Bloomberg News

Obama’s Africa Business Push Ignores Human Rights, Activists Say

August 06, 2014

Dianda Isomora shouted “Africa is not for sale” into a megaphone outside the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington as President Barack Obama touted $33 billion in U.S. investments for the continent.

Isomora, an activist who said he was jailed for his work in the west African nation of Burkina Faso, said he believes Obama should focus on discussing human rights with the more than 40 heads of state including Paul Kagame of Rwanda who attended the U.S.-Africa Business Forum rather than promoting investment. The leaders listened to Coca Cola Co. Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent and General Electric (GE:US) Co. CEO Jeff Immelt talk about technology, education and infrastructure.

“They’re not talking human rights, they’re talking money,” Isomora said Aug. 5 as he took part in a demonstration outside the hotel, one of the venues used during the three-day summit. “The U.S. is just trying to get a slice of Africa without caring about the people,” he said, wearing a white t-shirt bearing the slogan: “Obama stop supporting dictators in Africa.”

The U.S. is supporting companies including General Electric and IBM Corp. (IBM:US) as they seek to win business in Africa. Underpinned by a growing middle class and demand for its commodities, sub-Saharan Africa is projected to be the second-fastest growing economy in the world, according to forecasts from the International Monetary Fund.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said some of the African governments at the event have suppressed civil rights and opposition groups as their leaders seek to extend their stay in power.

Guest List

The summit has included other events where Obama met with leaders of civil society groups, including young African leaders last week, Edward Price, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

“As is the case for most summits, the format for leaders’ discussions on August 6 will include only heads of state and government,” he said. This is “a format which lends itself to candid discussions of the full range of opportunities and challenges facing Africa and its relationship with the United States.”

No Sudan

Leaving some controversial leaders off the list wasn’t enough to signal disapproval, Bob Collymore, the chief executive officer of Safaricom Ltd., East Africa’s biggest mobile phone company, said in an interview Aug. 5. Obama didn’t invite Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for more than 30 years after winning two elections whose credibility was questioned by observers.

“Forget about Robert Mugabe for a second, everyone knows he’s a pariah,” Collymore said. “What’s happening in Uganda, what’s happening in Rwanda, what’s happening in all those other countries. It’s kind of hypocritical.”

Opposition politicians in Rwanda have been killed and imprisoned while in Uganda lawmakers have tried to increase prison sentences for homosexuals.

Kagame said Rwanda plans to sell a second Eurobond, a signal that investors believe Rwanda respects human rights, 20 years after 800,000 people, mainly of Kagame’s Tutsi ethnic group, were killed in a genocide.

‘Never Wrong’

“The markets are never wrong,” Kagame said in an interview in Washington Aug. 5. “Look at the situation in Rwanda, where we have been 20 years ago and where we are now. It’s short of miraculous. It can’t be just because we are violating human rights. It’s because actually we value and respect human rights.”

The U.S.-Africa Business Forum was hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the U.S. Commerce Department yesterday. Bloomberg Philanthropies is led by Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.

Amnesty said it obtained video footage, images and testimonies of war crimes committed by Nigerian forces and Islamist insurgents. The “gruesome” evidence includes images of detainees whose throats were cut and their bodies “dumped in mass graves by men who appear to be members of the Nigerian military,” it said. Nigeria’s military said it’s checking on the authenticity of the material.

Arrested Lawmaker

Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo arrested opposition lawmaker Jean-Bertrand Ewanga for making offensive comments about President Joseph Kabila, who was meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday.

The U.S. has in the past pushed African governments to open their societies and allow greater political freedom. Obama criticized the Ugandan bill banning homosexuality, which has since been overturned by the country’s constitutional court. Ugandan lawmakers today said they would try and reintroduce the bill.

Obama yesterday told the African leaders and U.S. business people that capital and development programs were not the only important developments on the continent.

“Rule of law, regulatory reform, good governance -- those things matter even more, because people should be able to start a business and ship their goods without having to pay a bribe or hire somebody’s cousin,” Obama said.

The U.S. should focus its attention on countries like Ghana, where peaceful transitions have underpinned economic growth, Jeffrey Smith, a human rights activist at the Washington-based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said by phone yesterday.

Ghana has experienced three democratic changes of government in elections held since 2001.

“Those are the leaders we should be doing business with and not the tyrants of the past,” he said. “The administration misses the mark in so far that human rights and good governance underpin things like economic growth and trade.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Christopher Spillane in Johannesburg at cspillane3@bloomberg.net; Franz Wild in Johannesburg at fwild@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at asguazzin@bloomberg.net Andres R. Martinez


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