By Staci Strobl
With the violence in Gaza and Iraq, and the continued struggle for minority communities in the U.S. to be policed Constitutionally (Michael Brown and Eric Garner), Obama's meeting last week with leaders from Africa did not make it among the top news stories. But, the struggle for peace and social justice is at a critical stage for many of these countries, and indeed protestors demonstrated outside the White House to draw attention to the Administration's problematic economic partnerships with leaders that many consider dictators complete with overtures to their role in the U.S.-centric War on Terror. Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, for example, had a particularly strong presence at the demonstration.
Meanwhile, the leader of Republic of Congo, a relatively stable country in an unstable part of the world, was a less controversial White House guest, but nonetheless an interesting case in the tension between the alleged hope brought by a globalized economy (think Thomas Friedman) and the simultaneous legitimization of unfinished and problematic aspirations for peace and security.
Republic of Congo (sometimes called Congo-Brazzaville) should not be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), its neighbor. It is a former French colony that went on to be a Marxist state, but has since emerged, after some internal strife, as an allegedly developing democracy -- though the power of President Denis Sassou Nguesso overshadows the political system and human rights groups have criticized the lack of a free press. On the other hand, Nguesso is praised for environmental conservation efforts in relation to his country's rain forest, the second biggest in the world. He also has been instrumental in brokering a recent ceasefire in the civil war between DRC's President Joseph Kabila and opposition fighters. The country's economy is based on oil, forestry and agriculture.
Unfortunately, Republic of Congo remains an unsafe place for public dissent. Last year, two teachers who were organizing a strike in support of a campaign for higher public sector status, were arrested for their union efforts, including the use of Twitter. Several other union activist were arrested and one, Daniel Ngami, was forced to read a statement on television urging teachers to abandon their strike and return to work. Although these arrestees were released within days without charges, this treatment amounted to a punishment for exercising free speech.
Perhaps more disturbing was the expulsion of refugees from the country. In June, Republic of Congo forcibly expelled 130,000 DRC citizens that it claimed were the source of crime and insecurity. The United Nations, meanwhile, documented that the expulsion-- of people already battered and fleeing war in the DRC-- involved physical beatings and even sexual abuse by authorities. One Republic of Congo authority publicly expressed surprised at such "rude comments" from the U,N.
Despite these gross injustices within the country, Nguesso outlined his top priority in partnering with the U.S. as bringing American assistance and training to fight international terrorism and maintain national security from external threats:
"Make no mistake, we Congolese, we Africans, have to be responsible for our own security and, if required, fight for it... American could assist us all by effectively supporting a collective African response to these important challenges."
Although the discourse of international terrorism is an effective currency for getting at the ear, and pocketbook, of the U.S., the focus on national security and external threats fails to address, and even provides a distraction from, any more critical engagement with the political rights and freedoms of every day people. As we see in America's engagement with all sorts of leaders and regimes of marginal, or worse, human rights record (such as in Bahrain or Turkmenistan), it appears that geopolitical security, economic partnerships and the requisite diplomatic glad-handing acts as a legitimizing factor, effectively labeling the country a "good" one. Since most Americans probably are not familiar with Republic of Congo in any substantive way, the superficial thumbs-up become the whole story.
Some may argue, however, that there are worse leaders than Nguesso and much more fragile, war-torn countries in Africa. But should the international community lower its human rights standards when we focus on the continent of Africa? Has in effect Africa become a lost cause in the Western consciousness where we reward countries for at least maintaining a nation state on the barest, and often dictatorial levels? Where we reserve are most collective ire for the warlords therein, neglecting so many other of the world's bad actors? For example, some have criticized the International Criminal Courts potential bias in indicting mainly African individuals under the purported mission of prosecuting war crimes around the world.
Nguesso claims that his country harbors no political prisoners and has full. freedom of speech and the press, contrary to Amnesty International. However, a focus on national security and a vague fight against international terrorism (construed here as piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and being a bulwark against the spread of Boko Haram in the north), often turns into a blank check for regime to pursue other state-centric agendas at the expense of the people. Though to be fair, Nguesso also has asked for U.S. aid to bolster education in his country, to fight high levels of unemployment and poverty, none of the security-oriented talking points alluded to anything that may help the average Congolese person's access to justice, or to train and augment local police forces in protecting human rights. It appears that the discursive fusion of economic globalization and the fight against international global terrorism gets top billing.
Criminologists have a moral obligation to remain engaged in research and consciousness-raising about the everyday crime and access to justice in nations like Republic of Congo, who received national security-related aid and keep the dialogue focused on external threats. Part of a critical consciousness about lesser known, "other" places, of the world is not to merely cast them in large, geopolitical frames as sites for global terrorism, but also as places where people need police stations, courts, and sanitary prison conditions, where political dissent is criminalized where crimes occur (18.8 murders per 100,000 in 2004 and high rates of property crime). Rape during the civil war of 1993-2002 has left many women in a state of post-rape trauma, as described in an article by Hustache, et. al.
Sadly, mainstream Western criminology often doesn't reward research agendas which focus on everyday crime and justice in far flung corners of the world. Greater glory seems to go to criminologists willing to ride the wave of federal grants focusing on the same old international terror paranoia, feeding the notion that the rest of the world is a mere backdrop. But ultimately, even the most global of global of terrorism is embodied in everyday cities, towns and villages. A sober look at the more mundane crime problems in places like Republic of Congo would certainly not preclude a fight against terror, should it rear its head. And, it will allow a better glimpse into what crime and justice means for the people of Republic of Congo, beyond the national security interests of its president.