By Rebecca Tinsley
Many African leaders decline to pick sides in the new Cold War between Russia and the West. Some may be reciprocating the Soviet Union’s solidarity during their liberation struggles against colonial powers, while others are repelled by the hypocrisy of the USA, UK, and France, who overlook their global allies’ records of repression and corruption.
It is particularly difficult for African leaders to denounce a Russian dictator committing war crimes and other human rights abuses when they are also guilty of them. Further, African elites tend to support Russia’s (and China’s) trade and development agenda, despite the negative impact of foreign mercenaries, debt traps, and vanity projects on their populations. However, if Pan-Africanism is to mean anything, then African autocrats giving tacit support to Russia’s Ukraine invasion and to Russian tactics on the continent should be named and shamed for their own rights atrocities and corruption by those inside their countries and across the continent.
Outsiders have been interfering in the continent’s affairs since Arab slave traders began stealing Africans, followed centuries later by Europeans. Colonial bureaucracies extracted from African colonies while denying public goods to citizens. Yet, in a number of nations, upon independence, a local elite merely replaced exploitative colonial rulers. In case after case, unrepresentative and discredited leaders are stifling their countries’ human and economic potential due to poor governance.
Too many African populations live in repressive states where they have rights on paper but no power to enforce them. Their nations are mismanaged by a selfish minority favoring their own group. Vote-winning machines are too often based around leaders’ ethnicities rather than their ideas or ideologies. A blatant example of this manipulation of citizens through hate speech is in South Sudan, where President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar’s battle of egos is destroying what could be a prosperous nation.
Traditionally, the continent has turned a blind eye when elites steal from or persecute minorities. African Union summits are most animated when presidents demand immunity from prosecution. Time and again, African leaders avert their eyes from the slaughter happening next door, be it in Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Eritrea, or the DRC. No one rocks the boat, and no dirty linen is displayed.
Yet fostering peace and prosperity across African countries requires naming and shaming leaders, together. Many countries on the continent face common challenges and opportunities. Effectively denouncing the authoritarian, nepotistic, and kleptocratic leaders ruining their countries is a crucial form of showing solidarity with those beyond one’s borders.
One ideal of Pan-Africanism is that citizens of 54 countries should care about the injustice and incompetence blighting the lives of their fellow Africans. It means they are informed about human rights abuses occurring at home and in the region. It is true that many Africans are too busy with the politics of daily life and politics of survival, and that millions live in countries where it is too dangerous to express dissent. It is therefore the responsibility of citizens in African nations where it is possible to challenge the status quo in repressive states to speak up.
It is why the RFK Human Rights Award 2022 will be given to two courageous human-rights defenders from the country of Cameroon on June 7 in Washington, DC, Madame Maximilienne Ngo Mbe of REDHAC and Barrister Felix Agbor ‘Balla’ Nkongho of CHRDA. African civil society leaders who lead the charge in standing up to abuses against citizens of the continent must be recognized and supported by Africans, as well as the West.
In fact, Central Africa’s Cameroon provides an example of an authoritarian country’s leadership which has been insufficiently shamed by other African leaders or international bodies. President Paul Biya, age 89, has been in power since 1982. He refrains from criticizing fellow African leaders and in return attracts no opprobrium for his poor human rights record, rigged elections, underdeveloped infrastructure, or incompetence at solving his country’s deadly “Anglophone Crisis.” His Francophone ruling elite has marginalized the Anglophone minority for decades, including using disproportionate force since 2016 to crush peaceful dissent, thereby fueling a violent separatism which turned into an armed conflict more pressing than fending off Boko Haram incursions in Cameroon’s Far North or rebels crossing from the Central African Republic border. Biya is to blame for countless atrocities committed by his forces against Anglophones, yet absurdly, Cameroon just presided over and sits on the AU Peace & Security Council, and has a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. No Anglophone African leaders utter sufficient words of concern about the persecution of English-speakers in Cameroon. If no African institution will denounce Biya after five years of worsening conflict, then perhaps Pan-Africanism is effectively dead.
However, where top leaders have failed, there remain thousands of impressive civil society groups, activists, journalists, and lawyers across Africa campaigning against corruption and misrule, as the RFK award recognizes. Often, they are persecuted by their own governments, as are Africa’s intellectuals who dare to challenge the ruling elites. Africans should not need outsiders to fight these fights: there is plenty of talent and courage on the continent, and brave campaigners deserve to be funded by fellow African institutions. Surely by now, it is known that foreigners usually have an agenda, benign or otherwise.
African leaders should examine the resource-plundering motives of Russia (and China), its mercenaries, and what it perpetrates on countries it no longer likes. They would do well to remember that love, not hate toward portions of their citizenry, is likely to create a more peaceful and prosperous society over time. To exploit and oppress your own population is to deserve naming and shaming by your African peers.