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As Trump’s excesses mount, it’s time to reckon with the darker side of Obama’s legacy

The former president deported more than 2.5 million undocumented migrants from the US.

So, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” joked the 44th president of the United States on 24 April at the University of Chicago, in his first public speech since leaving office.

Obama is (officially) back in the public eye, doing more events, accepting more awards, dipping his toe into anti-Trump waters. It is difficult not to miss the sane, sober, eloquent former law professor in an age of insane and incoherent rants, and “alternative facts”. Nevertheless, the horrors of the Donald Trump era should not blind us to the myriad ways in which his Democratic predecessor helped lay the groundwork for it. The truth is that 44 was an enabler for 45.

Take deportations. “The detention and deportation of non-criminal immigrants – including kids – might be one of the most underrported [sic] stories of the Trump era,” tweeted Jon Favreau, who was a speechwriter for Obama, in late April.

Yet his former boss deported more than 2.5 million undocumented immigrants. In fact, Obama removed more people from the US in his two terms in office than all of the presidents of the 20th century combined. An analysis by the New York Times in 2014 found “two-thirds of… [deportation] cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all.”

And Trump has never shied away from cynically invoking Obama’s record to defend himself. “Nobody talks about it,” Trump said during the presidential campaign. “But under Obama, millions of people have been moved out of this country.”

Take the “Muslim ban”. “[Obama] fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion,” a spokesman for Obama wrote on 30 January, responding to President Trump’s executive order banning entry into the US for nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. Yet the then White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, claimed a day earlier that it was Obama, and not Trump, who originally listed those seven as “countries of particular concern”.

Spicer was for once telling the truth. It was President Obama who, in the wake of the San Bernardino terror attack, signed a bill into law in December 2015 restricting travel to the US for people who lived in or visited those seven countries, even though neither of the two attackers had ties to any of them.

Take Trump’s bombing of Syria. Plenty of liberals applauded Trump’s air strikes against the Assad government on 6 April but many of them also slammed the president for doing so unilaterally. “His failure to seek Congressional approval is unlawful,” declared Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Yet Kaine, in July 2011, when Obama’s Libya war was in full swing, was “noncommittal” on whether the president was legally obliged to seek Congressional approval, and defended Obama’s “good rationale” for air strikes.

Is it any surprise, then, that a Trump administration official told CBS News the day after the air strikes that this president’s rationale for launching them without Congressional approval was “similar to what President Obama used in 2011 to use force in Libya”? Oh dear. Again and again, Trump and his acolytes hide behind decisions Obama made; again and again, Democrats stick their heads in the sand and pretend they never happened. Yet the double standards are glaring. How can you criticise Trump for filling his administration with Goldman Sachs alumni, for example, without also acknowledging that Obama raised more money from Wall Street in 2008 than any previous presidential candidate, and then praised the bosses of Goldman Sachs and JP Chase Morgan as “very savvy businessmen”?

How can you criticise Trump for issuing 30 executive orders in his first 100 days in office without admitting Obama issued more orders in his first 100 days – 19 – than any president since LBJ? How can you criticise Trump for sucking up to dictators without recalling how Obama literally bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia and hailed him, when he died, for his “vision” and “bold steps”?

Don’t get me wrong: not a day goes by in which I do not pine for the presidency of Barack Obama, warts (or should that be drone strikes?) and all. Nor does a day go by when I don’t feel scorn towards some on the left, such as the actress Susan Sarandon and Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, who inanely suggested that Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton were all as bad as each other. That was nonsense on stilts. From climate change to healthcare to race relations, they were always worlds apart.  And Trump has already gone above and beyond anything Obama ever did on any of these issues: from ramping up deportations against those charged – and not just convicted – of criminal offences, to introducing an actual ban – and not just travel restrictions – on immigrants from six (originally, seven) Muslim-majority countries.

I am also well aware that “Obama did it, so why can’t I?” is an easy excuse for the sitting president, who would undoubtedly have done all the things he has done so far whether his Democratic predecessor had set a precedent or not. Trump, after all, is Trump.

Yet it is nevertheless disingenuous for supporters – and former employees – of Obama to attack Trump for doing things that the 44th president either did himself or opened the door for his successor to do. It also undermines their very legitimate critique of Trump’s egregious excesses. It would be great if liberals could reflect on the eight years that came before Trump. There has to be a reckoning with the darker side of the Obama legacy. To borrow a line oft-quoted by the former president himself: “If not now, when?” 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue

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Libya’s slave markets are a reminder that the exploitation of Africans never went away

Slavery was recorded in 20th century Ethiopia and continues to exist in Mauritania today. 

A recent African summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saw one welcome piece of news: the African Union had – for the first time – called on Mauritania to end slavery within its borders. In what was described as a “landmark ruling”, the African Union reprimanded a member state for allowing the widespread practice of hereditary slavery. This is not what is now termed “modern slavery”, but the ancient practice of one person owning another: chattel slavery, as it is known.

While the announcement was a step forward, it was not quite what it seemed. This was not a declaration of African heads of state. The final statement from the summit failed to mention Mauritania. Rather, the call came in the form of a ruling by one of the African Union’s many subsidiary bodies: the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC).

