Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why Africa Matters

This is a talk I gave at the Foreign Service Institute on June 29, 2009.

Africa is far away, little known and little connected to America or to the world, so why does it matter? Why should we be concerned with it, study it, learn its languages or be assigned there? These are good questions that merit thoughtful response.

This morning I will lay out some realities that under grid American concerns for Africa and why it behooves us to pay attention to Africa.

First, some background.


I can see from this group that some here have African ancestry, just as others have European or Asian. America today really is an ethnic melting pot. We are multi-ethnic, multi-hued, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. An increasing number of Americans are recent immigrants, including many from Africa. Our reality is that we are a nation formed by the peoples of the world. We have roots everywhere. This is one of our strong claims to global leadership and the responsibilities that engenders.


Often we Americans incorporate culture from other societies and when we don’t perhaps we need to learn from others’ cultural values. African culture is endowed with many positive values. I would put a sense of family at the top of the list. African families look after each other. There are lots of reciprocal obligations. Wage earners house, feed, educate and find jobs for relatives. Children are prized, in part because they represent the social security system for their parents. Africans respect their elders, include them in expanded households and care for them in old age.

President Obama learned about his Kenyan family when in his twenties. As you remember he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents, but when he went to Kenya for the first time, he discovered he was a member of a large expanded family – grandparents, half- siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins galore. Certainly, they expect a lot from him now that he is truly a “big man.”

Africans can teach us about a slower pace of life – those of you who were Peace Corps Volunteers certainly understand this value. Africans take many minutes just to greet one and another before getting around to the business at hand. There is little rush. When things happen, they do.

Africans know how to live within their means. Perhaps this is a function of poverty – when you do not have much – you get by. But it also represents recognition that materialism is not the wherewithal of society.

Africans are connected to the land and to the cycles of the seasons. An overwhelming percentage of folks are farmers and those who aren’t are only one generation from the farm. This connectedness to nature gives Africans insight into many contemporary environmental issues.

Africans are fanatic about education. They recognize it as a way forward. Families make great sacrifices to send their children to school. And the kids reciprocate and devote themselves to their studies.

Although a certain sense of fatalism permeates African society, the counterpart to that is optimism. Africans are almost always convinced – even against potent evidence to the contrary – that things will get better. I find this an endearing quality.

Even though we think we understand cultural differences, let me tell a story that demonstrates the voids. In the Central African Republic I spoke with an American missionary from the Summer Linguistic Institute, an organization that translates the Bible into native languages around the world. I asked him how the project regarding the BaAka pygmies was going. He said not so well. The linguists often started in a new language with Bible stories such as Joseph and the coat of many colors. But they found that story did not resonate with the BaAka who had no concept of coveting nor of clothes. Similarly with David and Goliath – the BaAka were non-violent so did not relate to conflict either.

I was a peace corps volunteer in Kenya in 1969 when Americans landed on the moon. This achievement was viewed with skepticism by the young Luo tribesmen with whom I worked. Although they readily accepted that Americans could build a space ship – after all they built jet airplanes – proof of being on the moon was missing. I discovered that the needed proof revolved around the nature of and meeting with God. According to Luo religious beliefs God lived on the moon and if the astronauts had not met him – and there were no reports to that effect - then, had the trip really occurred?


With the exception of slavery America’s connections to Africa were fairly minimal before the mid-20th century. We do need to acknowledge that slavery as practiced for about four hundred years, both by the west and the east, with Africans as the victims was a terrible scourge that disrupted and destroyed societies throughout the continent. On the heels of slavery came colonialism, a practice that warped social, economic and political development. Thankfully, the U.S. was not a colonial power.

America secured the coast of what is now Liberia in 1820 where freed slaves and free blacks were settled from the United States. Although not a colony as such, the U.S. kept a watchful paternal eye on Liberia from that point forward. In 1836 a U.S. consulate was opened in Zanzibar. Although Europe, especially Great Britain, was much captivated by sagas of exploration in the mid-nineteenth century, it was the New York Post newspaper that employed adventurer Henry Morton Stanley to rescue Dr. David Livingston. He did so in 1871, thus enhancing Livingston’s erstwhile sainthood and earning Stanley himself everlasting fame.

