explained, “We have serious concerns regarding human rights and governance in Egypt. At the same time, strengthened security cooperation is important to US national security.”

In June, a bipartisan group of senators sent President Donald Trump an official letter  over the “unprecedented repression” of civil society in Egypt and called for an end to “politically motivated” prosecutions of dissidents. The senators wrote:

Under the leadership of President el-Sisi, the Egyptian government has systematically cracked down on civil society groups and independent media, jailed tens of thousands of political prisoners, and used violence and intimidation against individuals critical of the government.

End of fake U.S. diplomacy in Africa? Trump Administration’s single human rights action in Egypt speaks louder than all of Obama’s words on Africa in 8 years

Now that the first shoe on human rights  has dropped on Egypt, is Ethiopia next?

For years, I have been urging the Obama administration to guide U.S. Africa policy by cherished American values. Obama shamelessly scorned American values when he declared a dictatorial regime in Africa that claimed to have won 100 percent of the seats in parliament, “democratically elected”.

In his book “The Audacity of Hope”, Obama wrote:

We hang on to our values, even if they seem at times tarnished and worn; even if, as a nation and in our own lives, we have betrayed them more often that we care to remember. What else is there to guide us?… [Our values] have proven to be both surprisingly durable and surprisingly constant across classes, and races, and faiths, and generations. We can make claims on their behalf, so long as we understand that our values must be tested against fact and experience, so long as we recall that they demand deeds and not just words.

The man who wrote these words betrayed American values in Africa when he declared a thug regime “democratically elected.”

What are America’s values? Equality? Individual liberty? Privacy from unreasonable government intrusion? Rule of law? Free enterprise? Constitutional supremacy? Popular sovereignty? Open society? Volunteerism? Competitiveness on a level playing field?

Is stealing elections an American value? Is stealing American taxpayer provided aid an American value? Is massacring, jailing and torturing  innocent citizens an American value? Should American taxpayers support gross violations of human rights in the name of counterterrorism?

Obama was asked point blank during his 2015 Ethiopia visit:

 For all the incredible things that are happening here in Ethiopia…   there is still a perception, sir, that human rights abuses are tolerated here…?

Obama’s response:

… [Human rights] was a significant topic of conversation.  We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history — the hardships that this country has gone through.  It has been relatively recently in which the constitution that was formed and the elections put forward a democratically elected government.”

That democratically elected government “won” 100 percent of the seats in “parliament”.

Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice laughed uncontrollably when she said with a straight face that the regime in Ethiopia which claimed to have won 100 percent of the seats in the 2015 election was “democratically elected.”

U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman excused the human rights abuses of the T-TPLF by declaring it a “young democracy”. The Washington Post condemned Sherman for her make-believe statements.

Gail Smith, USAID Administrator, completely exonerated the ruling regime from responsibility when she claimed famine and starvation in Ethiopia is solely attributable to “drought”. Smith used to be  a TPLF employee in the early 1980s. Smith did a great “inside job” for the T-TPLF for decades.

Elections in Ethiopia were a laughing matter for Rice. A lying matter for Obama. A semantic game for Gail Smith and Wendy Sherman.

Human rights made for interesting cocktail hour chit-chat for Obama, Rice, Smith and Sherman.

So sad! So pitiful!

In my May 7 commentary, “Glimpses of Trump’s Foreign (Human Rights) Policy in Africa”, I  reflected on Secretary Tillerson’s May 2nd speech to State Department employees on the direction of “America first” foreign policy. Tillerson’s message was refreshing, unambiguous and encouraging. Secretary Tillerson unabashedly declared in his speech that U.S. policy will be driven by “our fundamental values  around freedom, human dignity, and the way people are treated.”

While I take no credit whatsoever for the apparently breathtaking changes in U.S. Africa policy as evidenced with Egypt, “the world’s second largest recipient of U.S. aid at about $1.3 billion annually”, I am supremely gratified to know that so many issues I have been passionately writing and lecturing about week after week for nearly 11 years are now resonating deeply and catching the attention of the Trump Administration.

As I tried to peer into the future through Secretary Tillerson’s speech, it became clear to me that Tillerson was sending a message to the  old guard of Chicken Littles at the State Department, their parasitical consultants and experts who drink at the trough of U.S. aid and African dictators that their days of ripping of the American taxpayer are numbered. That did not stop them from issuing their magisterial proclamation: Trump’s “America First”-driven foreign policy will mean the end of times in Africa. But they were only talking about their own end. They knew a change was gonna come despite the millions of dollars they diverted from famine relief to lobbying in Washington, D.C.

Change has come. “No human rights improvement in Africa, no U.S. aid.”

