Campaign for Justice or Big Oil’s Junta?
On January 15, 2004, former U.S. Senator Carol Mosely Braun announced her withdrawal from the 2004 Presidential campaign. She was embraced by fellow candidate Howard Dean as a new member of his campaign team who would take his message to the people. When asked if she had advice for the next African-American woman who dared to run for Chief of State, she quipped, "I would tell her to get comfortable shoes."
Good advice, maybe. But perhaps the former Ambassador needs lessons in how to walk in the shoes of the downtrodden of Nigeria.
Ms. Braun was severely criticized by Nigerian exiles living in the United States in 1996 when Democratic party officials let her address the Chicago convention right after she returned from a junket’ in Nigeria where she hobnobbed with one of Africa’s most brutal dictators, Gen. Sani Abacha.
On her $7,000, four-day August jaunt, Moseley-Braun met with the junta leader who jailed Nigeria’s elected president, arrested around 7,000 political opponents, and hanged playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa along with nine other environmental activists.
While in Nigeria, she met no pro-democracy opposition leaders. She appears never to have raised the issues of massive human-rights abuses with Abacha. Instead, she traveled around Saro-Wiwa’s home province of Ogoniland with the military, and according to Nigerian press reports chatted up the military governor who supervised the hangings.
She ignored State Department protocol, never telling them she was going, and undercut a White House mission by Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who had been sent to press Abacha to discuss human rights. By contrast, Nigerian state media reported that Sen. Moseley-Braun thought things in Nigeria were fine and dandy.
This trip was part of a pattern of dissent from the direction sought by many black Americans who were appalled by Nigerian human rights abuses. In 1996, she disagreed with the Congressional Black Caucus by opposing sanctions against Nigeria.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. said, "It is unfortunate that the senator’s trip gives the impression of lending legitimacy to an illegitimate regime in Nigeria."
Randall Robinson, founder of the Africa advocacy organization, Trans-Africa, noted, "I don’t see how someone who can argue and fight for sanctions against South Africa can argue against sanctions against Nigeria. This is an undemocratic, mean spirited, corrupt and cancerous regime."
Moseley Braun defended her trip last month in a radio interview over Pacifica Radio’s "Democracy Now" morning program, saying "I went to the funeral of a friend who had been assassinated, and the right wing was able to convert that into dancing with dictators and overturned a 25-year record of fighting for human rights. "
The friend of whom she refers to in that quotation was Ibrahim Abacha, the son of then-dictator Sani Abacha.
However, the Nigerian press was able to put definitive spin on the Senator’s ball of wax by showing photographs of her with the wife of the country’s brutal military strongman.
Newsweek magazine commented that "the meeting between Maryam Abacha and Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois was less a debate over democratic values than it was an occasion for tea and sympathy. ,
The Nigerian pro junta newspaper This Day reported, " "Caroline Moseley-Brown [sic] commended the role of the first lady in the support and promotion of Family Values,", "and the general improvement of the welfare of Nigerian families."
What family values? Abacha opponents both inside and outside Nigeria reject that argument. "The poor are already hurting because of this illegitimate regime," says Nwiza Muntahali, a spokesman for TransAfrica, a Washington-based prodemocracy lobbying group. "There’s no medicine, no books. Universities are shutting down. People can’t be hurt more than they already are."
Owens Wiwa, the brother of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a medical doctor who now lives in Canada, noted during the "Democracy Now" interview that after his brother was hanged that their mother and lots of Ogoni women were prevented from wearing black. " If you wore black, you were arrested and beaten and some of the women were raped.
The churches — there was an order that no church should mention or pray for the soul of ken and the other eight people who were killed."
The Nigerian trip became a major issue in Moseley-Braun’s reelection campaign in 1998 and she lost to Republican Peter Fitzgerald. However, she had a strong ally to help her continue her career in public service-Bill Clinton who had enjoyed her spirited lobbying on his behalf during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Clinton nominated her as Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa in 1998. Mike Fleshman, the Director of the Human Rights Commission on Africa commented during the "Democracy Now" interview last week that"all that President Clinton required of Abacha at that point was that he change costumes, and take off his military uniform and put on a suit."
Fleshman continued, "She(Moseley-Braun) did meet with the Nigerian military dictatorship. She brought a letter back to President Clinton. It was a back channel. The Nigerian military rulers used this to head off any threat of oil sanctions, which was, of course, the demand coming out of the progressive movement in the African American community in the United States at that point. She went to the Niger delta in 1996. It was an attempt to organize the military companies and the dictatorships.
"She didn’t meet with the environmental rights action or the oppressed suffering Ogoni people. She had no interest in that. .. she emerged in the U.S. Senate as the most prominent apologist for the regime and for a Clinton policy of complaining about human rights abuses and making the most shallow gestures towards democracy while keeping the oil business flowing, as usual. That was the real policy." Fleshman quoted a source in the State Department who said "military government is unfortunate in Nigeria, but what we need in the United States is not democracy and human rights, we need a firm hand to keep the oil companies stable."
Fleshman noted that during the Clinton administration, U.S. investment in the oil business about doubled. He stressed, "the volume of Nigerian oil entering the United States soared during that period. So, it was a time of unprecedented economic activity between Nigeria’s military rulers and their business partners in the big oil companies and the United States. Moseley Braun was part of that."
Ms. Moseley-Braun may not be such a good asset to the Howard Dean team. There may be stones in her shoes as she is forced to stride down a rocky road with pebbles, hewn of her own sledgehammer approach to human issues.