Abyssinia came to America’s attention in the 1930s when that traditionally independent kingdom was brutally annexed by Mussolini. Young Emperor Halie Selassie’s appeals to the League of Nations sparked interest in Africa; interest in self-determination that foreshadowed the independence struggles that were to come a generation later. Yet at this time for most Americans Africa equated to Tarzan, King Solomon’s Mines, The African Queen and other popular literature that portrayed Africans in subservient or racist terms.

During World War Two, Africa became a crucial supplier of raw materials for the allied effort such as rubber for tires, pyrethrum for insecticide, sisal for ropes and even uranium for the first atomic bombs.

The wave of independence that began in Ghana and Guinea in the late 1950s and swept most of the continent by the mid-sixties caused a new look at the Africa. In the midst of the debacle in the Congo in 1961, President Kennedy recognized that African nationalism was not necessarily anti-Americanism or pro-communism. We established diplomatic relations with virtually every nation upon the achievement of independence and, with USAID, the Peace Corps and other policies sought to build new relationships. Yet the Cold War intruded into Africa as U.S. policy was shaped by fears of Soviet or Chinese influence. Africa’s response to the world contest was to opt out. The Organization of African Unity was created in 1963 for mutual support among African states with one objective being precisely to forge a neutral path between the east and the west.

With this background in mind, let’s fast forward and ask - Where is Africa Today?

Most of Africa is doing quite okay. Nations are vaguely democratic, politically stable, socially at peace and making satisfactory economic progress. A number of wars have ended in recent years and there is reason for cautious optimism that other conflicts might be subsiding.


Africa has always been an exporter – of people and of commodities – slaves, ivory, coffee, coco, peanuts, palm oil, pineapples, mangoes, sisal, mangrove poles and more recently fresh cut flowers for European markets. Africa also sends minerals to world markets– copper, gold, diamonds, uranium, bauxite, iron ore and more recently coltan used in your cell phones. Oil has become the motor of economies in Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Gabon, Republic of the Congo and Sudan. Lesser amounts are found elsewhere. Africa now accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. imports and the figure continues to rise.

Oil is both a blessing and a curse. Obviously it provides sorely needed revenues, but sadly much oil derived income has been stolen or squandered. Rather than the breadbasket of the past, Nigeria today, for example, is a net importer of food. Additionally, Nigeria is awash with money and has become one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. The leadership of Chad has diverted oil revenues into armaments. In neighboring Sudan, oil monies fueled massacres in Darfur. Issues of control of Sudan’s oil fields risks reigniting the southern war as well. Equatorial Guinea, long ruled by a family of bizarre autocrats, remains one of the continent’s egregious abusers of human rights.

Elsewhere , even though the modern sectors of economies show diversity – more manufacturing, textile production, expanded tourism and even high tech call centers -bad economic policies, small markets, inadequate transportation assets and poor industrial infrastructure plus lots of debt conspire to retard progress. Population growth often outpaces economic growth. Thus, even statistically, it is very tough to get ahead.

The vast majority of Africans comprise some of the bottom billion – those citizens of the world mired in poverty who largely practice subsistence agriculture or increasingly make-do in the vast shanty towns of the third world’s teeming cities. For them the prospects are not very promising. The challenge is to find ways to promote development at the grassroots.

Africa’s economies matter because the U.S. is connected directly to them via trade and aid. A rising tide floats all ships. More prosperity there rebounds to everyone’s benefit.


Africa is a continent of man made disasters. Political conflict, bandits, piracy, war and civil war coupled with natural catastrophe especially drought, but now also AIDS, periodically wreak havoc on people across the continent. While the impact of slavery and colonial forced labor has receded, modern versions of man made horrors emerged in Liberia, Rwanda, Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Such suffering touches the conscience of America. Images of refugees, starving children, AIDS victims and frightened survivors tug at our heartstrings. To our credit we respond generously. Over two billion dollars a year flows through both public and private channels to those in need.

