(Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on the blog, The Hill.)
In a White House meeting last week, President Barack Obama praised four recently elected heads of African states as “effective models” for democratization who are “absolutely committed” to good governance and human rights. Yet, as the New York Times noted, ambitious promises and lofty rhetoric in Washington glossed over troubling, but all too familiar, reports of coup plotting, an assassination attempt, and fresh human rights and press freedom violations.
With the exception of President Boni Yayi of Benin, three new African leaders, Presidents Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast, and Alpha Condé of Guinea, have each been in office for less than a year after emerging from some of the most contested ballot tussles on the continent. Yet, in their short time in office, two of the leaders Washington has most embraced in “building strong democratic institutions,” Ivory Coast President Ouattara and Guinean President Condé, have already been implicated in rights abuses.
Perhaps no one has spent more time in the opposition, ironically, fighting for democracy than Guinean president Condé. Washington condemned a July 19 assassination attempt on Condé, seven months after he took office following an agonizing military transition. Ironically, the same week Condé was in Washington committing to building Guinean democracy, Martine Condé (no relation), his appointed chair of the country’s state-run media regulatory agency had issued a censorship order that banned any broadcast programs and articles in Guinea discussing the assassination attempt altogether. Martine Condé told me that talk shows on private radio and television stations where listeners raised critical questions about the circumstances of the attack incited tensions. “We want to avoid what has happened in other countries like Rwanda,” she said. When I put to her that the U.S. government did not ban media from airing all coverage and views on the September 11 terrorist attacks, she responded: “I know that we are in a global village, but there is a gap in the understanding of democracy.”
Washington’s expectations of African democracy have been disappointed before by a previous generation of African leaders once hailed by the West as democratic reformers, including Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea. Since assuming power, these leaders have dropped the rhetoric of democratization while growing authoritarian. “We do not follow the liberal democratic principles which the Western countries are pushing us to follow,” declared Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in a 2010 interview with U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America.
Perhaps Washington’s highest expectations fall on Ivory Coast’s President Ouattara, once a deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Strongly backed by Washington in his five-month power struggle against incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, Ouattara declared in a New York press conference at the United Nations last week: “We want to abide by human rights, this is very important for us.” Yet, while Ouattara has spoken a great deal about national reconciliation after an ethnically divisive and bloody post-election conflict, his government has sought to settle scores with members and associates of the deposed regime, detaining and prosecuting many, including journalist Hermann Aboa, who risks life in prison over his role as a moderator of an anti-Ouattara political program when his station, the national public broadcaster RTI, was controlled by Gbagbo. Ouattara told reporters last week that Aboa was “not in prison,” but simply “questioned” for hosting a program that “really called on hate,” while issuing fresh accusations that the journalist had received money to buy arms for mercenaries. In fact, based on a review of the footage of the program in question, the accusations linked to Aboa’s journalism are rather baseless. While abuses were committed by both sides of the Ivorian conflict, Ouattara has yet to hold to account fighters who brought him to power despite Amnesty International claims implicating them in atrocities, including the murder of a pro-Gbagbo journalist.
Of the four African leaders, perhaps it is President Issoufou of Niger who has taken the most instant and significant step in building democratic institutions. On his 100th day in office for example, Issoufou held his first press conference where he faced scores of probing journalists. Boubacar Diallo, a Nigerian press leader, told me that it was the first time in the country’s history journalists were allowed to ask questions to the head of state without submitting them in advance for approval. Now, regular presidential press conferences are institutionalized in Niger and that is a significant cornerstone in the building of democratic institutions.
Mohamed Keita is Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.