By George E. Curry
WASHINGTON – Calling this an “extraordinary moment of opportunity,” Secretary of State John Kerry gently urged African leaders hosted by the White House to eradicate political corruption, limit their time in office to two terms, be more accepting of dissent and adopt universally accepted values that advance the lives and freedoms of its citizens.
Kicking off the 3-day US-Africa Summit that began Monday, Kerry said: “Empowered civil society is the foundation of every successful democracy here in the United States, in Africa, and around the world, because in the end, our most enduring relationships, most consequential relationships are not with one particular government at one moment in time. It’s not with those who are in power for the short run.”
He explained, “The legacy is really shaped by the people of a country and the people of a continent, the people of Africa who stand on principle for the long haul and who are increasingly connected to the world around them and who, therefore, aspire to greater and greater set of opportunities.”
Vice President Joe Biden, also speaking on the opening day of the summit, suggested that leaders make a stronger effort to root out political corruption. “Corruption is not unique to Africa, but it’s a cancer in Africa as well as around the world,” Biden stated. “Widespread corruption is an affront to the dignity of its people and a direct threat to each of your nation’s stability.”
It was doubtful that Kerry’s and Biden’s speeches will change the political landscape in Africa. The presidents of Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Rwanda have been in office for more than three decades and don’t appear ready to step down. Many African leaders have millions stashed away in foreign accounts.
Kerry’s carefully crafted speech took what many claim as fundamental American values and placed them within a global context, perhaps in an effort to make them more acceptable.
“Strong civil society and respect for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights – these are not just American values. They’re universal values. They’re universal aspirations. And anyone who reads history and knows history understands that.”
Kerry continued, “Why does America care whether countries around the world, including African states, enforce the rule of law, reform their economies, and embrace pluralism? Very simple. We care because we believe that when people can trust their government and rely on its accountability and transparency on justice, that society flourishes and is more stable than others. We believe that opportunity and prosperity are powerful antidotes to the violent urges of extremism and division. And we know that the gravest threats to the security of nations almost invariably come from countries where people and their governments are at odds, where they are divided.”
Citizens are making their voices heard in Africa, Kerry said. He said opinion polls in Africa show “large majorities of Africans support free, accessible, and fair elections, and limiting their presidents to two terms in office. Those are the aspirations that drove Wangari Maathai to launch the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and transform the way that Africans relate to the environment. And those are the aspirations that drove Frank Mugisha and others to risk their lives for LGBT rights and equality and non-discrimination in Uganda.”
The secretary of state noted that the U.S. did not have an easy time establishing a democracy, engaging in a Civil War and repairing defects in the Constitution. It is a struggle that continues to this day, Kerry acknowledged.
“Slavery was written into our Constitution before it was written out of our Constitution,” he said in a question-and-answer session following his speech. “And we all know what a battle we had in this country in order to do that, and we are still battling to make sure that our Constitution is, in fact, upheld and applied in the law in terms of voting rights and the way districts are divided. This is not unique to one continent or one place. It’s part of politics, part of human nature, and that is the greatest struggle of all. We’re still working to perfect, everybody is.”
And so is Africa, according to Kerry.
“…interestingly, most African countries have very strong constitutions. And those strong constitutions, if you read them and analyze them, actually do provide very clear separation of power, rule of law, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech,” Kerry said, replying to one question. “Even the principles of nondiscrimination are contained within most of the constitutions in Africa.
“So Africa has done pretty well in drafting the constitution and putting together the basic concepts. Where there has been a challenge, obviously, is in making sure that it is followed, and that requires the building of capacity. Doesn’t happen overnight, didn’t happen here overnight.”