by Mukoma Wa Ngugi
Some of the most important threats to democracy in Africa are the International Republican Institute (IRI), USAID and other international NGO’s that are directly funded by the United States Congress. These are US foreign policy institutions that masquerade as philanthropic organizations of good-will all the while furthering American foreign policy. They are currently operating in over 40 African countries including Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.
A brief history of the IRI is as follows: In a bid to make the world friendlier to US interests, President Ronald Reagan (a supporter of Apartheid South Africa) called for the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983. The US, he claimed, needed an organization that would “foster the infrastructure of democracy–the system of a free press, unions, political parties universities–which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” As a result the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which spawned the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) were formed. NED receives about $50 Million from the US Congress. USAID requested a staggering $9.3 billion for 2007.
Out of these three organizations, the IRI and USAID are the most active in the promotion of a world safe for US Democracy. The IRI at first “focused on planting the seeds of democracy in Latin America,” according to its website. After the “Cold War, [it] has broadened its reach to support democracy and freedom around the globe.” USAID states that U.S. foreign aid helps in “furthering America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world.” Through what NED terms Consolidating Democracy, democratic principles and sovereignty are being violated. The NED, IRI and USAID attempt to unify opposition against a target government. They provide strategic and monetary support to the opposition. They also infiltrate university student organizations, women’s and youth groups, trade unions, teacher associations and other sectors of civil society which they then into supporting the opposition parties that they have effectively turned into a coalition. Worse than instigating a coup (a top down mechanism of change), the IRI and USAID infect the very blood lines of the country by affecting “regime change” through civil society.
Consolidating Democracy was successfully used in what the IRI refers to as the color revolutions in Ukraine (Orange), Georgia (Rose) and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip). In Haiti, democratically elected Aristide was overthrown using the same methods of unifying a rag-tag opposition and then mobilizing civil society behind it. But some countries such as Venezuela remain a failed target. The IRI’s 2005 Programs in Africa webpage states that it “provided training for political parties in Angola to establish a strong and stable political party system, and reinforce the national reconciliation process.” In Kenya it “worked with political parties to teach them how to develop positions and communicate them to voters.” In Nigeria they “focused on strengthening and preparing political parties for the 2007 elections and fostering partnerships between the parities and civil groups”. And in Liberia the IRI “sponsored the first-ever formal presidential candidate debates.”
In September 2006, when receiving the IRI 2006 Freedom Award together with Laura Bush, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf thanked the IRI which “was particularly active in promoting [the] elections.” She added that: “Very quickly an office was established. They came, they did workshops. They brought political groups together. They worked with the media. They educated. They instructed. They supported. They assisted the process.” She was in fact recounting the steps taken to consolidate democracy in Liberia by the foreign NGO.
President Mbeki has in the past questioned to what extent South African civil society makes independent choices. This concern can be extended to the continent. For example, a Boston Globe survey “identified 159 faith-based organizations that received more than $1.7 billion in USAID prime contracts, grants and agreements from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2005” as part of President Bush’s Faith Based Initiative. The implications here are obvious. USAID has also tied acceptance of Genetically Modified food to foreign aid even in terms of disaster as in the case with Zambia in 2002. Organizations such as Oxfam have showed that GM foods in Africa would in the long run be harmful to the small scale African farmer, lead to the destruction of local food economies, create a cycle of dependency and cause more acute starvation. It was an absurd case of stopping starvation today by creating conditions for more starvation tomorrow. And in even more direct interference with the internal economy and politics of African countries, USAID, has worked in concert with the World Bank to promote the now infamous Structural Adjustment Programs. But it is the hijacking of democratic processes by using civil society that should be of the most concern to Africans concerned with genuine democracy.
The IRI and USAID don’t have to win every African election they participate in – each parliamentarian and each political organization that gets a seat in the government becomes their lobbyist. In effect, they become shareholders in the new government. And as the American proverb says, “whoever pays the piper calls the tune.” To understand the absurdity of what Africans have accepted as a norm, imagine African countries financing a third party in the United States. And in addition they also train student leaders, trade unionists, journalists and the rest of American civil society how to oppose or overthrow the US Government. Americans wouldn’t stand for it.
African election processes should be monitored by the African Union, the African Peer Review Mechanism and the international community to ensure opposition candidates get equal time in the media. Campaign finance laws should make it illegal for both the opposition and the sitting government to accept foreign funds. Taxpayer money (with a reasonable ceiling) could even be allocated to opposition parties, depending on the number of legally registered voters.
Sitting governments in Africa have access to state money, state television and newspapers and easily attract business money to line their pockets, while the opposition feels compelled to take foreign money. But foreign money perpetuates the goals of the donor. As a matter of democratic principle, alternatives have to be found. With governments that don’t address debilitating inequality, growing majorities living in absolute poverty, and opposition parties whose foreign funding sets the political platform instead of focusing on the causes of the marginalized, the gains made by those who fought for democracy with content are under threat.