The U.S.-Africa Relationship and the Presidential Transition
Coordinator for Media and Outreach, Bureau of African Affairs
It is an honor to be here at the 2009 Florida Chautauqua. Let me begin by observing that your round of introductions was very African, taking the time to speak and share. I want to thank Diane Pickett and Christopher Mitchell for opening the door for me to be here today, and for doing so much to bring us all here. I want to thank the people of DeFuniak Springs, Walton County, and Northwest Florida for having the vision to see that what is and will be is rooted in what was. You have taken the best of your past and made it live again. For me, as a student of the ultimate Chautauquan of his time -- William Jennings Bryan -- this is truly exciting.
I will make three basic points this morning. First, I will talk about things new and not-so-new about Africa. Second, I will argue that the U.S.-Africa relationship is about much more than government policy, that it’s about grassroots engagement and always has been. Third and finally, I will argue that with respect Africa, the Obama Administration represents not change, but continuity – a hugely symbolic step forward so far in a decades-old process of a maturing of how we as Americans view Africa.
I’d like to start with a true story. Only names have been changed.
Once upon a time, there was a country that was ruled by a single party that had been in power almost 50 years. The party was known as the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), but it wasn’t of the people or democratic, nor even much of a party. Its strong man, Nudo, and his henchmen around the country called the shots and were getting rich in the process. After all, to the older generation, despite the corruption and abuse of the opposition, they were still heroes of struggle that had given the country its freedom.
Once in power, the PDP made sure it stayed – all the while maintaining the trappings of democracy, of course. General elections were simply rubber stamps. The largest minority couldn’t vote at all. There weren’t any checks and balances. Real power rested within the PDP party and its system of choosing candidates – a closed election restricted to party members. Even party members in the countryside didn’t bother to try to vote. It was too much trouble and didn’t seem to make any difference.
When the opposition got too brash, they beat them, shot them, or sometimes simply burned them to death to set an example. Frustration was brewing. Along came a man who saw things differently, Gato. He was a nobody, a part-time preacher with no money and few prominent supporters. He had tried to work within the system to help his flock, but failed. So, he decided to challenge the system. He aimed to run in the Party elections for the office of chief executive.
He wasn’t so much laughed at as ignored. Gato campaigned hard in churches, farms, fishing ports, and towns – home to the PDP grassroots members who were long forgotten by the elite in the capital. The media paid scant attention; they, too, were based in the cities and didn’t bother to look outside.
The day of the election arrived. So confident was the PDP that it didn’t even try to rig the vote as it had done in the past. Gato – to everyone’s surprise but his own – had the most votes. Stunned, Nudo forced a long delay in the official count while it appealed to the Supreme Court -- all PDP loyalists -- which quickly ordered a recount. Who did the recount? The National Election Commission, controlled 100% by Nudo and the PDP. To nobody’s surprise, Nudo won.
Gato didn’t give up however. He found a second chance, one long overlooked. He would run in the rubber-stamp general election, turning it into a de facto runoff. He found an obscure party that agreed to make him its nominee, thus getting himself on the ballot. He also figured out to use the media to pay attention; he knew that all publicity is good publicity for a nobody. By the time the PDP realized that it had a problem, it was too late to rig the vote. Gato won, and won big. This time, Nudo gave in and conceded.
The country in which this story took place was not Zimbabwe, Kenya, or Nigeria, or anyplace else in Africa. It was America. It was Florida. It happened here in the 1916 governor’s race. The winner was none other than DeFuniak Springs’ own Sidney Johnston Catts.
I start with this tale to remind us that electoral fraud knows no borders. It can be American or African – it can happen anywhere anytime that the seduction of power isn’t matched by commitment to the rule of law. The 1916 Florida governor’s race occurred exactly as Americans celebrated their 140th birthday. Or if you prefer, exactly 40 years after the Compromise of 1876, when Northern Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in exchange for the White House, with result of white supremacy enforced by one-party rule in Florida and the rest of the South.
Most African countries have been independent for 40, maybe 50 years. We should expect progress to be measured as two steps forward, one back. Sometimes, two steps back, one forward. That’s the way we’ve done in America. Even with this warning, however, there is plenty of good news.
A. Good News Stories
Ghana just underwent its fifth consecutive relatively free and fair national election, and a consecutive change of party.
Liberia emerged from two decades of gruesome civil war to elect Africa’s first woman chief of state, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson – educated in an American mission school and American universities.
Botswana has enjoyed democratic stability since independence. It’s also figured out a way to manage one of Africa’s great curses – mineral wealth – for the benefit of all society, not just a few at the top.
South Africa made the transition to majority rule in 1994 and hasn’t looked back.
The notion of the president-for-life now is the exception, not the rule. Leaders have handed over power democratically in Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Benin, Botswana, and Mali.
In Africa, there’s a tradition dating back thousands of years of problem-solving by consensus. Among the Yoruba in Nigeria, there’s a proverb: “We join together to take wise decisions, not foolish ones”.
