UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the European Union are at the forefront in the crusade to promote and spread democracy globally. The fundamental underpinning of democracy, by definition, involves participatory governments in which the rights of people are guaranteed. The democratic ideals, however, run into a hitch and a ditch when and where some of the boundary conditions now border on the absurd or preposterous. In a world that is increasingly returning to the Cold War era mode and another Iron Curtain seems set to be drawn to partition the world again along East-West divide, the promotion of some rhetorics and ideologies under the guise of democracy may do more harm to democratic causes than good. In the present circumstance, the United States and the European Union may unwittingly be laying new foundations for a more definite and enduring East-West dichotomy than ever before. The idea of perpetuating a Western-led unipolar world through ideologies that are repulsive to others by coercion may have outlived its relevance.
On the surface, it is assumed that the promotion of democracy entails the support for countries to entrench good governance and pave way for an end to despotism, a system of government that is largely averse to accountability and suppresses or denies the rights of individuals. The approach of the West to this intervention in recent years is raising some questions and is a cause for concern as it easily reveals double standard and veiled hypocrisy. The convenience of splitting political ideological spectrum into the right and left tends to blur certain realities. This is also serving as a refuge for promoters of some concepts that tend to subtly conflate distinct issues that bear no real relationships. It gets somehow unsettling when those promoting democracy do not respect the sovereignty of other countries and try to force some ideas on them under the subterfuge of democracy even when such ideas are tangential to democracy.
The United States vice president, Kamala Harris, visited three African countries in March, earlier this year. One of the messages she diplomatically passed during that visit was on the legalisation of the LGBTQ rights. If she was not too direct in her reference to it in Ghana during her visit there, the responses of President Akufo Addo and two other legislators were so clear on the subject. Although the president attempted to sound compliant with Harris, the two legislators did not hide their disgust and opposition to the demands of the visiting vice president. Curiously enough, Harris skipped the subject while in Tanzania and chose rather to concentrate on the issue of long-term economic growth for Tanzania, the climate crisis, and then regional and global cooperation. The issue of double standard on the part of the US was further amplified by the avoidance of such a subject in the Middle East. The US has a strong diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country that is not practising democracy and has a harsh law prohibiting the LGBTQ. But the US is not known to have exerted any observable pressure to democratise on Saudi as it exerts on African countries.
The external intervention of the West in the Middle East and North African countries in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring has proved disastrous in many instances. In Yemen, the war that arose then still rages on till now. In Syria, the resistance to democratisation by President Bashar al-Assad sparked off protests that snowballed into war that led to the killing of no fewer than 306,887 civilians between March 2011 and March 2021, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR). This represented about 1.5 percent of its pre-war population. This is in addition to the 6.8 million Syrians displaced since the start of the conflict, many of whom are refugees in neighbouring countries, notably Turkey. In Libya, the consequence has been a protracted war to the extent that the country recently had to deal with two leaders claiming legitimacy to the same office. Egypt returned to military leadership, with Abdel Fattah El-Sisi toppling the civilian leadership and remaining in power since then. Algeria returned to military dictatorship after removing the civilian despot and the leader of Tunisia has chosen to remove the legislative arm of government, preferring rather to rule by decree. There are clear pointers to the fact that effective promotion of democracy needs to involve consensus and devoid of meddling in the internal affairs of a country. Anything outside the advisory role from an external party to a democratic government is meddling or undue interference.
Threatening sanctions on a sovereign country for not applying some rules or lifestyles adopted in the Western countries is meddling and unacceptable. That is what the US government under President Joe Biden has just done to Uganda in the message vowing to sanction Uganda over the recent passage of the anti-LGBTQ law at the end of May. Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, described it as “social imperialism” or imposition of social values of one country over another. During the tenure of Barack Obama as the president of the United States, he was out on a mission to browbeat some African countries into rescinding their decisions to outlaw LGBTQ rights. It has been surmised that the main reason Goodluck Jonathan lost the 2015 presidential election in Nigeria was his refusal to decline assent to the anti-LGBTQ bill that was about to be signed into law then. It is yet unclear why and how Obama’s government did not push with the same vigour and aggressiveness for a strike down of the law under the first term of the succeeding Muhammadu Buhari administration.
