The double standards of African diplomacy

On voting day, members of the opposition were boiled in oil and fed to crocodiles. The event was streamed live on YouTube and the local newspaper ran a special edition with photos of the executions.

Monitors from the African Union said they saw nothing out of the ordinary, and ruled the election free and fair.

Okay, no oil or crocs, however, if you’re blind or near-sighted, the AU sounds a good place to work … but not the only one. Countries usually big on democracy, including the US, France, Britain and, alas, South Africa, welcome their friends back to power, no matter how dubious the vote.     

It was Djibouti’s turn last Friday, 8 April, and before counting had finished, President Ismail Guelleh claimed victory with a staggering 87% of the vote.     

At a press conference, leader of the AU delegation, Mr Soumana Sako – a former finance minister from Mali – noted the problems:

  • Instructions for voting were not always displayed at booths in line with local law 
  • Names were not always checked against the roll
  • Some of the ballot boxes weren’t sealed before being sent for counting 
  • At a number of points, opposition officials were barred from entry 
  • Election officers were seen wearing T-shirts for the ruling party     

Then, as if none of this had happened, he endorsed the result. “The mission salutes the Republic of Djibouti for the proper handling of this ballot,” he said, describing it as, “inclusive, free and sufficiently transparent to be considered as a credible reflection of the will of the Djiboutian people.”     

In truth, Djibouti is a den of misery. The opposition has largely been forced into exile and, collectively, those who stayed got just 13% of the take, some claiming that soldiers moved between voting stations, forcing their way inside and casting endless ballots for Mr Guelleh.     

There has been no confirmation of this, but days before the poll, Le Monde in Paris published a letter signed by 15 of the world’s leading human rights lawyers who warned that “killing, exile or forced disappearance” was the fate of anyone who stood up to Mr Guelleh.     

On December 21, police opened fire on a party of demonstrators near the capital, killing between 12 and 30 and wounding others. The number of casualties has been hard to confirm because no journalists or independent investigators have been allowed near the site, and the only blogger to publish a picture of the shooting was arrested.     

Radio, TV and newspapers are under state control and, on April 2, a BBC crew who had come to cover the vote was deported after interviewing an opposition candidate.     

If this was Zimbabwe, the USA and EU would have gone crazy. Instead, the White House issued bland statement about its “strong partnership” and “shared interests” and a pledge to help “build a more prosperous, secure, and democratic future”.     

Both Washington and Paris have a military base in Djibouti, and Mr Guelleh is an old and trusted ally the fight against al-Qaida and al-Shabaab.     

No wonder Mugabe talks of double standards.     

Last Sunday saw elections in Chad where Idriss Déby wants a fifth term. The constitution has a limit of two but, like Guelleh, he used his numbers in parliament to change that.     

Counting will take another week but, whatever the result, Déby has been a rock in the war with Boko Haram, and the major powers will be happy to see him continue after 26 years in office.     

Rival candidates were not allowed to check if ballot boxes were empty before the start of voting and the opposition filed reports of fraud and ballot stuffing.     

In their latest index, Reporters Without Borders rate press freedom in Chad as worse than Zimbabwe.     

The AU endorsed the poll, but they’re on shaky ground because Déby was recently elected to take over the chair from Robert Mugabe.     

Neighbouring Nigeria relies on Chad’s support in their own battles with Boko Haram, and the regional group ECOWAS is unlikely to question a result that keeps the old regime in place.     

Like Djibouti, Chad is a former French colony, but Nigeria is Britain’s largest aid recipient at close on a quarter-billion pounds every year, much of it spent on fighting terror, so don’t hold your breath for comment from London.     

We’ve seen this with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Both have proved vital to the allied war machine in the Middle East and Afghanistan, so their own faults are overlooked.     Angola is no longer at war except with secessionist rebels in the Cabinda enclave, cut off from the rest of the country by the Congo River. But it is Africa’s second-largest producer of oil – reason enough to stay in Luanda’s good books.     

President Eduardo dos Santos (73) is accused of leading one of the most corrupt governments in Africa and has been in power since 1979. The next election is two years away though the ruling MPLA always wins by a landslide. But Angola was in the news last month when 17 young men were jailed for terms of between two and eight years for reading a book about democracy.     

Amnesty International has adopted the 17 as prisoners of conscience, but comment from other governments, including South Africa, has been muted.     

Polls in Angola, Mozambique, even Zambia, fall short of South Africa’s robust system that puts us on a par with the world’s great democracies.     

But if a future South African government ran a dodgy election and cheated its way back to power, would the world object?     

Like Djibouti, we hold a strategic position, and while there’s not much oil, we are a supplier of much-needed minerals.     

Nigeria was briefly the biggest economy in Africa when oil topped $130 dollars a barrel; now with the price around $40 in a country where crude makes up 80 per cent of GDP, that’s probably not the case.     

South Africa dominates the continent economically, militarily and at the UN, and with the AU was happy to sign off dodgy elections elsewhere, they’re unlikely to lead the chorus here.     

Africa has more functioning democracies than at any time in history. The press is at its most free, and only a handful of despots remain, safe in the knowledge that fellow leaders will leave them alone.     

Djibouti, Chad, Angola’s jailed book club and a growing risk of civil war after the disputed election last month in Congo Brazzaville: does anyone care?     

Maybe they would if the president fed his rivals to the crocodiles, but I doubt it.



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