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If not sanctions, then at least not sanction
22 January 2015

If Africa cannot bring itself to ‘sanction’ its wayward leaders, surely it should at least not ‘sanction’ them? Perhaps that sentence needs more explanation.

‘Sanction’ is a peculiar word, with two opposite meanings. In its more familiar meaning, the noun sanction is ‘a military or economic measure taken by a country in order to persuade another to follow a certain course of action’ (according to Chambers Dictionary).

In that sense a sanction is a negative measure designed to punish.

But the noun ‘sanction’ can, of course, mean the opposite: ‘the act of ratifying or giving authority; confirmation; support; permission; countenance.’ And the verb follows this meaning; ‘to give validity to; to authorise; to countenance.’

In Africa’s lexicon, and particularly the African Union’s (AU’s), sanction is mostly a rather dirty word because it is usually a punishment Western nations usually inflict on African governments and leaders to try to effect ‘regime change’; notably Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe. If Africa really believes the West is pursuing such an agenda through sanctions, its response could be at least neutrality. But too often Africa goes beyond neutrality to ‘sanction’ bad leaders in the opposite sense.

In Africa’s lexicon ‘sanction’ is mostly a rather dirty word

Take Equatorial Guinea for instance. Here is a country with a GDP per capita about the same as Portugal’s (US$20 000 – about triple South Africa’s at just over US$6 600) yet 80% of its people are still miserably poor. That’s because President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the continent’s most enduring leader (he took power in a bloody coup in 1979, ousting and killing his uncle) siphons off large amounts of the country’s oil revenue into private bank accounts to fund fabulous offshore residences, luxury cars and other indulgences for himself and his family. And brutally suppresses any opposition.

Nonetheless, Obiang seems to have increasingly become the darling of Africa and especially the AU. In January 2011 the AU appointed him its chairperson for the year. That year he spent more than US$830 million to construct a luxury complex to host the AU’s 17th Ordinary Summit in June outside the nation's offshore capital, Malabo, according to Human Rights Watch and Equatorial Guinea Justice, two NGOs.

‘The Obiang government hopes that foreign visitors will be favourably impressed by the deluxe facilities built for their enjoyment,’ said Tutu Alicante, Executive Director of EG Justice. ‘But visitors should instead question why the government is building villas for the rich while Equatorial Guinea's poor live in slums without reliable electricity or drinking water.’

The theme of the AU Summit, which ran from 23 June to 1 July 2011, was ‘Accelerating Youth Empowerment for Sustainable Development.’ Yet education spending in Equatorial Guinea was approximately US$200 million in 2008, the most recent data then available. According to the two NGOs, that sum is ‘less than one-quarter of the government's expenditures on building the complex to host the AU summit.’

But the AU was clearly unimpressed by the argument. The summit went ahead and last June it held its 23rd Ordinary Summit in the same venue. In the meantime Obiang also hosted the Africa-South America Summit in 2013, which had been postponed twice, from 2011. Obiang ironically stepped in to replace Libya’s brother leader Muammar Gaddafi as host since the latter had by then been toppled and killed. And Obiang seems to have more generally stepped into Gaddafi’s continental shoes as Africa’s sugar daddy of last resort, dispensing his country’s oil wealth to impress fellow leaders rather than his people.

In November last year Obiang also hosted the Africa-Turkey summit. And he is now hosting the African Cup of Nations, (AFCON), a high-profile event that is bringing further advantageous publicity to his government.

Obiang seems to have stepped into Gaddafi’s continental shoes as Africa’s sugar daddy of last resort

In defence of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) which organises AFCON, it must be said that Equatorial Guinea stepped into the breach after Morocco, the original host, had asked at the last moment for a postponement of the tournament because it feared the tournament would let Ebola into the country.

And no other country, including South Africa – which had been shortlisted as host before Morocco was chosen – would host the event at such short notice. So Obiang, who was free to spend whatever was necessary to get his country ready for the tournament in a hurry because no one at home would dare question the costs, ingratiated himself further with Africa’s leadership by coming to its rescue.

The AU, however, cannot offer the same excuse for allowing Obiang to host four summits, or for bestowing on him the honour of chairing the organisation for a year. It is not only Africa that has been seduced by Obiang’s money, though. In 2012 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's Executive Board overrode huge objections and accepted US$3 million from him to endow an international prize for life sciences.

As Tutu Alicante of EG Justice said then, ‘the vote in favour of a US$3 million international prize for life science sponsored by a government that fails to invest sufficiently in basic health care at home is a cruel joke.’

Former United States (US) president George W Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, once called Obiang ‘our good friend’ as most of the country’s oil was going to the US, before fracking kicked in, as Tony Leon notes in a recent column.

Obiang is just an extreme example of the continent’s propensity to ‘sanction’ in the wrong sense, the worst sort of behaviour. Gaddafi was also honoured with the AU chair and at that time, the AU indulged his megalomaniacal fantasies by including on its website his self-description as ‘Africa’s King of Kings.’

Obiang is just an extreme example of the continent's propensity to 'sanction' in the wrong sense

Last year the AU appointed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as first vice chairman of its Africa Bureau, evidently setting him up to chair the AU this year, which would in effect be a sort of lifetime achievement award for bad governance by the continent’s nonagenarian and third-longest-serving leader. (Angola’s Eduardo José dos Santos pipped him to the podium for the silver medal, though who knows, Mugabe might just outlive him and Obiang to win the gold, even if he does turn 91 next month.)

In his article, Leon suggests that Obiang is also a good example of what he calls ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.’ That is a phrase borrowed from the same Bush when he was still governor of Texas and used it to describe the general acceptance of poor results in black and Latino schools.

Leon writes that ‘…one can only assume that holding Israel, for example, to the highest standards of human rights behaviour and expecting nothing of the sort in, say Equatorial Guinea, is the current and local example of the soft, or loud, bigotry of low expectations.’

In Obiang’s case, though, that would surely be the bigotry of no expectations? By indulging his appalling behaviour, and never sanctioning him, Africa is sending the implicit message that this is acceptable behaviour for an African leader.

That, as Leon suggests, is inverted, self-inflicted bigotry. But by ‘sanctioning’ Obiang’s behaviour in the way it has been doing over the last few years, Africa is going further and sending the message that it regards him not just as an acceptable African leader, but an exemplary one. That is an own goal of note.  

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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