When asked in a recent Democratic Presidential debate to describe a mistake in her career, candidate Carol Moseley Braun described a politically “devastating” trip she took to Nigeria in 1996 under the dictatorship of Sani Abacha. Moseley Braun came under criticism for supporting the regime. Abacha had executed activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 others months before. In the first extensive interview she has done on this in years, we speak with Amb. Moseley Braun as well as the late Ken Saro-Wiwa’s brother Dr. Owens Wiwa and Africa researcher Mike Fleshman. [Includes transcript]
Unfortunately, shoring up dictators has been a bi-partisan affair for years. Certainly in the case of Nigeria. The internationally renowned playwright and Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian junta in 1995, when Bill Clinton was president. Saro-Wiwa’s crime was organizing an international campaign against the Shell oil corporation for the environmental devastation it was causing in the Niger Delta and its close relationship with the military junta. The Clinton administration did not intervene to prevent the execution of Saro-Wiwa and 8 other Ogoni leaders, instead opting to aggressively pursue its advocacy of US corporate involvement in the country. The current National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice was on the board of the Chevron corporation for more than a decade, including in May 1998 when Chevron was involved in the killing of indigenous villagers in the Niger Delta. Rice’s involvement with Chevron was so valued by the corporation that she had a Chevron oil tanker named after her.
Today, we take a look at the role of former U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Carol Moseley Braun. It was the issue of Nigeria that many believe caused Moseley Braun to lose her reelection bid.
In August 1996, Moseley Braun traveled to Nigeria and attended the funeral of Ibrahim Abacha, the son of then-dictator Sani Abacha. She said at the time “I was on a holiday and I wanted to see [Sani Abacha’s wife.] I have a personal relationship with her. I wanted to express my sympathy because her son was killed.” During the trip, she also met with the dictator Abacha.
In Sunday’s Iowa Democratic Presidential debate, when all of the candidates were asked to describe a mistake in their careers, she responded:
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.
Having worked on every human rights issue from the time I got into public life, to see that one funeral visit, memorial service visit, turned into the kind of political issue that it was for me was really devastating.
What did I learn? I learned: have press conferences before you go on any kind of trip outside of Illinois.
We caught up with Moseley Braun a few weeks ago and spoke with her about her trips to Nigeria.
- Amb. Carol Moseley Braun
- Mike Fleshman, journalist and researcher. In 1999, Fleshman, then the Human Rights Coordinator for The Africa Fund in New York, traveled to the River Niger Delta oil fields in southern Nigeria to witness, at first hand, the impact of the petroleum industry on local communities and the environment.
- Dr. Owens Wiwa, executive director of African Environmental and Human Development Agency ( AFRIDA). Owens Wiwa is the brother of the late Nigerian writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was the president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian military government on November 10, 1995. Owens Wiwa escaped Nigeria just days after his brother’s execution.
AMY GOODMAN: We bring you the conversation I recently had with Ambassador Moseley-Braun about the controversy over — during the period that she was a Senator in the U.S. Senate, her relationship with the Sonny Abacha family and the dictator himself. Before we go to that conversation, I want to introduce our two guests. Mike Fleshman is with us. He is the former Human Rights Director of the American Committee on Africa. And joining us on the line from Canada is Dr. Owens Wiwa. He is the brother of the famed Agoni leader, Ken Saro Wiwa, who was executed along with eight other minority rights activists in Nigeria on November 10, 1995. I wanted to start with you, Mike Fleshman, if you could give us a little context about the controversy that Ambassador Moseley-Braun herself referred to when asked about the mistakes in her life. Each presidential candidate was asked if they wanted to name one and though she didn’t say directly the words 'Nigeria' or 'Abacha', she said she was sorry she went to Nigeria without holding a news conference before. Can you give us a little background?
MIKE FLESHMAN: Well, the problem was not that she didn’t hold a news conference but that she went in the immediate aftermath of the brutal execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and the other Agoni environmental and human rights activists. It was a secret trip. She went with her fiancé and former campaign manager at that time, a gentlemen named Kosi Mathews, who had been employed by the Abacha dictatorship as a lobbyist in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: A registered lobbyist in the United States?
MIKE FLESCHMAN: That is correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Ken Saro Wiwa’s brother is on the line with us, Dr. Owens Wiwa. You heard the comment of Ambassador Moseley-Braun at the presidential debate. Can you give your response when she said she was accused by the right of dancing with dictators?
