Why Does President Obama Think Aiding Repressive African Regimes Is A Good Thing?

David Williams President, Taxpayers Protection Alliance
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Last month President Barack Obama hosted the U.S.-Africa leaders summit in Washington, D.C. Beneath the fanfare of goodwill, the summit saw three of Africa’s longest serving autocrats Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Yahya Jammeh and Paul Biya – the presidents of Equatorial Guinea, Gambia and Cameroon, respectively, all with decidedly checkered human rights records – be honored guests of America at a state dinner held during the summit.

President Obama also saw the summit as an effort to paint the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank as Africa’s new best friend. Two big mistakes in one summit.

The first criticism was leveled at the Obama administration from across the political spectrum over the wisdom of feting some of these men. After all, Gambia’s Jammeh has threatened to “cut off the head” of gay people in his country. Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea since overthrowing his own uncle in a coup in 1979 and the U.S. Department of State has accused his government of everything from “unlawful killings” to “corruption” to “suspected trafficking in persons.”

Questions about why the United States Government saw fit to wine and dine these individuals are entirely valid, but they only scratch the surface. A few taxpayer-funded bottles of pinot noir are nothing compared to the billions of dollars heading for Africa from the U.S. Export-Import Bank of the United States, many of them destined for countries run by similarly suspect leaders.

Even though the Ex-Im Bank only supports about two percent of total American exports, the president and his allies painted it as essential to maintaining trade links with Africa. The Bank is facing criticism on Capitol Hill as its charter comes up for renewal this September. Lawmakers are faulting Ex-Im as little more than crony capitalism, given that some 60 percent of the financing they provide goes to the same ten large corporations.

But when President Obama spoke at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, the same day as the dinner, he specifically called out the Bank’s critics in Congress, saying that renewing Ex-Im’s charter was “the right thing to do.” Also that same day, the Bank itself announced that they had “authorized a record $1.7 billion in financing” for deals with sub-Saharan African nations in the past 10 months and had pledged $3 billion over the next two years. A brief glance at the Bank’s 2013 annual report shows where previous Ex-Im financing, backed by American taxpayer dollars, has ended up.

Nearly $16 million went to Nigeria, whose president, Goodluck Jonathan, this January signed the “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act,” which Amnesty International called “a throwback to the worst of the military rule-era when a range of human rights were treated with contempt.”

Ex-Im has also provided financing for deals in Cameroon and Kenya. Cameroon’s government, run by Paul Biya since 1982, was accused of slaughtering 100 protestors in 2009 while Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is scheduled to go on trial at the International Criminal Court in October on charges that he incited election violence in 2007 in which over 1,000 were killed.

Ex-Im Bank was proud to report in 2013 that it was open for business in Rwanda. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has effectively held power since 1994, is thought to be behind the “disappearance” of numerous journalists and opposition politicians. Finally, the Bank’s announcement during the U.S.-Africa summit trumpeted their signing of a “memorandum of understanding” with Angola. That country’s leader since 1979, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is known to have what the Guardian calls “an iron grip on all aspects of government.”

It makes no sense that the Export-Import Bank should continue to provide taxpayer-backed financing for deals in countries run by autocrats. A continued relationship with these African nations is even more confusing considering Ex-Im was quick to suspend their dealings with Russia over the escalation of the Ukraine crisis. Vladimir Putin’s record on human rights looks almost exemplary compared to those of some leaders in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ex-Im’s continuing relationships with these countries and President Obama’s continued support for these relationships, bring up serious questions of judgment. If anything, it strengthens calls by members of Congress that the Bank’s charter be allowed to expire. Americans should not have to watch their tax dollars be proudly used to subsidize repressive foreign regimes.

David Williams is the president of the Taxpayer Protection Alliance.