Nigerian kidnapping underscores limits of U.S. power in Africa


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Hospital Director Dolores Nembunzu, right, and Sister Mary Joseph past patients at the Fistula Clinic at St. Joseph's Hospital, funded by USAID, in Kinshasa on Sunday. (Pool/Reuters)

Secretary of State John
F. Kerry just spent a week touting economic growth and opportunity in Africa, and the power of young entrepreneurs and political activists to transform their continent and reap its many bounties.

Kerry traveled to places few Americans could readily find on a map, including Kinshasa, Congo, and Luanda, Angola, with a mostly upbeat message about what the United States can do in partnership with Africa, and what Africa can do for itself.

His trip was little noticed at home, however, and was immediately overshadowed by one of the many bad-news stories coming out of Africa lately — the tale of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls that has outraged Americans and led President Obama to personally pledge action.

The mass abduction of the more than 200 schoolgirls has refocused attention on the spread of radical Islamist ideology on the continent. But it has also underlined the limits of U.S. influence and fed the narrative, common in Africa, that Washington only cares about Africa in times of crisis or insecurity.

“In choosing security over democracy in Ethiopia, U.S. will get neither,” @saidtahiro told Kerry during a Twitter discussion Friday meant to showcase his trip and an Obama initiative to recruit a corps of young Africans for leadership and public service.

There is little doubt that America is increasingly concerned about the security climate in Africa. Two decades after Osama bin Laden left Sudan, ethnic conflicts and security vacuums are multiplying
in the region. Insurrections
in Mali, Libya, Algeria and
the Central African Republic, among other places, have sown worry that al-Qaeda affiliates or others bent on harm to Americans will be able to use Africa as a base.

In response, the Obama administration has greatly expanded its counterterrorism operations and partnerships over the past six years. In the process, it has often joined forces with anti-democratic or authoritarian regimes.

Seeding economic development and trying to promote U.S. businesses competing with China, the Obama administration has also facilitated or promoted deals in Nigeria, Uganda, South Sudan and elsewhere that seem to illustrate Washington’s willingness to work with governments accused of oppression or corruption.

“We firmly believe that the United States is Africa’s natural partner,” Kerry said last week in Ethiopia. “One thing we know for sure, the United States could be a vital catalyst in this continent’s continued transformation, and President Obama is committed to that transformation.”

Despite a warm welcome for Kerry on his first extended trip to Africa as secretary, there is wide cynicism about the administration’s real goals for Africa.

Kerry spoke in Ethi­o­pia on May 3, designated as world press freedom day. The State Department brought its own WiFi to the event at a botanical garden outside Addis Ababa so that staffers could send tweets and other online updates about the speech in a country that limits Internet usage and tries to stifle Twitter and other online exchanges.

Kerry met with Ethiopia’s prime minister and other leaders and urged greater openness, he said later.

The secretary did not visit Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and a longtime, if prickly, U.S. security and political partner.

While the administration has offered the government there assistance to help rescue the teenage girls who were snatched from a northern boarding school, Nigeria has been a particularly stark illustration of the administration’s challenges in addressing security concerns on the continent.

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to the country, said President Goodluck Jonathan has resisted U.S. offers of help in routing Boko Haram, the Ni­ger­ian militant Islamist group that abducted the girls.

Jonathan and his Christian-dominated government in the capital, Abuja, also brushed off American advice about combining a military crackdown against Boko Haram with economic and political outreach to disaffected Muslims in the northern areas where the group operates with impunity, Africa specialists said.

“The recent ramped-up security assistance to Nigeria is a response to global public outcry which shamed the government in Abuja into accepting help,” said J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council.

“Up to now, to be fair to the Obama administration, it could only do so much without trampling on Nigerian sensitivities,” Pham said.

The administration largely acceded to those sensitivities during Obama’s first term, when an extended debate took place about whether to label Boko Haram as a terrorist group.

The designation has little more than symbolic meaning, since Boko Haram does not operate or raise significant money in the United States. But the Ni­ger­ian government and its supporters argued that the label would only raise Boko Haram’s profile and fundraising abilities.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton opted not to apply the label; Kerry did so late last year.

Many commentators and experts have faulted Obama for speaking idealistically about making the world a better place but being too slow to take action. But in reflective remarks this past week, the president said the best response to humanitarian and other crises is not always clear or even within American power to address.

“I have this remarkable title right now — president of the United States,” Obama said during a speech in California. “And yet every day . . . I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria.”

The only solution, he suggested, was to “think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment.”

Sudarsan Raghavan in Nairobi and Zachary A. Goldfarb in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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