OWENS WIWA: Well, I don’t know that she was accused by the right, but it is very depressing and unfortunate that Carol Moseley-Braun used her position as the most visible African-American female politician at that time to attempt to prop up the brutal military dictatorship of Abacha. Previous to that visit, we tried to convince her, along with other members of the black caucus, that Abacha is a brutal — is a murderer, and should not be propped up. He’s a murderer that was supported by the transnational oil corporations. They were bribing him, were giving him money to continue to bear weapons and also rape women! They used rape as a weapon to stop women activists who were trying to protect their land and their farms. For her to have gone to Nigeria at that time and giving good publicity to this moderate dictator — the precedent at that time is still the precedent now. She has not apologized to the Nigerian women, to the African people she disgraced by visiting a brutal military dictator.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to the conversation I had with her. We already played, a week or two ago, her comments on ABC pulling their reporters from her campaign, as well as the campaigns of Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich. And we had Congressman Kucinich and Ambassador Moseley-Braun commenting on that. I went on to ask her further questions. She was at an airport at the time we were talking.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the long-time government relationship with Saddam Hussein; shoring him up, providing him with — normalizing business relations, Donald Rumsfeld going as an envoy in 1983, 1984, the famous handshake with Saddam at the time it was known that he had used poison gas.
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: Well, you know, and again, it just goes to the failed diplomacy, the failed international policy that the — that these interests have indeed. These people are — it’s just greed versus need. It has nothing to do with the security of the American people. It has to do with pursuing their own interests, and I think frankly that that is I think the American people are disgusted, not only disappointed, but disgusted with the specter of such thoughtless abuse of our fighting men and women, thoughtless abuse of the American people and of our constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ambassador Moseley-Braun, if you were President of the United States, how could voters be sure that you wouldn’t do the same thing, given what happened in 1996, the secret trip to Nigeria, and the meeting with the Dictator, Sonny Abacha, which Amnesty International called — well, a major human rights violator, Randall Robertson of TransAfrica called 'deeply troubling', right before that Democratic convention in Chicago that you played a major role in? That close relationship you and your campaign director had with Sonny Abacha, he being a paid agent for the Nigerian government.
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: Well, you know, I think that that is among one of the biggest lies that Karl Rove was able to spin, and when you look at my record in public life going back to 20 years, really, from my days in the State Legislature, fighting against apartheid in South Africa, fighting for human rights, I had a very, very long and deep record of human rights advocacy that I would have expected could have withstood Karl Rove spinning my going to my friend’s funeral. But it didn’t withstand it, and I lost the public relations battle on that. I attended a funeral. This record this has been a point of public record so many times, it’s almost bordering on tiresome to talk about it anymore. But I went to a funeral and it got turned into a secret trip visiting with — dancing with dictators . Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was not true then and it has never been true. It was the function of a political smear campaign that I endured as a function, I guess, of being the — of challenging the system and being the only person of color in the Senate. And that I lost those public relations wars — Quite frankly, I think one of the great disappointments for me is that people with whom I had fought for so many years, that they did not bother to get the facts to ask my — to ask me, to investigate and find out the truth. Happily, the truth did finally come out when I was confirmed as Ambassador to New Zealand and Salmor, and it was investigated thoroughly when Jesse Helms tried to stop my confirmation. Once the truth was out, I got a 98-2 vote on confirmation and received our nation’s highest security clearances. And so, having said that, I think that, you know, it’s not enough to say the truth always comes out because sometimes it doesn’t come out when you want it to or in a timely enough matter, but my commitment to human rights is unabashed and uncompromised. My integrity has been unscathed by the efforts — the character assassination and the smear campaigns that were waged against me as senator. I feel very comfortable with my — with my — with offering myself to the American people as a leader of principle and of integrity and of courage. And again, my 20 years in public life and my record of standing by my word, I think, speaks more loudly than Karl Rove’s ads.
AMY GOODMAN: I guess, I mean, when you say that you felt that progressive allies that you had had, you were disappointed that they didn’t get the full story at that time —
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: They didn’t bother.