Anti-Slavery International, which has campaigned against the scourge since 1839, welcomed the decision, but urged action. “The message to the Mauritanian Government is extremely clear: ensure that their masters are prosecuted with the full force of the law,” said Anti-Slavery’s spokesman, Jakub Sobik. 

How Mauritania responds remains to be seen, but the ruling came shortly after shocking evidence from CNN of the slave markets of Libya. “Eight hundred,” shouts an auctioneer. “900 ... 1,000 ... 1,100 ...” Sold. For 1,200 Libyan dinars – the equivalent of $800. And with that, the ownership of refugees captured by human traffickers change hands.

CNN’s report was not the first to expose the practice, but the channel’s broadcast jolted public opinion. In the UK a petition calling for the British government to act attracted more than a quarter of a million signatures. As a result, it was debated in Parliament, with Labour MP Marsha de Cordova noting the outrage of her constituents from the African diaspora. “This is modern-day chattel slavery,” she said, “And a window into practices that form part of a particularly traumatic collective memory for many communities.”

In Britain, discussions about slavery have long focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and rightly so. Britain carried out slavery on an industrial scale: between 1640 and 1807, when the British slave trade was abolished, it is estimated to have transported 3.1 million Africans, mostly to the Americas. Furthermore, defenders of slavery justified their lucrative trade in human misery by promoting racist ideas that left indelible scars on Western society. It is only in recent decades that politicians have fully addressed the role of the slave trade in Britain’s history beyond the abolitionist movement, and even in 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped short of a full apology, for fear of reparations. The more recent campaign against “modern slavery” has concentrated on criminal gangs exploiting undocumented workers, and elite families keeping vulnerable women as unpaid maids. 

Discussing slavery within Africa is, it seems, an uncomfortable subject, not least because of the potential in a digital age for a nuanced discussion to be used as an excuse to let the West off the hook. Liverpool’s otherwise excellent International Slavery Museum skims over the mention of slavery on Africa’s East Coast. How many schools explain that for five thousand years African slaves were captured in wars or raids and marched along the Nile, across the Sahara or transported over the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to Asia?

Forms of slavery existed in the Ottoman and Roman empires, but its presence can be traced far further back in time, and across the world. Europeans practiced slavery at least since the times of the ancient Greeks; so did the Chinese, Japanese and Indians. Maori turned prisoners of war into slaves. In Africa, “the first evidence was carved in stone in 2900 B.C.E. at the second cataract depicting a boat on the Nile packed with Nubian captives for enslavement in Egypt”, according to the late Robert Collins of the University of California. The trade on Africa’s East coast, to the slave markets of Arabia, India and beyond took place for at least a millenium. Collins calculated that the Asian trade numbered an estimated total of 12,580,000 slaves from 800 to 1900.

Slavery generally shared common attributes: brutality, oppression and frequently racism. Even when both master and slave were African, this did not prevent the most derogatory descriptions being used about the group from which the slaves were drawn. For example, racist terms were routinely used by Sudanese Arabs against those African groups they enslaved. This racism was manifested by Arabs’ derogatory use of the term “abid” (slaves) – and what the Northern Sudanese writer Mansur Khalid called “a series of [other] unprintable slurs – to apply to western and southern peoples.”

Much East coast or trans-Saharan slavery was practiced by Arabs. Ronald Segal (who wrote on trans-Atlantic as well as Islamic slavery) suggested that while there is a tradition of debate about the former, the latter has been less satisfactorily explored. “There is a conscious and articulate black diaspora in the West that confronts the historical record of slavery and racism there,” he wrote in his 2001 book Islam’s Black Slaves: The History of Africa’s other Black Diaspora. “That Islam has no comparably conscious and articulate black diaspora to confront it with the reminders of slavery does not make that record any more immune to examination and judgement.” 

African slavery was not restricted to Arabs or to Muslims. Nor did the African trade in slaves end in 1900. There is evidence of slaves in Christian-ruled Ethiopia in the 1930s: a photograph from the time shows slaves carrying their owners’ money to fund Emperor Haile Selassie’s war effort against Italy. 

It was the Italians who finally abolished the practice after they occupied the country. “The Italians issued a decree in April 1936 which liberated more than 400,000 slaves,” according to Seid A. Mohammed, historian at at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.

Even then, slavery was not eliminated. Mauritania continues the practice, failing to enforce a 2007 law designed to end the practice. Anti-Slavery International reports that slavery is still to be found in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Chad and Sudan. “People born into descent-based slavery face a lifetime of exploitation and are treated as property by their so-called ‘masters’. They work without pay, herding animals, working in the fields or in their masters’ homes. They can be inherited, sold or given away as gifts or wedding presents,” says the organisation.

Mauritania is also a reminder that even if the situation in Libya stabilises, the deep roots of slavery may be harder to remove. What is required is a wholehearted campaign by African leaders to name, shame and impose sanctions against their fellow heads of state who continue to tolerate this practice. Until Africa as a whole acts, the scourge of chattel slavery will continue to blight the lives of its people.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?