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How Much Does Washington Care About African Democracy?

The U.S. government’s rhetoric on atrocities in Africa doesn’t match its long record of supporting authoritarian regimes.

The U.S. government’s rhetoric on atrocities in Africa doesn’t match its long record of supporting authoritarian regimes.

After five days of voting, the withdrawal of virtually all of the opposition presidential candidates and countless accusations of ballot tampering, voter intimidation and worse, Sudan’s flawed elections drew to an unceremonial conclusion last month, while doing little to advance democracy in Africa. Indicted war criminal Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir has maintained his grip on the presidency with 68% of the national vote, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement will do the same in the south after obtaining 93% of votes in that region.

For their part, despite pro forma criticisms of electoral irregularities, outside powers appear largely content to play along. In his April 28 Times Op-Ed article, former President Jimmy Carter hailed Sudan’s election as, despite flaws, an important step to peace for the country. Glib comments such as U.S. special envoy Scott Gration’s eyebrow-raising assertion that Sudan’s elections would be “as free and fair as possible” raise an important and oft-obscured question: What is Washington actually looking to accomplish in Africa’s largest nation?

Tellingly, relations between the U.S. and Sudan have typically been less bitter than frequently reported. Even as the Darfur conflict peaked, Washington was actively collaborating with Sudanese officials and groups directly implicated in the violence and developed a close intelligence-sharing relationship with Sudan’s notorious security agency. Then-Sudanese intelligence chief Salah Abdallah Gosh — against whom the U.N. recommended instituting sanctions — was flown to Washington for meetings with U.S. government officials on a CIA jet in 2005.

However, since Khartoum’s defiant tendencies and China’s well-cemented position in Sudan’s booming oil industry make a full Washington-Khartoum rapprochement unlikely, the U.S. has turned to cultivating its budding alliance with oil-rich and increasingly oppressive south Sudan, expected to be an independent nation after a 2011 referendum on its status.

And while the dust settles on postelection Sudan, several regional U.S. allies are gearing up for their own supposed exercises in democracy.

On Sudan’s eastern border, U.S. stalwart Ethiopia has been preparing for late May elections by “waging a coordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists and rights activists,” in the unminced words of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

As documented, the ruling party has been using its “near-total control” of the state apparatus to “systematically punish … opposition supporters” and “severely restrict the activities of civil society and the media.”

As HRW comments with some understatement, “Ethiopia is heavily dependent on foreign assistance, which accounts for approximately one-third of all government expenditures.” However, “The country’s principal foreign donors — the World Bank, United States, United Kingdom and European Union — have been very timid in their criticisms of Ethiopia’s deteriorating human rights situation.”

One could also mention Ethiopia’s past service to the U.S. in invading Somalia to decimate a nascent, relatively functional government in 2006 as part of the ever-invoked “war on terror,” thus ensuring the latter country’s continued descent into chaos.

Elsewhere, in central Africa, the U.S.-allied government of Paul Kagame in Rwanda is gearing up for its own elections by “doing everything it can to silence independent voices,” according to HRW.

“We’ve seen a real crackdown on critics,” according to Georgette Gagnon, HRW’s Africa director, including “increasing threats, attacks and harassment” against opposition parties. Tellingly, the Economist noted that while Kagame “vigorously pursues his admirers in Western democracies, he allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe.”

That Kagame also won his second term in office in 2003 with a highly suspicious 95.1% of the vote, and has continued a long-standing Rwandan policy of ravaging the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, speaks volumes about Washington’s commitment to human rights and democracy.

Finally, in Egypt, Sudan’s neighbor to the north and the recipient of more U.S. aid than any country in the world except Israel, president-for-life Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year-reign continues unabated. Notably, the announcement by the prominent dissident Mohamed ElBaradei that he would be willing to contest Mubarak in 2011 in the normally rubber-stamp elections has elicited few smiles in Washington.

Barack Obama is one in a long of line U.S. presidents who have proclaimed their dedication to freedom for the world’s people. Yet a simple review of the facts makes it apparent that Sudanese President Bashir’s open disdain for democracy in the region is amply matched by Washington’s.

Kevin Funk and Steven Fake are the authors of “The Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books, 2008). They maintain a Website with their commentary at

This article was originally published on May 6, in The Los Angeles Times.