The Left Way in East Africa

The Left Way in East Africa

Kenya's House Speaker Kenneth Marende with US Congressman David Price.
In a huge and welcome change from past American policy, eight U.S. Congressmen are in Kenya to promote democracy. “Change,” I said? Absolutely!

Until the Obama administration, America’s promoting democracy in the Third World was something akin to my own dear old-style Chicago politics. You tell them what to do, and if they don’t, you shoot.

My own grandfather, a “died in the wool” Chicago Republican, stopped voting after he had been told at the voting registration table for the Eisenhower election in 1954 that he was dead.

His named had been removed from the voter registration lists to the corner’s, (presumably in a wool suite in a sealed coffin. At least he lived another ten years.)

The Reagan era was an intensely ideological one, and it was during that time that a “democracy officer” was attached to every American embassy in the world. In East Africa the officer was intensely hated. He meddled in everything, often trumping senior embassy staff because of his unique title.

And rather than promoting democracy, this officer’s function was punitive. When he/she saw something in the country that was undemocratic, local officials were given a tongue lashing, then a lecture, and finally aid was withdrawn.

Not exactly the best way to promote an ideology, if you ask me.

And it wasn’t. There was a terrible backlash that led to young people in particular concluding that democracy wasn’t. Rioting by students in both Nairobi and Kampala were several times linked to anti-American sentiments about meddling in their country’s politics.

Authoritarian leaders like Uganda’s Museveni and Rwanda’s Kagame seemed to fair much better than the outspoken politicians of Kenya and Tanzania.

Well, thank goodness, Obama has changed that. There is still a democracy officer, but much demurred, and hopefully soon to be retired. And instead of some School Mum approach in high Chicago Style, we’re now treating the Third World with respect.

Eight Congressmen led by David Price (D-NC) are in Nairobi to encourage democracy, and specifically, to encourage debate on the upcoming constitutional referendum.

The delegation is the “House Democracy Partnership” newly reconfigured in January, 2009, to reflect the new approaches of the Obama Administration.

Rather than lecturing local officials, local officials are invited to the U.S. Congress to shadow their counterparts. The Kenyan Speaker of the House has already enjoyed this junket.

Rather than telling a country how to run an election (as we did in Kenya’s failed 2007 process), USAid funds neutral components of an election, such as the voter registration process. Or – in the current constitutional referendum – a publicity campaign that does little more than tell people when the election is.

Compare this to the Bush Administration’s failed efforts to effect the outcome of elections throughout East Africa with funds supporting the candidate they felt was “more democratic.”

This is definitely a softer approach. Some might argue it could backfire.

Like in Afghanistan?