West African towns have what’s called a palaver house – a kind of community center where citizens sit in a circle talking about matters of the day. African political systems that are succeeding in part work because they draw on this tradition. Their forms and constitutions may copy ours or European ones, but look closely at how they really operate, and you will find the principle of consensus. That’s democracy rooted in local traditions. Just as property rights and equality before the law lies at the root of American democracy, consensus lies at the root of African democracy.
MORE GOOD NEWS STORIES
Let me give you some more good news.
A. Conflict Resolution
Since 2002, we have witnessed the end of six conflicts in six countries: Angola, Burundi, Southern Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the first Congo war.
The first African peacekeepers – trained and outfitted by the United States – held the peace in Burundi, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and now are on the scene in Somalia and in Darfur, Sudan.
A group of African wise men now serves the continent as mediators: men such as Nelson Mandela and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. As we speak, former Nigerian President Obansanjo is the mediator for the terrible conflict on the eastern Congo.
Even piracy, a foreseeable consequence of a weakly-governed Somalia, has forced a collective response from the nations of Africa and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, let us remember that piracy is nothing new. That Somalis have engaged in it since antiquity, given their strategic location. That in West Africa, piracy continues to grow as trade increases. Remember, too, that the first American military presence on the African continent came two centuries ago, against the Barbary Pirates on the shores of Tripoli. That the first international response to violations of the law came in Africa with the Anti-Slavery Multinational Naval Task Force active from the 1820s through the 1850s. Led by the British Royal Navy, American warships patrolled the coast of Africa, often confronting American slavers.
B. The Economy
What about the economy? Actually, much of Africa was doing quite well until the global economic crisis hit late last year. From 2000 until 2008, Africa as whole grew at the same rate as the rest of the world, about 5 percent per year. In 2006, every single country in Africa grew except one – Zimbabwe. Stock exchanges are thriving in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. Some of the highest annual rates of return on investment are in Africa. Send your money to Africa if you’re serious about high yields. New middle classes have appeared in Kenya and Ghana, while more and more black and brown South Africans are joining the ranks of the once all-white middle class in their country.
True, American trade with the continent is still small - roughly 1 percent of our overall foreign trade, but is growing fast. The African Growth and Opportunity Act – a Clinton-era initiative enthusiastically expanded by Bush, has knocked down barriers, but much remains to be done. Much of the trade in any case continues to be in minerals. Nigeria and Angola have surpassed Saudi Arabia as sources of oil to the U.S. Guinea and Ghana are major sources of bauxite. Congo is the source for certain strategic minerals used in high tech – like cobalt. Disorder in these countries can quickly force up prices here in the U.S.; we saw this last year when Niger Delta oil was cut back because of rebel attacks.
Africa, though, is more than minerals. The world’s highest rate of cell phone expansion is in Africa. The continent, never really wired for telephones, simply leaped over the landline era directly into wireless. Today the largest private companies – African-owned -- are often cell phone providers. Think of cell phones as the high-tech version of the palaver house. A continent based on a rich oral tradition has ridden the 21st century version of talk fast.
A. Florida-Africa Trade
What about Florida? Since 2005, Florida exports to SSA have grown faster than to any other part of the world, in part thanks to the efforts of the state trade promotion agency, Enterprise Florida. Enterprise Florida focuses on assisting small and medium business sell overseas. It operates an Africa program run by a man – a former Foreign Service Officer -- who knows Africa well and has helped numerous Florida business get into the export trade.
But, it is not enough to talk about government and big business. For most of our history, private citizens – not Uncle Sam or Wall Street – have been at the heart of the U.S.-Africa relationship.
B. Florida Links to Africa
Take Sister Cities. The State of Florida is twinned with the province of Eastern Cape, South Africa; JacksonvilIe, Delray Beach, Tallahassee, and Miami-Dade County each have links with African cities. The first Florida link goes back to 1976, between Eatonville and Bamenda, Cameroun. Eatonville, now overtaken entirely by suburban Orlando, was originally an all-black community best known as the childhood home of the great writer Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston is known first nowadays as an African-American writer. But I urge you to think of her as a great regionalist of Florida and the South who saw the influence of Africa everywhere and with everyone, whether black or white. My favorite book of hers is perhaps her least known, Seraph of the Suwannee, a novel without a major black character, but about a white pioneer family settling in frontier Central Florida.
C. Historical Ties to Africa
Florida’s relationship with Africa, however, didn’t start in 1976. It goes back millions of years, and I’m glad to see it the topic of a session here today. According to continental drift theory, Florida once was attached to West Africa – Sierra Leone and Guinea to be precise. Whatever the rocks may say, I say go to the coasts of these countries and I guarantee that you will be struck by the resemblance to coastal Florida, including right here in Walton County. Mangroves, sand dunes, crystal white beaches, swamps, glades, skinny pine trees, and palmetto scrub. You can even buy boiled peanuts on the roadside. Now, do you understand why I literally feel at home in Africa?
