The symbolism for African-Americans of Nelson Mandela's visit to the United States raises important questions about the relationship of black Americans to Africa.
African Americans have been at the forefront of the international campaign against apartheid and the oppression that accompanies it in South Africa. Yet as an African working in the field of human rights in Africa, I am constantly struck, and saddened, by the extent to which a combination of factors have discouraged the majority of black Americans from speaking out about human rights abuses in sub-Saharan Africa. The result has been a tendency to defend African leaders uncritically, on the assumption that they represent the interests of their people in spite of compelling evidence that many of these regimes seized power by force, lack legitimacy in the eyes of their own people and maintain their rule through a ruthless security apparatus and the misuse of foreign aid.
In a recent visit to refugee camps in northern Senegal sheltering black Mauritanians forcibly expelled from their country, I was surprised by how often I heard the words Mandela and Soweto. There, the words express solidarity and pride in Mandela as the embodiment of integrity and for him as a black African. The words are also used to condemn the double standards employed by the world, including African governments and African Americans, to criticize South Africa's treatment of its black population while keeping quiet, and in some cases seeking to excuse, the violation of human rights elsewhere in Africa.
Black Americans are right to highlight the importance of Nelson Mandela as an African man all blacks can be proud of, in sharp contrast to the usual caricature of the African leader portrayed by the Western press: the barbaric and slightly "amusing" tropical demagogue personified by Idi Amin and more recently by Samuel Doe.
But African Americans should face the truth, as Africans must, that failure to hold accountable the Mengistus and Mobutus of Africa is to a large extent responsible for the havoc in Africa and consequently for the persistence of the stereotype that makes Mandela such a welcome relief. With regard to my own country, Somalia, which has been a close ally of the United States, I am frequently asked why black Americans do nothing to protest U.S. support of such a murderous regime.
Older African Americans complain that younger generations of blacks have lost touch with their political heritage, and they welcome the fact that Mandela's visit is rekindling the unity and spirit of the civil rights movement in this country. Many developments in Africa should serve as powerful reminders of that heritage, including the courageous efforts of a group of human rights lawyers in Kenya to uphold the integrity of the constitution.
Each year, hundreds of black Americans visit the famous island of Goree in Senegal, from which many of their ancestors began the painful voyage to enslavement. Yet, just a short distance north of Goree are villages and refugee camps providing sanctuary to thousands of blacks who ran away to escape slavery in Mauritania, some of them as recently as three months ago. African Americans who make the pilgrimage to Goree would learn a great deal about their heritage from talking to the people living in these villages.
Political and social reality in the United States makes it easy to understand why African Americans need to focus on the black struggle in South Africa and the symbolic importance of Mandela's visit. The same factors encourage blacks to dismiss stories critical about Africa as propaganda from white conservatives who have an agenda other than the improvement of human rights in black Africa.
The only way to ensure that such issues do not comfort those bent on proving the incapacity of black Africans to govern themselves is for Africans and black Americans to accept uncomfortable facts and to show, time and again, the political self-confidence that underlies the willingness to criticize other Africans. In April, Mandela did not shy away from accusations that some members of the ANC's military wing had condoned the torture of a number of young men in their ranks. His readiness to confront the question and accept responsibility for abuses did much to enhance the reputation of the ANC. It also strengthened his standing as a statesman and defused the issue, which could have embarrassed the organization severely if it had been dismissed as mere propaganda from the outset, as the allegations that SWAPO had tortured and detained some of its members were.
In celebrating Mandela's release and welcoming him across the country, African Americans are showing sympathy for the victims of government repression. To strengthen the impact of that solidarity, they need to send the same message across the entire African continent, making it clear that political persecution is unacceptable, irrespective of the color of the oppressor.
The writer, a Somali, is the executive director of Africa Watch, a New York based human rights organization.