YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stepped up to the podium to speak about rule of law and human rights, Africa's hopes and obstacles.
Behind him, seated in a row of red velvet chairs, were the leaders of Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Chad and the Republic of Congo. All had gained power through military coups, civil wars, inheritance or manipulated elections.
Over the past week, hundreds of dignitaries arrived in this Central African capital to celebrate 50 years of independence from colonial rule for Cameroon and 16 other African nations. But casting a shadow over the occasion was a sober acknowledgment that the actions of many of Africa's leaders were hurting the continent's image and potential, as well as tarnishing its successes.
Ahead of national elections today, Ethiopia — a close U.S. ally — has jailed political rivals and journalists, denied food aid to opposition supporters, and even killed opposition leaders, according to human rights activists.
Ethiopia, which receives nearly a billion dollars a year in U.S. assistance, has denied the allegations. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, once viewed as a new breed of reformist African leader, is expected to extend his 19-year rule.
"There are still too many instances of corruption, of elite capture of resources, of growing inequality in work and opportunity, abuse of electoral processes and selective adherence to the rule of law," said Annan, who is from the African country of Ghana. The leaders behind him nodded.
U.S. and Western officials also once hailed Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni as Africa's greatest hopes. But they, too, are accused of using repression to suppress dissent and extend their rule. Rwanda goes to the polls in August, but reports of a state crackdown on opposition parties and independent journalists are already surfacing.
Annan noted that South Korea and Sudan had the same per-capita income in the 1960s. South Korea is today one of the world's wealthiest countries and is "a respected member" of the international community, Annan said. Despite its oil wealth, Sudan is one of the poorest countries, and its president has been indicted by a war crimes tribunal.