Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, and claims to fame. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at her worst. Here’s the one told by critics of Carol Moseley Braun—and what they leave out.
Charge: According to numerous media reports, Braun made an unsanctioned trip to Nigeria in 1996, lending legitimacy to dictator Sani Abacha. Abacha had voided the results of a democratic election, imprisoned thousands of dissidents, stolen more than $1 billion in government revenue, and set himself up as a major hub in the heroin trade. Nelson Mandela had called Abacha’s regime “barbaric.” Braun’s trip came just months after Abacha executed nine environmental activists, including playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa. While in Nigeria, Braun praised Abacha and his family’s role “in the support and promotion of family values.” She also commended the peacemaking efforts of the military governor who had supervised Saro-Wiwa’s execution. Braun’s companion on the trip was her ex-fiance and campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews, who had registered with the U.S. Justice Department as an agent of the Nigerian government and had listed Braun’s address as his official residence. Matthews then moved to South Africa, where foreign agents aren’t required to register. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when Braun was asked who paid Matthews’ expenses on the trip, “she said she had no idea and would not ask him.” When Braun returned, her chief of staff resigned in anger at not having been told about the trip.
Defense: Braun said she was on a private vacation to visit Sani Abacha’s wife, Maryam, with whom she claimed to have “a personal relationship.” Braun said she wanted to express sympathy to Mrs. Abacha over the death of the Abachas’ son.
Braun also said the trip was part of her job. She explained, “Senators travel, that’s what Senators do. Senators deal with foreign policy. I’m the only African-American in the Senate. It makes sense for me to have an interest in Africa policy.” Braun said her “unofficial diplomacy” had succeeded in producing a letter from Mr. Abacha to President Clinton that “sends a strong signal of constructive engagement, particularly on the environment and democracy.”
Bill Richardson, who was then a congressman from New Mexico and is now that state’s governor, defended Braun. Richardson was on an official mission to Nigeria at the time of Braun’s trip. “By the fact that she raised human rights issues in Nigeria, she helped our human rights administration push forward initiatives in Nigeria,” said Richardson.
Braun said that as far she knew, Matthews wasn’t doing any work for the Nigerian government at the time of the trip.