AMY GOODMAN: But even your own chief of staff, the third to quit, Eydie Wilson, said she did not realize you had taken that trip, and ultimately quit over it, so your inner circle also —
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: Again, without getting you know, I’m not going go into the weeds about who of my employees ten years ago — But let me say this, that has nothing to do with Eydie Wilson leaving my office. And in fact, it wasn’t that Eydie Wilson left. In fact, we parted ways over something entirely different. And for me to defend going to a funeral and telling my ex-chief of staff that I was going to somebody’s funeral seems to me to defy logic. And again, and I’m pushing back and I know that, but I suggest you go to my website, carolforpresident.com and take a look at the source documents that are there. Take a look at all of the testimony before the Senate — the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You know it really was hideous that — that, again, the people with whom and for whom I had fought for so long did not bother to even make a phone call, did not bother to ask me or anyone associated with me — currently associated with me at the time that it happened, and let Karl Rove — he made almost $1 million smearing me. $800,000 was filed as an amendment by the way. They wouldn’t even file the papers at the time of the campaign. They filed an amendment to Peter Fitzgerald’s campaign disclosures after the election. I only found it out as part of my confirmation hearing how much money he had made in Illinois.
AMY GOODMAN: But Ambassador, we’re talking two years before that election, May, 1996, when you appeared before the Foreign Relations Committee, saying I’m testifying on behalf of democracy in Nigeria.
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: That’s correct.
AMY GOODMAN: This, at a time, May, 1996, that was about half a year after Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by Sonny Abacha, the man who you repeatedly visited with. I think it’s something like seven trips there. It had nothing to do with Karl Rove two years later.
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: I don’t know where you are coming from with this, miss, but I tell you something, none of that is true. And I wish that you would go and check your facts. You know, I have had to deal with more lazy journalism in the context of this issue and others —
AMY GOODMAN: But you said check the Foreign Relations Committee testimony. That’s what you said —
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: If you will let me finish. Number one, I have not had seven trips to Nigeria. Okay. That is a matter of public record. I have turned over my passport to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Seven trips to Nigeria is what Peter Fitzgerald and Karl Rove had to say about me. That was not true. It sounds to me —
AMY GOODMAN: How many trips did you take?
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: — It seems to me it would be appropriate for anyone who wants to be critical of my human rights record to look at the issue of whether or not I had dealings with the Nigerian government. I did not have dealings with the Nigerian government on any level. This is all i can say. I was a personal friend of Ibrahim Abacha, who was assassinated. I went to Ibrahim Abacha’s funeral. That was part and parcel–I have numerous friends who have lived in Nigeria. I did not know Sonny Abacha. I have met him in two public settings in my time both as Senator and before. One was just in a public setting and the other was at his son’s funeral. And that was the fact of it. And that’s a matter of public record. That has been documented and proved. And for — again, for the left not to even bother, not to even bother to get on the Ken Saro-Wiwa thing. I mean, I knew Ken Saro-Wiwa, by the way.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever met with him?
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: of course, I have met with him.
AMY GOODMAN: But then why, six months after his execution by Sonny Abacha, did you testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee —
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: When I testified my advocacy —
AMY GOODMAN: — in support of the government?
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: No it wasn’t in support of the government. It was in support of Africa, and Africa policy. I took an issue — I took the position as a Senator that Africa should not be treated differently than–or treated worse than we treat other areas. You just mentioned the whole business of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. This country was doing business with people all over and punishing the Nigerian people for things that had nothing — that was no fault of their own. I voted from the first set of sanctions against Nigeria, I was not prepared to stand by and see them ramrod this thing through on a personality-driven argument and taking sides in what was essentially a civil war in that country. Now, we are entitled to have different positions on the facts but to have that one incident try to discredit 20 years of advocacy for human rights, whether was it child labor, a disinvestment from South Africa, taking aside apartheid, against the juntas in South and Central America — I mean not just advocacy but actually going out on the line to fight for people and human rights — to have all of that smeared by Karl Rove and then have the left fall for it was really just shocking to me. And I’m — this is the longer and more expanded conversation on this issue than I have had with anybody, because I did not expect — I thought we were talking about what ABC did in pulling the embeds from Kucinich and my and Sharpton’s campaign. But we have gone down another slippery slope. And quite frankly I had not expected to do it, but I’m happy to have this conversation with you, and this is probably the last, because I have to tell you, I don’t even talk about this anymore, because it just, to me, is one of those situations where a lot of money was brought to bare to discredit a record and to shut down a voice for human rights, for democracy and for progress in opening up this country. And — and again that — over an issue that was theoretical, at best, for many. Remember, I knew these people. Personally. And for a lot of people who had no clue what the heck was going on on the ground in Nigeria, to weigh in and try to detract from my human rights records, is not only not acceptable, I just won’t tolerate the argument.
