ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – President Barack Obama’s five-day trip to Africa that ended Tuesday with a rousing speech to the continent’s heads of government featured a delicate dance of diplomacy with leaders who have rocky records on human rights and corruption, among the continent’s most pressing problems.
The presidents of Kenya and Uganda traveled to meetings here this week with Obama, as did the Ethiopian prime minister. The president of Sudan, under warrant of the International Criminal Court, had the good grace to stay home but did send his foreign minister.
For Obama, careful choreography with them was a daily exercise throughout the trip – no grinning handshakes with this sketchy character, precisely worded defenses of that one – in the service of tackling complex problems that can’t be fixed without them.
At the end of the historic tour of his father’s homeland of Kenya and the visit to Ethiopia, White House officials were confident that Obama has made important strides. On Tuesday, he became the first sitting U.S. president to address the African Union and called on its leaders to end public corruption, liberate women and girls from gender-based tyranny, and end the violence against gays and lesbians that is seen as socially acceptable in many countries.
Much of Obama’s trip was focused on fighting terrorism and stabilizing East Africa. Obama advisers say he agreed with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn about greater cooperation in fighting the al-Shabab terrorist group and strengthening governance in Somalia, where the militants operate.
Those leaders also joined in a meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour in which they discussed imposing sanctions on the warring factions in South Sudan if their bloody fight drags on beyond Aug. 17.
The question back in the U.S. will be whether the achievements are worth the company Obama had to keep to get them.
Uganda’s Museveni and his ruling party curtail freedom of expression and assembly, while police and security forces target opposition groups with impunity, according to human rights advocates. Kenyatta eluded ICC charges of involvement in post-election violence of 2008 under complaint from prosecutors that the government impeded the work of investigators.
Meanwhile, Desalegn claims that his election was free and fair despite the fact that he garnered 100 percent of the vote.
“One cannot ignore the fact that Prime Minister Desalegn’s support is needed in this effort against groups such as al-Shabab, ISIL and al-Qaida,” said Steven Taylor, a professor of government and Africa expert at American University, referring to the Islamic State militant group by an alternate acronym.
Taylor said the U.S. government may view some of today’s authoritarian leaders in the same way that Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, about whom FDR said, in a less sanitized way, “He may be a bad actor, but he’s our bad actor.”
“Perhaps the same can be said about some of today’s despotic regimes,” he said.
There was no “family photo” of leaders at the African Union, a fixture of most summits that the president attends.
Still, the administration officials have repeatedly pointed out that Obama believes the U.S. must reach out even to potential partners with offensive practices.
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