A specter is haunting Africa — the specter of impunity. Many countries the United States considers allies are in the grip of corrupt, repressive tyrants; others are mired in endless conflict. As Washington prepares to host the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit next week, American policy makers must acknowledge their contributions to this dismal situation. By lavishing billions of dollars in military and development aid on African states while failing to promote justice, democracy and the rule of law, American policies have fostered a culture of abuse and rebellion. This must change before the continent is so steeped in blood that there’s no way back.
The summit seeks to highlight Africa’s development successes and promote trade and investment on a continent rich in oil and natural resources. Justice and the rule of law aren’t on the agenda. But they should be, unless American C.E.O.s want to see their investments evaporate.
Look at South Sudan, a country that declared independence just three years ago. Initially things seemed promising: The economy was booming and a new capital was planned with parks and boulevards. The American-supported United Nations Mission in South Sudan launched a nation-building program, with about $1 billion in annual financing for everything from free wheelbarrows to a new tax system.
But abuses committed by southern Sudanese against each other during Sudan’s 22-year civil war, which ended in 2005, were never adequately addressed. Just weeks after South Sudan’s independence, ethnic conflicts over cattle and grazing land broke out in Jonglei State. When massacres ensued, allegedly abetted by government security forces, the United Nations Mission failed to publicize government abuses or demand a response from President Salva Kiir. The United Nations was also largely silent when Mr. Kiir dismissed his cabinet and vice president in July 2013. When members of the South Sudanese armed forces began massacring Nuer soldiers and civilians in Juba last December, it’s little wonder that civil war followed.
In Africa’s richest country, Nigeria, corruption and mismanagement have left many people reliant upon $600 million in annual American aid. For years, Boko Haram has been committing atrocities across the country, including the April abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls. Initially, however, the group was just one of many calling for Islamic law to cleanse Nigeria of corruption. Then, in 2009, its founder and leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was arrested and executed after clashes with the police. Hundreds of others were subsequently arrested and killed by government security forces on suspicion of links to the group. This only intensified support for Boko Haram, even as it grew increasingly violent. If American and other Western leaders had urged Nigeria to respect the rule of law when it first engaged with Boko Haram, the sect might have eschewed such savagery.
Another of our African partners, Uganda, may also soon implode. In the two decades since I first worked as a development consultant there, I have watched with horror as a promising country descended into tyranny. President Yoweri Museveni and his henchmen have conned the West out of billions of foreign aid dollars, using these funds to rig elections, torture critics and perhaps worse. The Ugandan Army needlessly prolonged the war against rebel leader Joseph Kony, commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, while looting its own bloated defense budget.
Uganda supported some of the rebels responsible for mass murder and rape in Democratic Republic of Congo; the Ugandan Army also stole up to $10 billion worth of timber, minerals and elephant tusks from that country, according to the International Court of Justice. The Ugandan Army’s backing of President Kiir in the South Sudanese civil war has almost certainly prolonged that conflict. Ugandans serving in the American-supported African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia even reportedly sold guns to the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab.
Kampala has so prodigiously looted American aid, mainly earmarked for public health, that rates of malaria are now significantly higher than they were in the 1990s. Women at Mulago Hospital, Uganda’s largest, are more likely to die in childbirth today than they were during Idi Amin’s presidency in the 1970s. Some critics of Mr. Museveni’s government languish in jails where, their lawyers say, they are tortured or killed.
Mr. Museveni long assured the West that he would never pass a vicious anti-homosexuality bill, imposing life sentences on some “offenders,” that had languished in Parliament since 2009. But in February, with his popularity plunging because of staggering unemployment, corruption and collapsing public services, he signed it into law with great fanfare. When the United States and other donors threatened (and later imposed) sanctions, Mr. Museveni informed them that the law would be contested in the Ugandan Constitutional Court. On Friday, the court struck down the law; one of the petitioners, Fox Odoi, was the Ugandan president’s onetime legal adviser. Thus Mr. Museveni may have quietly supported the challenge in order to dupe the West yet again, this time into trusting the integrity of Ugandan justice.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is ignoring graver abuses stemming from Mr. Museveni’s long assault on the rule of law. This not only undermines Uganda’s struggle for L.G.B.T. rights, but may also be leading the country to civil war. Signs of stress in the Ugandan Army are emerging, with members of its elite special forces, commanded by President Museveni’s son, Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, having reportedly defected to parts unknown, and with army barracks having been the targets of numerous attacks in recent weeks.
It may be too late to prevent another African country from self-destructing. But President Obama and other Western leaders should learn from this pattern of atrocities, particularly since some currently peaceful countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya are also imperiled by a culture of impunity. The West must use all means, including aid cuts, trade sanctions, travel bans and forceful public statements, to punish governments that abuse their own people — before it’s too late. The best guarantee of peace and prosperity is justice. Indifference to it, as the agenda of the U.S.-Africa summit appears to reflect, is creating the very disasters its delegates wish to avoid.
Helen Epstein is the author of The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa.