Homage to Hillary Clinton's message to dictators

By Eskinder Nega / June 18, 2011
The list of distinguished American Secretaries of State is a long one. James Madison acceded to the Presidency after serving as the nation’s fifth Secretary of State in the early years of the nineteenth century. His track records on both counts were remarkable. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, was the lonely visionary who saw wisdom in the acquisition of Alaska from Russia. America’s longest serving Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, received a Nobel Peace Prize for his eleven grueling years in Franklin D Roosevelt’s administration. George Marshall, who only served between 1947 and 1949, was critical in mobilizing support for Second World War devastated Europe. His were the most consequential two years of any Secretary of State (Foreign Minister) anywhere in the world.

But still, their many merits notwithstanding, latent Presidential potential was obvious in only a handful of them. Had he been born in the US instead of Germany, Henry Kissinger could conceivably have risen to the Presidency. Colin Powel had both the personal standing and political momentum in 2000 but fatefully pulled back from his rendezvous with history.

Hillary Clinton is also incontrovertibly Presidential material. And unlike Powell she had sought her moment in history with passion. Unfortunately, though, perhaps more because of the disastrous legacy of her husband’s second term in office, it was not meant to be.

Nevertheless, her presidential-level charisma, so to speak, endures undiminished as ever. It was discernible as she greeted Haile-Mariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s nominal Foreign Minister, with picture-perfect blend of personal courtesy and the stately poise of an emissary of a superpower when she arrived in Addis. It was no less evident as she calmly walked past a roomful of senior diplomats from 53 African countries to take a seat next Jean Ping, Chairperson of the African Union. And it was manifest when she confidently assumed center stage as America’s first Secretary of State to address the AU, which turned out to be one of her best speeches ever.

Inspirational speeches are supposed to be the preserves of activists and politicians. Foreign policy professionals have always instinctively stirred clear from them. Granted the rare one or two good speeches once in a while, bland but reassuringly safe messages are the preferred trademark of State Department speech writers. These words could not have been theirs entirely. What appear to be Clinton’s lengthy insertions are almost patently decipherable.

“I am pleased to come to the African Union today as the first United States Secretary of State to address you,” she said. But the timing could have been better. This was in fact the speech that needed to be---but was not---delivered at the last summit of AU Heads of States, held in the immediate aftermath of popular uprisings in the Middle East.

“Today, I would like to briefly discuss three areas,” she began almost immediately. “They are democracy, economic growth, and peace and security.” But had it not been for the death of Bin Laden, security would have come first not last. After a decade in the wilderness, American foreign policy is finally limping back into the traditional mainstream where the link between US interests and the promotion of democratic values is duly acknowledged. There is no more rational for the singular dominance of the war on terror.

Thus: “First, democracy,” proclaimed a proud Hillary to Africa.

And she went on to articulate what is probably the world’s most understated fact of the last two decades: “More than half the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have embraced democratic, constitutional, multi-party rule,” she said. The widely touted cases were then cited: Botswana, Ghana, and Tanzania. But for those cognizant of Africa’s many trails and tribulations, it was the inclusion of Niger, Guinea, Nigeria and Kenya in the list that brought tears of joy. The tide has finally turned against despots in Africa, as it had already done so in Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe. Only the horn of Africa remains a regional holdout in the continent.

Hillary had a message for the diehards, in her own words, “the leaders in Africa and elsewhere who hold on to power at all costs, who suppress dissent, who enrich themselves and their supporters at the expense of their own people.” What thoughts were racing in the mind of her host, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who has been in power for twenty years absent a single free election, as she uttered those words is best left for imagination. But to the discrete delight of conspiracy theorists, the lights had gone out on her just as she began to speak of democracy.

Freedom is a universal value, she asserted. There is no room for imaginary national exceptionalism for her. “If you believe that the freedoms and opportunities that we speak about as universal should not be shared by your own people, men and women equally, or if you do not desire to help your own people work and live with dignity,” she said with visible passion, “you are on the wrong side of history, and time will prove that.”

These are actually words of wisdom from recent experience in Egypt. She knows what it means to be on the wrong side of history. Not even the might of a superpower was enough to avert an idea whose time had come. And democracy is the idea whose time has come all over Africa.

It’s time for liberty, fraternity and equality. It’s time to stop the killings. It’s time to free political prisoners. It’s time to really ban torture. It’s time for free elections, freedom of expression and association. It’s time for political pluralism, tolerance of religious and cultural diversity. It’s time to end hate. It’s time to break free from the cycle of violence. It’s time to end rampant, semi-official corruption. It’s time for transparency. It’s time to be part of the international mainstream. It’s time to believe even in the impossible.

In other words, it’s time to hope in Africa. Freedom is no more a possibility but an imperative. The time has indeed come.

We shall be free!
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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: serk27@gmail.com


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