August 7, 2014

“SMART DIPLOMACY:” Inviting a continent to dinner insults African reformers.

The African leaders summit in Washington and the coverage thereof perpetuated a number of unhelpful myths about the countries that attended.

Most visibly, when Vice President Joe Biden uttered his gaffe about the “nation of Africa,” it demonstrated the compulsion to treat the continent as one undifferentiated mass. Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun, executive director of the Oulmes Water Co. and president of the Moroccan Confederation of Businesses, told me, “Perception is important. These are 54 countries and each one has specific [characteristics]. You can’t address an entire continent.” But that is precisely what Biden and President Obama did, speaking as if the same prescriptions apply everywhere. . . .

We don’t treat “Asia” as one entity, nor do we invite “South America” for dinner at the White House. It is vaguely demeaning and certainly misguided to treat African countries any differently and to, in effect, send the message that these leaders are interchangeable.

Yes, Africa is huge, and very diverse. Then there’s the dictator-friendliness of the thing:

The guest list featured some of Africa’s nastiest tyrants, including autocrats such as Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who traveled to Washington for the summit, which included an official dinner at the White House.

Usually, leaders with such dismal records on democracy and human rights aren’t welcomed at White House galas. This time, however, Obama excluded only four of the continent’s leaders (Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe along with the leaders of Eritrea, Sudan and the Central African Republic).

That left some of Africa’s most admirable democratic presidents, such as Ghana’s John Dramani Mahama and Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete, having to compete for attention with some of its most authoritarian. Obiang, for example, who recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of the military coup that brought him to power in 1979, has jailed or killed virtually all of his political opponents.