Unfortunately, although needs and locations change, humanitarian resources will be required in Africa for the foreseeable future. I know America will continue to respond generously.

Multilateral Politics

Even though colonialism is finished and the Cold War is over, some of their legacies persist in the international arena. African states hold 53 of the United Nations 194 seats. This gives Africa good leverage in international councils. Even though most African states are pro-western on an individual basis, collectively they adhere to shop worn non-aligned, anti-west formulas largely developed a generation ago by Cuba, India, Egypt, Indonesia and Yugoslavia. U.S. efforts to crack this outdated “unity” will be part of your diplomatic assignment.

African states sometimes are and have the potential to be solid partners in helping to advance America’s global agenda, be it nuclear non-proliferation, human rights, democracy or free trade.


Security issues loom high on lists of concerns in Africa. Obviously security is prerequisite for domestic harmony, economic growth and political evolution, all of which are in our interest. Yet the threats to peace are many. Most threats are home grown as is the case in Nigeria, Zimbabwe or Sudan relating to who is going to control the political/economic pie. While the U.S. does not want to dictate outcomes per se, we do seek an end to internal conflict and cross border violence. To this end we cajole, negotiate and strive to convince all concerned to sort out difficulties in a peaceful fashion. In addition to moral suasion, our latest big stick is AFRICOM, the utility of which is diminished in this regard because we state upfront that the U.S. is never going to war in Africa.

International peacekeeping has been a growth industry in Africa. By informal count there are now UN Peace Keeping Operations in Sudan, Congo, Chad, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Ethiopia. There are remnants of operations in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Burundi. An African Union operation is also underway in Somalia. Obviously, it is in our interest to support international peacekeeping efforts and to involve as many Africans nations as possible in keeping the peace in Africa.

Perpetrators of international terrorism have struck repeatedly in Africa killing Americans in Khartoum, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. They have attacked locals and foreigners elsewhere and plotted virtually everywhere. Reining in terrorism is an intelligence rather than a military function and one to which increasing resources are being devoted by both the United States and African governments.

Piracy and hostage taking for profit plague the Somali coast and the Niger delta. Oil bunkering, that is large scale theft, also troubles oil production in the Gulf of Guinea.

Columbian and Nigerian drug cartels appear to have taken control of the nation of Guinea Bissau. This exemplifies the risk that poorly governed corrupt or un-governed states pose to the rest of the world.


Africa boasts some of the planet’s most pristine regions, for example the vast forests of the Congo basin, huge fresh water lakes and mighty rivers, snow clad peaks and game filled plains. Yet most of the continent is dry – the Sahara and Kalahari deserts take up about a third of the land area. Water is the key – often missing commodity – across much of the continent. Climate change that brings more drought and with it expanded local conflict for arable land will further devastate already fragile regions.

Should Africa be allowed to rape her lands for profit? Or worse, let foreigners do it?

The issues at stake are how to strike the balance, to preserve that which needs preserving and to exploit in a responsible fashion that which can be productively used.

U.S. priorities

Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson identified four American priorities in Africa during his recent confirmation hearing. They are: democracy; conflict mitigation; economic growth and combating global threats.

Let’s look at them in turn.

Africa does have an improving democratic track record. 12 of 48 Sub-Saharan nations are listed by Freedom House as fully free and 23 as partially free. But there is a lot of work to be done, especially in instituting a rule of law and fostering more institutional independence from powerful national executives. Who controls power and how it is exercised and who can take power legitimately or otherwise, are elements in assessing the status of democracy in any given nation.

The U.S. has been on the front lines of promoting democracy. We’ve supported civil society, helped finance and monitor elections and encouraged a sense of accountability. When I was ambassador in the Central African Republic in 1992, we were deeply involved in facilitating free and fair elections. However, about a week before the voting while I was eating breakfast on the veranda, I spotted a big snake in the frangipangi tree nearby. I retreated inside and notified my staff. At lunch the gardeners proudly presented the 8 foot long carcass of a black mamba. By late afternoon word was circulating around town that President Kolingba was irritated with the coming elections and U.S. advocacy of them; consequently he used his magic to send a snake to kill the U.S. ambassador, but the ambassador’s magic was stronger. He defeated Kolingba, so the elections would go ahead and Kolingba would lose.

