When President Obama goes to Africa at month’s end, the first African-American president will have a rare opportunity to spread American values to that continent. It would be a shame if his trip instead validated slavery.
By selecting Tanzania as one of three African countries that will receive a presidential visit, the Obama administration is honoring a country that has been in a multiyear diplomatic dispute with the United States over human trafficking by a Tanzanian official.
Specifically, a U.S. court in 2008 issued a $1 million judgment against a Tanzanian diplomat stationed in Washington because he and his wife held a young woman against her will as a domestic servant at their Bethesda, Md., home, refusing to pay her and abusing her for four years until she escaped. The diplomat, Alan Mzengi, didn’t contest the civil lawsuit and instead of paying the default judgment returned to Tanzania, where he, at last report, had been serving as an adviser to President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete — the very person Obama will meet with.
The State Department has tried to pressure Kikwete’s government to get the judgment paid and to sanction diplomats who engage in human trafficking. But the efforts have produced nothing but a derisory settlement offer, and the State Department has not moved to punish Tanzania.
And now Obama is rewarding Tanzania with a presidential trip. “An official visit from the U.S. president is a gift that is utterly inappropriate after a Tanzanian government official committed horrifying human rights violations just a few miles from the White House,” said Martina Vandenberg, a human rights lawyer who represented the victim, Zipora Mazengo, pro bono. Vandenberg, said Obama “would undermine all credibility on trafficking.”
A spokeswoman for the State Department’s African Affairs bureau said the case “continues to be of significant concern” and that “we are again engaging the government of Tanzania to do what is necessary to see that this matter is addressed.”
Obama has made human trafficking a centerpiece of his foreign-policy agenda, saying in a speech to the Clinton Global Initiative last year that “it is a debasement of our common humanity” that “must be called by its true name, modern slavery. … When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving — that’s slavery.”
Unfortunately, the administration’s actions haven’t always matched high-minded words, as has been the case with targeted assassinations, Chinese dissidents, Guantanamo Bay, domestic surveillance and other challenges to human rights and civil liberties. The Tanzania case appears to be an instance of business interests trumping human rights. The Chinese president visited the East African country a few months ago, and American businesses are eager to get in on the region’s petroleum supplies and other natural resources before China becomes dominant there.
Beyond that calculation, the administration has been reluctant to use the few tools it has to combat human trafficking by diplomats, who are protected from some prosecutions.
After federal authorities said they were investigating a possible case of human trafficking in McLean, Va., by a Saudi diplomat, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry citing the Mzengi case and questioning why State seldom seeks waivers of diplomatic immunity for offenders and has not used its power to block visas for servants of diplomats from offending countries.
In the Mzengi case, a federal judge found that the diplomat and his wife confiscated Mazengo’s passport and forced her to work 17-hour days. They refused her medical care (she couldn’t wear shoes because of an untreated ingrown toenail and was once forced to shovel snow barefoot) and wouldn’t let her leave the house without an escort. After the $1,059,349 judgment, the woman said she’d accept a settlement that included only her back wages of $170,000; the Tanzanians eventually offered $22,000 with an iffy promise of small future payments from Mzengi.
Mzengi returned to Tanzania a few months after the judgment and got a position advising Kikwete, according to a 2010 Time magazine report, citing an academic adviser of Mzengi. Embassy officials didn’t return my phone calls.
According to cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials formally told the Tanzanians that diplomats such as Mzengi should “face appropriate sanction.” The Tanzanians were also told the matter could call into question Tanzania’s “commitment to combating human trafficking.”
The U.S. officials wrote that they made it clear “that the Tanzanian government cannot ignore our requests for information and assistance.”
Or can it?
DANA MILBANK is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.