Obama's last chance to make up for his failure in Africa
In 2009, seven months after entering the Oval Office, President Obama pledged a new Africa policy. “Africa,” he declared in the Ghanaian Parliament, “doesn't need strongmen. It needs strong institutions.”
Pro-democracy activists like me took this seriously -- and for good reason. Africa's strongmen have caused the deaths of millions.
The bloodiest killing field has been Africa's Great Lakes region, where political strongmen have responded to instability in the 20th and 21st centuries by committing crimes against humanity and, in some cases, genocide.
In my beloved Congo -- Sub-Saharan Africa's largest country -- over 5.4 million people were killed between 1998 and 2008 in wars and proxy wars, the International Rescue Committee says. These wars continue to claim an estimated 45,000 lives a month, according to the UN's Ross Mountain.
In neighboring Rwanda, 800,000 people were slaughtered in the space of three months during the Tutsi genocide in 1994.
And in Burundi, which was the scene of on-and-off wars and mini-genocide between 1962 and 2005, over a million have been killed. Thousands more have been killed recently in a repressive campaign to suppress political opponents, which is undoing many of the gains made since the Arusha Accords in 2005 and raising the prospect of another all-out war.
Obama's new Africa doctrine
These are the nightmares that many of us believe inspired Obama's new Africa doctrine. And when Donald Trump takes over at the end of this month, I hope he makes “supporting strong institutions instead of strongmen” his priority in Africa.
Fast-forward to 2017, with barely a few weeks left until end of his mandate, and President Obama has -- by most accounts -- bagged no tangible African success. In fact, his much-discussed and oversold Africa policy is in jeopardy. It wasn't supposed to go this way, of course. What went wrong?
In short, he didn't stand up to strongmen. Washington totally failed to twist the arm of Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza enough to stop him from clinging to power beyond his constitutional term limit. It then failed to put in place conditions that would make it very difficult for other strongmen in the region to follow suit.
The implication and long-term consequences of this failure are only now becoming clear. West of the Congo River, Sassou Nguesso has, through actions that may be legal on paper but morally wrong and politically dangerous, followed suit and changed Congo-Brazzaville's constitution to cling to power.
Paul Kagame in Rwanda has, through similar maneuvers, managed to change his country's constitution so that he can cling to power even before his term, which expires at the of 2017, comes to an end.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dozens were killed in protests when President Joseph Kabila attempted to do the same thing.
The list may very well go on. What happens next is anybody's guess. But all is not yet lost. Africa's Great Lakes, the region that seems pitifully prone to strongmen and mass killing -- and where Washington has squandered opportunities to support strong institutions, as Obama promised in Ghana -- is the very place that Obama can still guarantee his legacy in Africa. But only if action is taken before he leaves office.
The crisis in Africa's Great Lakes region -- anyone who has studied the region will tell you -- is like a three-legged stool: knock off one leg and the stool will fall. In other words, victory in Congo could bring an end to the reign of strongmen in the region and beyond.
And to help secure victory at this crucial juncture we need Washington to impose “life-changing” sanctions on the things and people Kabila values most: his family, their fortune and their ability to move freely in Africa and across the globe.
Some might argue that -- in the wake of the recently-signed power-sharing deal brokered by Congo's Catholic Church that would end his rule -- imposing sanctions would make Kabila combative. Mixing shrewd diplomacy with threat of sanctions, some have argued, is better. That argument is flawed.
Indeed, what Kabila's actions over the past two years tell us is this: he has no intention to step down and he will continue to crush anyone who questions his legitimacy.
Imposing “life-changing” sanctions, at least for the recent killing of pro-democracy protesters, will not only send a powerful message to Kabila that further targeting of protesters will come at a price, but will also give Rassemblement -- the opposition's main umbrella group, which signed the power-sharing deal with Kabila's camp -- leverage to push for a peaceful creation of a transitional government, as well as preparation for a free and fair presidential election at the end of this year as conditions for sanctions are being eased.
This can only be secured by Obama. Failure to do so could have pernicious consequences -- both for Congo's pro-democracy movement, and, of course, for Obama's own Africa legacy.