In those elections Kolingba, the incumbent president, came in fourth, then tried to manipulate the results after the fact. However, the system in place proved resilient and his attempt to thwart the popular will was rebuffed. Later in the same nation, Parliament having been trained in responsibilities by a National Endowment for Democracy team, summoned the Prime Minister for a reckoning. Rather than comply, he resigned. Members of Parliament repeatedly thanked me for teaching them how to operate their own system.

We should not under estimate the impact in Africa of President Obama’s election. Clearly, being a son of Africa, he was the popular favorite, but beyond that his victory was seen as evidence that change, real change is possible via the ballot box. I was in Chad last November where there was great rejoicing, especially amongst students – plus and goat and gazelle delivered to the embassy as gifts to the new president. Yet the dictatorial government there was reluctant to let the students march in celebration lest their enthusiasm for Obama’s victory morph into demands for local change.

Later the Obama lesson was taken to heart by voters in Ghana who themselves voted out an incumbent party. Additionally, emboldened by Obama’s example, Kenyans are adamant that the debacle of their flawed 2007 election won’t be repeated.

This is the way democracy policy is supposed to work.

Nigeria’s election of 2007 was another matter. The vote was a fraud from the beginning. Thousands of precincts that reported tallies never opened. Elsewhere the national result was rigged. Yet some local races were legitimate, but only in Nigeria could candidate run on the theme that he was less corrupt than his opponent. At the national level outgoing president Obasanjo’s anointed successor Yar’Adua prevailed. His taking of the office might have avoided a military coup d’etat or widespread communal violence, but he was certainly not freely and fairly elected. But the U.S. – fearing negative consequences for oil production and retrenchment from Nigeria’s positive regional role – opted to mildly criticize the election and to quietly accept the result. Similarly, we have let broader interests predominate in flawed democratic processes in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Conflict mitigation. Conflict is the big bugaboo in Africa. Although focusing on it is worthwhile and noble, solving the problems of Somalia, Sudan and Congo is not unilaterally possible and anything but easy. Last week’s conference on Sudan is a case in point. It provided a valuable reaffirmation that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is the solution to the Southern war, but gave little direction in dealing anew with Darfur. Rather, there has been a public washing of American laundry on whether or not genocide continues to be practiced.

I note with consternation that reports of U.S. shipments of munitions to pro-government forces in Somalia do not seem to accord with a posture of dialogue as the policy of choice in dealing with conflict.

Furthermore, I posit that AFRICOM is no help in these situations and should not be. Conflicts are political African issues that must be hammered out by Africans, certainly with support, encouragement, even mediation by outsiders, but without military intervention, especially from the United States.

Economic Growth. Renewed American focus on economic growth is welcome. Even though some of our numbers look good, the reality is that we ought to do much more and in a much more effective fashion. Sadly, we have viable assistance programs in less than half of the African nations. USAID needs reinvigoration and new direction. The myriad of U.S.G. activities need to be better coordinated. Impediments to agricultural trade need rethinking.

Global scourges – AIDS and malaria, climate change, food insecurity, narcotics, maritime insecurity and terrorism are all on the U.S. agenda. Several of these issues respond to money, where we have been very forthcoming, others require political, economic and security commitments that are not yet in sight.

In summary, Africa does matter to the United States. We have obligations, responsibilities and opportunities. Some are obviously directly in our self interest, others more altruistic in nature. However, we are all on this planet together and as it gets smaller and more densely populated, the dominoes fall faster and the butterfly effect registers sooner. What happens in Africa does impact on our well being in America. We need to be cognizant of that and to be proactive in assuring the best possible outcomes.

That is where you come in. As U.S. diplomats on the front lines in Africa or focusing on African issues in Washington you will have the task to formulate how the rubber meets the road, how we implement and sustain our policies and objectives. In short, how we make Africa matter to us and us to Africa.

Good luck.