AMY GOODMAN: Actually that is not the case. in 1996, i covered you at the Chicago convention and tried to ask these questions when you say why didn’t people ask then and at the time, the convention in Chicago, you did not want to answer the questions. the trip had just been taken a few weeks before —
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: You know —
AMY GOODMAN: I traveled to —- and I traveled to -—
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: — ask now about it.
AMY GOODMAN: —- and I traveled to Nigeria in 1998 and did an expose on Chevron and what it was doing in the Niger delta, and met with Ken Saro-Wiwa when he came to the United States, before he was executed. The people who most criticized you were the Nigerian community because they felt that -—
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: Not “the” Nigerian community, part of it. The country was in the middle of a civil war. If you knew anything at all about that part of the world, they were in the middle of a civil war. That war continued — they are still having civil disturbances in that country. And the fight is largely over control of the oil. And the oil is the basis of a lot of environmental damage and degradation there. It is the base of all kinds of human rights abuses there. It is a problem. All right? That has been my concern all along in terms of — to the extent that my concerns transcend my concerns for the domestic issue. On the foreign policy front, yes, it is a huge problem, and the ____ (?) industries have not treated well with that country. And it has destabilized for a whole bunch of reasons. And yes, I did know Ken Saro-Wiwa, and yes I did support his support of the Algoni people and his fight to have the oil companies treat nicely(?) with them. All right? I can go — if you want to have a chapter and verse conversation, I am happy to do that, but I’m saying to you that, again, all of this was laid bare when I was confirmed. I got confirmed and got the highest security clearances this country can offer. So my question is, how is it that you read an article by Basil Tavis(?) in 1996 and haven’t read the Senate Confirmation testimony?
AMY GOODMAN: I read the Senate Confirmation Testimony, and there you talked about supporting Nigeria as a democracy, and you’re talking about at a time when a dictator was in power who also jailed the —
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: Excuse me, but Nigeria has only had dictators until this last election that didn’t happen until 2001. That’s all they knew, from the time of liberation from colonialism. There never was anything like a democracy in Nigeria.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever go on the record condemning the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa when you met with Sonny Abacha, at the funeral of his son? Did you condemn publicly that he had executed Ken Saro-Wiwa?
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: As a matter of fact, I did. There’s a resolution in the Senate of which I was a cosponsor. Yes. Yes, I did.
AMY GOODMAN: At the time —
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: And let me make the point back you. Again, you had, in the entire 20th century, two African-Americans elected to the United States Senate. I was one of them. All right? And for people who consider themselves human rights activists, to say we are just going to just absolutely discredit all of your work, on behalf of human rights, on behalf of democracy, on behalf on Africa, and on behalf of the environmental protection, and on behalf of all of these things we say we believe because we got this romantic involvement with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s crusade, of which frankly, I absolutely agree, we’re just going to — just take it hook, line and sinker that you are dancing with dictators and not even bother to ask me the questions. Well, I’m having a more expanded conversation with you right this minute than I have had with anybody on this issue, and I —- I don’t even know -—
AMY GOODMAN: And I appreciate you taking the time do this, but when you say the romantic interest in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s case, what do you mean by that?
CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: What I mean by that is that Nigeria is a country that has been abused for a long time. The refractive(?) industries have not done well by that country. It has gone from dictatorship, to dictatorship, to dictatorship, and a lot of the Nigerian people have just gotten worse over time. There are all kinds of religious difficulties and ethnic difficulties, not to mention environmental challenges, not to mention its role in terms of the economics in the region and peace on — for the whole continent. And instead of focusing in on those issues or allowing somebody like me to have a perspective on it that is not in lock step, you know, is just — I mean, it’s just tragic in me opinion.
AMY GOODMAN: And that is an excerpt of a conversation that I had with Ambassador Moseley-Braun about her tenure as Senator and her relationship with the dictatorship of Sonny Abacha. When we come back from our break we’ll get comment from Owens Wiwa, the brother of Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed by Sonny Abacha, and Mike Fleshman, the Director of the Human Rights Commission on Africa. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m here to get comment after that conversation with Carol Mosely Braun following her comment Sunday that her worst mistake was not holding a news conference before she went to Nigeria in 1996 which was right before the Chicago Democratic Convention. We get comments from Owens Wiwa, Ken Saro Wiwa’s brother. Let’s start with you, Dr. Owens Wiwa.