The same Obama in July 2015, during a visit to President Uhuru Kenyatta, had told the latter to drop the idea of anti-LGBTQ law, to which Kenyatta responded that while Kenya and the US share some values – democracy, value for families, entrepreneurship – there were “some things that we must admit we don’t share.” Kenyatta was emphatic that, “for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other issues that really are day-to-day issues for our people.” The penchant for promotion of LGBTQ rights betrays some forms of confusion, which some people have described as a hidden agenda. And if not, why not let those involved in LGBTQ make their cases by themselves at their various countries’ legislative houses? Why should they deserve such preferential treatment? The confusion and conflicts arising from the US campaign for the LGBTQ rights as minority rights further complicate the issue as they spin the idea of discrimination and hate as their methods of gaining recognition and sympathy. Rather than treating the fact that belonging to the LGBTQ community is purely a personal choice, the politicians promoting their cause treat it as a rights issue. In their quest for mainstreaming this cause, they have given gender and sexuality issues new dimensions and meanings as part of the broader efforts to legalise them. If the countries promoting these new ideas truly respect the sovereignty of other nations, they only need to keep their practices to themselves rather than seek to forcefully spread them to other countries or foist them on such countries, using aid as a weapon. More worrisome and suspicious is when politicians in government lead such campaigns. To direct their attention to Africa is wrongheaded as African countries have the right to reject such overtures.
It therefore raises some questions when a US government official, especially the president, threatens to sanction an African country for refusing to legalise LGBTQ groups and activities within its political territory. A major diplomatic misstep the US and the EU will be making is to widen the East-West divide more by driving African countries further towards the East. It is clear that the US in particular has not demonstrated serious interest in Africa prior to now. But now that it is revisiting its diplomatic and strategic business relationships with African countries, coming with one form of conditionality or another that has remote links with Africa is ill-advised. The US cannot afford to use the carrot and stick method while trying to worm its way back into Africa. It cannot have things going both ways. It is either the US engages carefully and through diplomatic consensus or it loses the game to China and Russia that are becoming increasingly influential in Africa and are actively discrediting the US in the continent. Meanwhile, those two countries have recently been seen to be addressing three main areas in which Africa currently has challenges, albeit imperfectly.
Despite the many development projects financed by the US in Africa, the more visible are the infrastructural projects embarked upon by China. Africa has received loans of up to $60 billion in the past five years from China. It has enjoyed the benefits of infrastructure projects such as roads, railway system, office buildings and stadia, among others. The 753 kilometre $4 billion standard gauge rail line from Djibouti port to Addis Ababa was financed and built by China. Many more similar projects are springing up in various other countries in Africa. Notwithstanding all the shortcomings associated with them, the beneficiary countries seem content with such interventions. Again, notwithstanding the shoddy way of intervention in the area of security in terrorism-prone countries of the East, West and Central Africa, Russia is gaining more acceptance and recognition in many of them.
Russia has infiltrated Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Central African Republic and Sudan through its government’s proxy mercenaries known as the Wagner group. What is generally presented as a military contractor organisation is Russia’s subtle attempt to sidestep the global conventional rules for countries’ engagement with other countries militarily. To avoid confrontation or collision with the West therefore, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin chose the Wagner option. Despite the complaints about poorly done jobs, Wagner seems to be widening its territorial reach across Africa. Russia’s military intervention and China’s debt diplomacy as well as its infrastructure projects appear to have endeared the two world powers to many African political leaders. The fact that, in recent times, some of them now openly criticise Western democracies should worry the US and the EU which may be losing ground imperceptibly.
It must be emphasised that African countries are least likely to play the second fiddle in case the US tries to orchestrate another political and economic ideological war that divides the West and the East apart this time. The decoupling of the East from the West-led global economy may fail to draw Africa to the side of the US as many African countries are already showing allegiance to China and Russia. Ultimately, the style adopted by the US in marketing of democracy, good governance, accountability and human rights may fail to draw in Africa, especially as a continent. Whatever may be the outward altruistic façade presented by the East or West, the major attraction to Africa is because of its natural resources. Even as the world gradually drifts away from petrochemicals in its energy transition drive, Africa still remains relevant for the raw materials that will power the much touted renewable and clean energy. The DR Congo alone has 60 percent of the global deposit of cobalt needed for producing rechargeable batteries for cars, mobile phones and some other devices. Moreover, it is estimated that 60 percent of the world’s remaining arable land for food production is in Africa. This has implications for the world’s future food security.
The US will therefore do well to tone down on its approach to African countries, particularly in its attempt to browbeat governments of some countries to adopt LGBTQ rights contrary to popular practice in such countries. It is enough that the US and the EU countries practise what they will in their respective countries and refrain from further attempts to force their ideas on African countries. They need to acknowledge the age-long values of African countries and respect them. Without this, the US in particular risks becoming isolated by many African countries and may lose its strategic relevance under such circumstances. Uganda and Kenya are not alone in rejecting the “bullying tactics” aimed at cowing countries in Africa. The US should therefore let African countries practise what they consider as values and social norms, which are a part of the core fabrics of social life in the African continent. Otherwise, the US might find itself losing relevance in the continent as other suitors throng the beautiful bride, calling for attention.
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