Viewpoint: Obama Is Soft on Africa's Dictators

President Obama got lots of attention last month for his drop-in visit to Ghana after the G20 meeting in Italy, where he blasted African leaders for misruling the continent and condemning its people to poverty and backwardness. "Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty," said Obama. "No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end."

They were fine words. But not much else. Obama didn't single out any particular leader for criticism, and he gave the speech in Ghana, one of Africa's handful of functional democracies. In her own trip to Africa this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit bright spots like South Africa, Cape Verde, and Liberia. But she also has a perfect opportunity to name and shame the continent's worst leaders. There's only one problem: she's going to blow it.

Despite the rhetoric and Obama's enormous popularity on the continent, the new administration hasn't yet shown it has the stomach to stand up to Africa's strongmen. As David Shinn, a longtime U.S. diplomat in Africa pointed out in an interview with McClatchy's, Clinton looks set to play the "good cop" and smooth any feathers Obama may have ruffled in Ghana.

It's easy to convey inadvertent legitimacy to Clinton's interlocutors this week, because her star power (and that of her boss) will envelop them in a cloak international respectability, photo-ops, happy talk about trade agreements, and new dollops of aid for agriculture. No matter what's on Clinton's actual agenda, she's going to wind up rewarding the same figures Obama implicitly rebuked in Ghana.

She chose to open her seven-nation trip in Kenya, a nice plum for President Mwai Kibaki, who clung tenaciously to power despite losing the country's 2007 presidential election. Clinton had some tough, and overdue, words for Kibaki and his rival, Raila Odinga, over their failure to implement key provisions of a 2008 agreement that ended post-election bloodshed, such as the establishment of a special tribunal to investigate those responsible for the violence. But it seems unlikely she'll push for sanctions like travel bans on those responsible, including people close to the Kenyan government.

Later, she'll visit oil-rich Nigeria, where President Umaru Yar'Adua took power in a 2007 election so ugly it made Iran's recent poll look like a New Hampshire town meeting. Yar'Adua claimed victory in that poll with 70 percent of the vote, though he was helped, according to the International Crisis Group, by a "staggering scale" of false results procured by the country's security services and an electoral commission "that became an accessory to active rigging." More than 200 people died during the campaign and voting. Nigeria is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, and it has the continent's strongest army. But corruption, ethnic tension, and political violence could yet lead to its collapse as a functioning state. The U.S. should strongly push—shove is more like it—Yar'Adua to conduct a better poll in 2011, and it should send a clear message that it won't look the other way, as the Bush administration did two years ago.

But Yar'Adua is a veritable Nelson Mandela compared with the Democratic Republic of Congo's Joseph Kabila, who Clinton is also due to meet. Kabila has done virtually nothing to hold accountable members of his armed forces accused of raping and executing civilians in the country's festering civil war. Just last year, his own presidential guard murdered a top opposition leader in Kinshasa.

Even more than handing leaders like Kibaki, Yar'Adua, and Kabila the chance to sashay about for their state-run television channels arm in arm with Clinton, the new administration has stumbled in Africa in other ways. The top Africa job at the Defense Department, which eclipsed State's role in directing Africa policy during the Bush era, went to Vicki Huddleston, a retired diplomat who distinguished herself in recent years by penning op-eds in defense of Bush's robust support for Ethiopia's repressive government.

Additionally, one of Obama's first high-level missions to East Africa, in June, was led by Jacob Lew, whom Clinton named to a top State post despite his lack of any diplomatic experience. Turns out the visit was Lew's first of any kind to the region, and he faltered badly in a press conference in Addis Ababa, clinging to a sheaf of talking points and appearing to praise Ethiopia's flawed 2005 elections that ended with security forces killing at least 193 demonstrators and the government jailing opposition leaders.

Equally puzzling is that after more than six months on the job, Obama hasn't filled the post of administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency that distributes the billions in American aid money that flows to the continent annually.

The tragedy in all this is that Obama could have been swinging for the fences instead of trying to bunt. With few exceptions, white Western leaders have tip-toed around direct criticism of African despots, for good reason: the continent's former European colonizers handpicked many of them, and during the Cold War the U.S. happily financed and armed some of the most brutal and corrupt, like Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko. For years African leaders have parried Western critics by accusing them of neo-colonialism.

But Obama's Kenyan heritage makes him immune to those attacks. Further, he is already the most popular figure in Africa: Gallup shows that his approval rating in seven sub-Saharan countries is 87 percent, a figure that probably understates the reverence with which he's viewed. No doubt Africa doesn't rank on his to-do list with solving the financial crisis, fixing health care, or halting climate change. But Obama, for obvious reasons, is uniquely placed to call out the pro-American autocrats—such as Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda's Paul Kagame, and Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi—who've used imprisonment and exile to rid themselves of pesky opposition leaders.

Obama's popularity may not intimidate Africa's craziest leaders like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Libya's Muammar Kaddafi, and Eritrea's Isaias Afewerki, but the Kibakis and Musevenis of the continent know they'd be foolish to butt heads with the politician with the most political capital in Africa since Mandela. Here's hoping he starts spending some of it.