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, 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,” Ouattara and Condé, have already been implicated in human rights abuses.
Perhaps no one has spent more time in the opposition, ironically, fighting for democracy than Condé. Washington condemned a July 19 assassination attempt on Condé, seven months after he took office following an agonising military transition. Ironically, the same week Condé was in Washington committing to building Guinean democracy, but a censorship order had already been issued that banned any broadcast programmes and articles in Guinea discussing the assassination attempt altogether because it was deemed that listeners’ questions about the circumstances of the attack incited tensions.
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 democratisation 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 US government-funded broadcaster Voice of America.
Perhaps Washington’s highest expectations fall on Ouattara, once a deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Strongly backed by Washington in his five-month power struggle against 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 a journalist.
Ouattara told reporters last week that the scribe was “not in prison,” but simply “questioned” for hosting a programme that “really called on hate,” while issuing fresh accusations that the journalist had received money to buy arms for mercenaries. While abuses were committed by both sides of the Ivorian conflict, Ouattara has yet to hold to account fighters who brought him to power.
Of the four African leaders, perhaps it is Issoufou 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. That was the first time in the country’s history that journalists were allowed to ask questions to the head of state without submitting them in advance for approval.
l Mohamed Keita is Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.