When Secretary Tillerson laid out the foundations of the Trump Administration’s
“America first” foreign policy, few paid much attention. Instead, the drumbeat of condemnation continued. Some accused Trump of “downgrading concern for human rights in favor of a narrower conception of U.S. interests.” Others charged he was selectively blind to human rights violations. Still others claimed, “Trump [has] drop[ped] ‘human rights’ from top White House job.”

Tillerson’s speech foretold what he was planning to do in the area of human rights within the framework of the “America first” creed.  “Translated” in practical terms, Tillerson said “America first” means three things.

First, The U.S.  will “enforce the protection of our freedoms with a strong military”, and America’s military allies must carry their own weight and will not get an easy ride on the backs of American taxpayers.

Second, U.S. trade and economic relations with the rest of the world, particularly China, must be “brought back into balance”. This could require renegotiation of trade deals which give undue advantage to other countries.

Third, U.S. foreign policy will be propelled by “our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, and the way people are treated.” Tillerson emphatically asserted, “policies change, our values never change.” Those who do not  like or share our values should not come to the U.S. with cupped hands and panhandles for handouts. In a speech of 6511 words, Tillerson devoted a stunning 1,057 words talking about American values and their role in the future of American foreign policy.

Tillerson rhetorically asked, “How do we represent our values?”

He offered a realistic answer. If “we condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests. If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.” He insisted, “we should and do condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people” and act consistent with our values.

In developing an “overarching strategic approach” for the “execution” of foreign policy, Tillerson said the salient question will be, “where are our allies?” The U.S. will determine its allies and partners on a county-by-country and region-by-region basis and their willingness to share in American values.

Tillerson warned that many governments do not like the American values-based foreign policy song he is singing. “And I hear from government leaders all over the world: You just can’t demand that of us, we can’t move that quickly, we can’t adapt that quickly, okay?”

For 26, years that has been the song and dance of the T-TPLF. “We are a young democracy. You just can’t demand human rights improvements. We can’t move that quickly, we can’t adapt that quickly, okay?”

When Obama visited Ethiopia in July 2015, he became the T-TPLF’s head cheerleader.

So we discussed steps that Ethiopia can take to show progress on promoting good governance, protecting human rights, fundamental freedoms, and strengthening democracy.  And this is an area where we intend to deepen our conversations and consultation, because we strongly believe in Ethiopia’s promise and its people.

From what we have seen in Egypt, Trump don’t play and don’t talk about “steps”. Trump says, “No improvements on human rights, no U.S. aid.” If that’s how “America first” foreign policy is translated in Africa, I ain’t got no problems whatsoever. I say, “Let’s git her done!”

For the T-TPLF,  26 years in power is more than enough time to make changes.

But the T-TPLF, instead of making changes, imposed a “state of emergency decree” and jailed and massacred thousands of citizens without due process of law.

Tillerson’s message to Egypt, the T-TPLF and their brethren in Africa is. “We mean what we say and say what we mean when we say, ‘No human rights improvements, no U.S. aid’.”

Tillerson mentioned Africa 15 times in his speech.  U.S. policy in Africa in the Obama administration “really boils down to” effective counterterrorism actions to defeat ISIS and depriving it a haven in Africa.

The question for the Trump Administration is, “How do we develop policies and bring regional players together to address these threats of ISIS and counterterrorism?”  How can the U.S. stop the cancerous terrorist networks from spreading in Africa?

Tillerson stated in his speech that U.S. policy will principally focus on preventing Africa from becoming a terrorist haven and to safeguard African nations by “disrupting” “terrorist networks that weave their way through Africa”. He said,  “The continent of Africa is so important from a national security view [that] we cannot let Africa become the next breeding ground for a re-emergence of a caliphate for ISIS.”  The U.S. will continue “looking at Africa for potential economic and trading opportunities” and pursue  “health initiatives, because Africa still struggles with huge health challenges.”

The withholding of aid to Egypt clearly shows that the Trump administration does not see counterterrorism and human rights as mutually exclusive.  Indeed, they view them as mutually reinforcing. Denial of human rights is often the fountainhead of terrorism.

Is the T-TPLF next on Tillerson’s agenda?

In his speech, Tillerson reminded his employees that “it’s important to [] remember that guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, and the way people are treated.” He also talked about “how [we] [can] translate ‘America first’ into our foreign policy.”  I believe Tillerson just translated it for Egypt. Writ large for Africa, “America First” in Africa should translate into “Human rights first in Africa.”

That is what “America First” means to me too: Freedom, human dignity and fair and equal treatment for all people.

“What is good for the goose is good for the gander,” goes the old saying.

