U.S. policy in Africa is focused on promoting democracy as its top priority and enabling the continent’s 54 countries to prepare for a population boom that is due to include 2 billion people by 2040, according to Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.
These objectives, she said in Atlanta, force her to keep an eye on both ends of the age spectrum with aging presidents who refuse to give up power and the upcoming generations of Africans. Africans aged 18 years old and younger are to make up at least half the population in 25 years, she added.
Ms. Thomas-Greenfield gave a lecture the evening of Nov. 9 at Emory University hosted and organized by its Institute for Developing Nations and co-sponsored by the Laney Graduate School and the Carter Center.
Although titled, “Africa’s Growing Prosperity,” her comments made it clear that she has her hands full dealing with day-to-day crises, despite important “good news” items to which she referred.
Most recently it’s been violence in the East African nation of Burundi, which she called “a meltdown” and has led to more than 200 killed in recent weeks and responsible for 200,000 refugees to surrounding countries.
According to Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, the cause of the violence has been the decision of Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, to have the country’s constitution changed so that he could run a third term. Mr. Nkurunziza, who has been Burundi’s president since 2005, was re-elected in July to a third term in defiance of the constitution.
Despite her hourly efforts to influence the East African Community and the African Union to bring about peace in Burundi, she said that she was visiting Atlanta along with other cities in the U.S. including San Francisco and Los Angeles to inform Americans about positive developments on the continent and not just the negatives.
“There’s a lot going on in Africa and a lot of people don’t know that,” she said. “There are a lot of people who think that we are talking about a country, and all that there is, is disaster and death there.”
With the support of democratic institutions the U.S.’s “highest priority,” she pointed to the peaceful transition of power in Nigeria when the current president, Muhammad Buhari, took over from Goodluck Jonathan in April.
She also was enthusiastic about political developments in the Ivory Coast where Alassane Ouattara won a second term in October as permitted by that country’s constitution after a decade of civil strife.
The contrast with these positives, she said, with the situation in Burundi is especially a cause of concern because it may incite Joseph Kabila, the president of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, to defy their constitutions and assume additional terms as well.
As members of the Carter Center’s staff looked on, she praised former U.S. President Jimmy Carter for setting the example that “there is life after the presidency.”
“Unfortunately, (in Africa) we have leaders who don’t recognize this,” she said of the leaders who aren’t aware of the positive role they could play to build up civil society and support economic development.
During the question and answer period following her presentation, one of the 100 attendees, who identified himself as coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, criticized the U.S. focus on democracy for not working.
“We’ve had democracy for 10 years, but nothing has changed,” he said of the DRC. “We don’t have freedom of speech and people are still poor.”
He warned that the violence would likely break out in his country again, and wondered whether there might not be another political model that would be more appropriate for African countries.
“It’s a hard question to answer,” she replied, but outlined initiatives of the U.S. State Department and the Carter Center to improve the lives of the people in the Congo.
In a later discussion about the difficulties of supporting countries without democratic governments, she said that the U.S. can’t always choose the countries with which it has to deal and then quoted Ambassador Thomas Shannon, the under secretary of state for political affairs, who calls democracy “a long road that has no end.”
“It’s important to start on the road. We know that democracy works and its important that we help them get on the road. Leaders should respect their people,” she said. “We also know why it doesn’t always work because there are those who don’t want to give up power, to keep their piece of the action.”
Even though democracy is the top U.S. priority in Africa, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield spoke extensively about educational initiatives, and she seemed particularly enthused by the Young African Leaders Initiative that brought to cities throughout the U.S. including Atlanta during each of the past two years 500 prospective leaders between 25 and 35 years old.
The participants were chosen out of 50,000 some applications and receive leadership and entrepreneurial business training at universities around the country.
She especially praised the program for fostering relations among the participants themselves and the networks that they create to foster development.
While she said that she was aware of criticism calling the program a form of brainwashing, she adamantly denied it and called the propaganda of Islamic extremists such as Boko Haram and ISIL the sort of brainwashing that plunges their countries into violence.
Unexpectedly Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe, the eldest daughter of Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu who taught several years in the late 1990s at Emory, was in the audience and challenged Ms. Thomas-Greenfield’s support for the young professionals known as YALIs.
“Those 500 YALIs you brought here probably would have made it without your intervention,” she said. “You need to help not 500 but 500,000.”
Ms. Tutu heads the “TutuDesk Campaign,” which is providing portable desks to millions of African children. “If they don’t have a solid surface on which to learn to write, they’ll never learn,” she said.
Ms. Thomas-Greenfield agreed that the 500 are “just a drop in the bucket,” but went on to add the 250 brought in both 2012-13 and then two years of 500 each. In the next two years, 1,000 YALIs are to be brought in each year, she added.
“These young people are going home and galvanizing the people,” she said. She also said that four regional centers were being set up so that the YALIs could expand their “spheres of influence” on the continent perhaps reaching as many as 200,000 if not the total of 500,000 to which Ms. Tutu-Gxashe alluded.
“If we don’t give the young people of Africa an alternative, others will,” she said. “We have to find out how do we get these young people vested into the future of their countries.”
To prove her point, she cited the case of the Nigerian woman who was producing animal feed but couldn’t compete adequately with importers of feed products.
“Packaging makes the difference,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said. “She learned how to promote and package, bought new machinery and went from having six people work for her to two dozen who now work for her.”
Ms. Thomas-Greenfield also was asked why her focus was so much on government, education, health and security concerns and not more on business.
In response, she cited the business delegations that accompanied African heads of state to Washington last year for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. She also pointed to President Obama’s attendance at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit held in Nairobi, Kenya, in July.
In addition, she mentioned the trade delegations headed by U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to Africa and the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act for another 10 years.
Despite the challenges facing Africa, she said that she remained optimistic about the future of the continent and has been inspired by some of her personal experiences with young Africans she has gotten to know.
For example, when she reflected on the determination of one of the “lost boys” of Sudan whom she met through a refugee program she established while ambassador to Kenya.
Not only was he able to graduate from high school and college in the U.S. but he has been accepted by the Foreign Service and has been assigned to Venezuela.
Ms. Thomas-Greenfield came to Atlanta to promote the Foreign Service at local educational institutions, including Spelman and Morehouse colleges, and the Stone Mountain High School.
She was invited to speak at Emory’s Institute for Developing Nations because it includes an Institute of African Studies and many of its faculty in public health, medicine and nursing are involved with Africa.
To learn more about programs of the Institute for Developing Nations, call Obse Ababiya at 404-727-6951 or send an email email@example.com
For a Global Atlanta interview conducted in 2008 with President Nkurunziza of Burundi, click here.