Migrant crisis scares the West into the arms of foreign strongmen
by PETER DOERRIE
There was a brief period of time when it looked like openly fraternizing with authoritarian rulers might go out of style, especially in Africa.
The Cold War’s end suddenly obviated the West’s need to prop up local allies — and Russia simply didn’t have the means anymore to do the same thing. The brutal civil wars of the 1990s and 2000s brought the deadly consequences of dictatorship to the fore, and a new crop of African rulers promised to usher in multi-party democracy.
In stark contrast to the situation in the Middle East, most African countries weren’t strategically significant. To top it all off, the Arab Spring discredited Western foreign policy in North Africa — specifically, the hemisphere’s dealings with the likes of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
Western governments promised to have seen the error of their ways and solemnly swore to really push for democracy in Africa, and without foul compromises this time around.
Well, those feelings were short-lived. With right-wing populists breathing down the necks of European governments due to the migrant crisis and defense companies in dire need of sales after the financial crisis massacred Western defense budgets, any autocrat who has something to offer is back in the game.
The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, made clear as much in a secret meeting between the ambassadors of its member states. “The Commission emphasized the sensibility of the contents, which can’t be allowed to be made public under any circumstances,” stated the protocol of the German delegation, which has been leaked to German public television.
The topic of the meeting was the European Union’s relationship, in light of the refugee crisis, with Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. The delegations discussed how more immigrants could be repatriated from Europe back to East Africa.
his is despite the fact that East Africa’s governments are among the most authoritarian in Africa. Eritrea is a virtual prison state, with human rights and press freedoms on par with North Korea. Sudan is ruled by a military elite possessed of Islamist ideology and wages several brutal civil wars simultaneously, some of which have clear genocidal aims.
The Ethiopian regime has eliminated all parliamentary opposition and brutally cracked down on protests by the Oromo minority, leading to at least 140 deaths, in addition to hacking into the computers of Ethiopian journalists based in the United States.
And Somalia is still only the shadow of a state, with large parts of the country controlled by the Islamist Al Shabab and rival militias.
That didn’t stop the Commission from advocating an “incentives” package for Ethiopia in return for accepting refugees. Sudan may be struck from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which would give its diplomats greater freedom of movement, despite the outstanding warrant for Pres. Omar Al Bashir on charges of genocide and other war crimes.
Germany, represented by Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economy Sigmar Gabriel, also plays an important role in legitimizing the Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Human-rights organizations claim that more people have been unlawfully imprisoned and tortured under El Sisi than under his predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
But on his third visit to Egypt within a year, Gabriel — who was accompanied by a large delegation of German business leaders — called El Sisi “impressive.”
Gabriel’s spokesman later claimed that the minister’s comment was meant to show his respect for El Sisi’s willingness to discuss his government’s human-rights record. And indeed, Gabriel highlighted German reservations about the treatment of the Egyptian opposition several times before and after the trip.
But it’s hard to imagine that El Sisi suffered any sleepless nights over this light scolding when Germany is, at the same time, selling Egypt submarines and high-tech equipment for border surveillance. Egypt is also a major military customer for defense matériel from France and the United States.
Western powers also court several regimes in West Africa. France is providing massive military support to the regimes of Chad and Cameroon, important allies in the war on terror in the Sahel. Both countries are ruled by presidents with tenures exceeding 25 years and are frequently accused of using their security forces to stifle opposition.
Chad also played a regrettable role in the collapse of the Central African Republic in 2013, as Chadian forces provided tacit support for northern rebels.
Western foreign policy, it seems, is again fully securitized. Islamic terrorism and mass migration have supplanted communism as perceived existential threats to Western societies, and the reaction of Western leaders has been consistent — local strong men are trusted with containing and suppressing trouble, justified with their ability to provide “stability.”
The West ignores the fact that these strong men can only provide stability by suppressing and, in the long term, alienating their own populations … with potentially disastrous consequences, including for Western interests.
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