If the U.S. can tell Egypt, “the world’s second largest recipient of U.S. aid” to clean up its human rights act or no aid, it can certainly tell Ethiopia, the “second largest recipient of U.S. aid in Africa” to do the same.

Another old saying goes, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

The proof of Trump’s human rights policy is what we are witnessing in Egypt. Tillerson gave Egypt’s el-Sisi the right pudding to eat: “No human rights, no U.S. aid.”

I shall urge Secretary Tillerson to continue with his policy of “No human rights, no U.S. aid.”

I ask all my readers to publicly and vigorously support the Trump administration’s human rights policy of “No human rights improvements, no U.S. aid.”

No doubt, what the Trump administration did in Egypt will reverberate throughout Africa and represent a teachable moment for African dictators. Today, African dictators should be on notice that the Trump administration is serious about human rights in Africa and will put its aid money where its mouth is.

Henry Kissinger reportedly said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

I could say the same thing about Ethiopia!

Take Barack Obama, for instance. Obama ain’t no friend of Ethiopians. No doubt, he is a bosom friend of the TPLF thugs.

By the same token, Donald Trump who has said and done nothing to harm Ethiopia is no enemy of Ethiopia, or Africa. We should be careful not to conflate unrelated issues.

I believe the Trump administration’s policy of linking U.S. aid to human rights improvements is absolutely the right policy. The administration’s questions about U.S. aid accountability and corruption, use of counterterrorism cooperation as a meal ticket  for dictatorial African regimes, bogus trade deals and the double standard benefiting Chinese businesses are absolutely on point.

The T-TPLF will no longer be allowed to milk (bleed) the American taxpayer cash cow. For eleven years, the T-TPLF and the African Union have bled American taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of fighting Al-Shabab in Somalia. At its peak, Al Shabab was  estimated to have a ragtag army of 7-9000 poorly-equipped and –trained fighters.

The number of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) uniformed personnel is 22, 126. Ethiopia reportedly had some 60 thousand troops at one time in Somalia. Both the AMISOM and Ethiopian forces brimming with modern heavy weapons have been unable to defeat a ragtag group of terrorists.


That is exactly what the Trump transition team asked: “We’ve been fighting al-Shabaab for a decade, why haven’t we won?”

The answer is simple. Al-Shabab is a meal ticket for the African Union and the regime in Ethiopia. Both the African Union and the regime in Ethiopia want to keep the war against Al-Shabab going because that way they can milk the American taxpayer year after year. Counterterrorism is a very profitable business of the AU and the regime in Ethiopia.

(Note well: Did you know that African dictators corruptly withheld salaries and allowances (because of “accounting issues”) from African Union troops for six months in 2016  as those brave soldiers put their lives on the line fighting terrorists?)

But the T-TPLF has not only sucked at the teats of the American taxpayer cash cow, it has also  sucked dry the poor people of Ethiopia. As Global Financial Integrity observed, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry.  No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.”

The T-TPLF bosses and lackeys only have one choice. Pack up and leave and enjoy the blood money they have bled from the poor people of Ethiopia and American taxpayers. I wish them all the happy and pleasant life of junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam.

Let’s be fair. Let’s give credit where it’s due. Kudos to Tillerson!

The Trump administration did the right thing in withholding U.S. aid to Egypt over the deteriorating human rights situation in that country. This unprecedented policy is a far cry from Obama’s double standard where human rights violators who grossly violate human rights but pledge partnership on counterterrorism are given a free pass, get-out-of-jail card, and others who are simply defiant are condemned. A case in point is what Obama did days before he left office in January. Obama extended sanctions  on Zimbabwe, whose senile president remains in office in his 90s. With the same pen, Obama lifted a 25-year sanction on Sudan whose president is a fugitive from justice at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Measured against Obama’s hypocritical and duplicitous double-standard, doesn’t the Trump administration deserve some, I say a boatload, of credit for what it has done in Egypt and for the notice it sends to Africa’s panhandling criminal dictators?

So far, I like what I see and hear about Trump’s human rights policy in Africa.

As a lawyer, I could do no different. To paraphrase David Hume, I “proportion my belief to the evidence.” The evidence is , “No human rights improvement, no U.S. aid!”

What could be more fair than that?!

Oyez, oyez, oyez, African dictators!

Alas! I have read many a verse from antiquity to the present. But a poet I am not. But I offer the following words of counsel in free verse to Africa’s dictators:

Oyez, oyez, oyez, African dictators!
No human rights, no U.S. aid.
Stop terrorizing your people in the name of counterterrorism!
“For human rights invented America.”
Human rights made America great.
Hear ye! Hear ye!
“America First” means human rights first in Africa!

“Human rights first in Africa!”

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