OWENS WIWA: Basically, what Ambassador Moseley-Braun said was that the information out about her support of Sonny Abacha was put out by Karl Rove, in support of his candidate in an election that took place several years after 1996, Peter Fitzgerald, who did defeat ambassador Moseley-Braun for the senatorship from Illinois. Some of the information came out after her visit. Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations who have been working on this case have investigated that. I didn’t even know anything about Karl Rove at that time and I do remember very well how we were trying to get access to her office to plead with her to say something — something that would make Abacha to stop the road to martyr that was — let’s put this in context. At the time Carol Moseley-Braun went to Nigeria for book peddling for the burial for Abacha’s son, who was not assassinated anyway, my mother and lots of Agoni 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. What I hear from her, the denial and guilt — I can hear guilt all over everything she is saying. She wrapped everything up — you know, the logic of what she is saying is so wrong that that it would have been nice if she can a least admit that, oh, I didn’t know that this man was a martyr, that he raped women — that this man was a murderer, that he raped women, that he was corrupt, that he had been supported by transnational corporations that destroys the environment to kills people, to fight for a decent environment. If she said that, maybe one would give her the benefit of the doubt. But she has continued to dig herself into a hole. And that again a very unfortunate.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Owens Wiwa, brother of the late Nigerian activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, now director of the African Environment and Human Development Agency living in Canada. Mike Fleshman, it was not only at the time Senator Moseley Braun who had spoken up for the government of Nigeria, but President Clinton himself at the time had clearly said that if Sonny Abacha wanted to run again, that he would support him.
MIKE FLESHMAN: That’s right. And 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 and that would be good enough for the Clinton administration. That’s part of the problem. I mean, he actually think that as I was listening to your interview with Ambassador Moseley Braun, that it was an exercise in spin-worthy of Karl Rove. Not much of what she said was true. The 1996 trip was one of several. There was more than one trip. It was a secret trip. She 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 Agoni people. She had no interest in that. I don’t know what her motivation was, but it was certainly the case that when she came back from the trip in particular, 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. Somebody in the state department finally actually told me that. That was in 1998 in private meeting. Gee, Mike, military government is unfortunate in Nigeria, but what we need in the United States is not democracy and human rights is we need a firm hand to keep the Crown Tri United and stable because that’s what the oil companies need. during the administration, during the Clinton administration period, U.S. investment in the oil business about doubled. And 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. Moseley Braun — I don’t know if Moseley Braun got paid for this. that’s often been asserted. I have never seen any evidence of this, but it was certainly the case that during the time that Moseley Braun was saying as she said in your interview that poor Nye year gentleman, poor Abacha is the victim of a racist double standard in the united states. Look at China. That was the line being put forward by Abacha’s lobbying operation in Washington. If she wasn’t an actual part of that, she was working in conjunction with the oil companies and the Nigeria military’s P.R. machine in Washington.
AMY GOODMAN: She couldn’t have been the only senator doing that. oil politics seems to be sweeping the country, or I should say the congress. So, what was her particular significance?
MIKE FLESHMAN: Well, in this — it’s probably not her fault. just because she’s African American doesn’t necessarily mean that she has a strong sense of solidarity with Africa. Why should she? But the fact is that she was the only African American in the Senate. An awful lot of democratic liberals might have been inclined to take a much stronger position on Nigeria had the African American member of the senate done so herself. There was absolutely kind of a sense amongst the Democrats at that time that, well, Africa is an African American issue, isn’t it? Therefore, we will take the lead of our African American colleague, and what Moseley Braun was talking about — if you said Nigeria, Moseley Braun would say China, what about china. what should we do about Nigeria. Well, we don’t have sanctions against China, there — that was why she had a particularly difficult — for us it was a difficult problem. Because she had an inordinate amount of influence because she was African American.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Owens Wiwa, your response to what Mike Fleshman just said.
OWENS WIWA: Well, I mean Mike Fleshman do have quite a lot of details of what he is saying is quite correct. Carol Moseley-Braun actually acted to block the progress and trying to convince the Clinton administration that sanctions against the oil industry in Nigeria would bring up a rapid change to the democracy and would also make it known to others who will come to be leaders of Nigeria that human rights abuse, especially around the oil industry would not be permitted by the U.S. government. I would say that I have gone to — I would say that going to Nigeria was very, very depressing to many of us who believed that we had the help here to make the changes that were necessary to be made in Africa. We have seen a pattern whereby a transnational corporations will use bribery to keep up a brutal dictatorship just to allow them to extract the oil and destroy the environment. And what happened to Ken and others was so glaring that you could use it — you could use that fact, that unfortunate incident to make long-lasting changes in African crown tries. They destroyed that hope with that lobby.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for both joining us.