(2) St. Augustine
The oldest continuously-settled African-American community is right here in Florida. The Spanish established St. Augustine in 1565 – four decades before Jamestown and 54 years before the first Africans reached Jamestown. In St. Augustine and later, Pensacola, a good part of settlement was made up of black and mixed race settlers, many of them free and who became farmers and tradesmen – under Spanish law they were the equal of whites. Spanish Florida then served as a beacon of liberty for slaves in Georgia and the Carolinas. You will understand the urgency with which Tennessee’s General Andrew Jackson acted to kick Spain out and this haven for runaway slaves and to impose American authority.
(3) Place Names
Places called Guinea and Angola dot the American map from the Delaware to Texas, powerful evidence of lingering historical memory. Down the road from my own home in Northern Virginia is Guinea Station. It happens to be the site of the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where the great Confederate general died after perhaps his greatest victory, the Battle of Chancellorsville. I can’t help but to note the double irony of this Confederate hero who morally opposed slaveholding, dying in a hamlet named after the ancestral African home of so many slaves.
Then there’s Angola. The Angola Swamp in North Carolina. Angola, Louisiana – home to a prison. Angola, Florida – which doesn’t exist anymore. How’s that for a track record? A swamp, a prison, and a ghost town. Speaking of Angola: 8-12 millions Americans are descendants of Angolan slaves, who first arrived in the first shipload in Jamestown in 1619. That puts Angola roughly in the same league as Italy and Poland as ancestral homelands to Americans. But you won’t find that fact in the textbooks.
(4) The Kingsleys
Let me note the name of the most powerful African-born woman in the history of Florida, and arguably of the entirely country: Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley. She was the wife of the richest planter in Florida in the early 19th century, Zephaniah Kingsley; and was born into a royal family in what is modern Senegal. Their original home is preserved today on a beautiful location outside Jacksonville near the mouth of the St. John’s River. They were also the first prominent mixed race couple – black and white – in American history, perhaps the most prominent and powerful ever. Sadly, many of their descendants ended up in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and back in Africa – Liberia -- essentially as refugees escaping American slavery.
Outside the legacy of slavery itself, there is no more profound factor in the U.S.-Africa relationship than the role of church-supported missions. Africans themselves will tell you this, but not many U.S. academic historians. It was American missions that built and operated many of the first schools that educated Africans – black Africans. American missionaries lived as Africans, with Africans, and learned their languages. They stood in contrast to white colonials who lived apart from Africans and demanded that they speak European languages.
Today, that tradition continues and is growing. I am pleased to see that you will devote a full session to the story of Florida missions in Africa. I have seen Africans come to speak to congregations that only a generation ago would have kept them out because of the color of their skin. I have seen Americans of all backgrounds from every corner of our society work in African missions as teachers, doctors, nurses, and ministers, beloved by those communities they have dedicated their lives to.
American Jews and Muslims are joining Christians. After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Jewish organizations took notice of Africa. "Never again" happened again. Among others, the American Jewish Committee has joined the campaign to save Darfur -- itself a remarkable coalition of Christians, Jews, non-governmental organizations, academics, and students. The American Jewish Committee has started up programs in Nigeria and Ghana, signaling a long-term commitment to the continent.
Let’s remember that Sub-Saharan Africa is half Muslim. Yet, it’s easy to forget American Muslims have reached out for decades to Africans, and that many Africans who have immigrated to America are Muslim. In the 1960s and 70s, probably the most popular and respected American in Africa wasn’t Martin Luther King, and less Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. It was Muhammed Ali, the boxer, who fought in the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo). Ali was and continues to be a potent symbol of an America that can be black, can be Muslim, and can be himself – an individual with his own ideas. There was also Malcolm X, who traveled to Africa – another symbol of a vital, open America. I suggest to you that the stories of Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X have much to teach us in government about our role and image not just in Africa, but in every country where skin color may be dark and Islam has a place.
And both Ali and Malcolm X were subjects of major and commercially successful Hollywood movies starring Will Smith and Denzel Washington, movies that reverberated around the world. Ali was actually filmed in Mozambique, where its star, Will Smith, is today’s most popular American. Compare the serious treatment of Africa given in these and many other recent films to what once was, movies like Casablanca, the African Queen, scores of Tarzan movies that weren’t really about Africa at all but about white Americans and Europeans. Africa was merely a backdrop and Africans mostly absent from significant roles.
You’ve heard of the China, Israel and Cuba lobbies. Have you heard of the Africa lobby? Today, large and growing communities of Ethiopian-Americans, Somali-Americans, Nigerian-Americans, and others have spread across America, following the pattern of previous immigrants. Just as Cuban, Polish, and Chinese immigrants have done for many decades, African immigrants are learning, and learning well how to press the buttons of power in Washington. Pay attention, I say to my colleagues, this is something new, and you’d better understand it.
A. From Bush to Obama
That brings us to the child of an African who now occupies the White House. The election of the first black president, a man with a Kenyan father who came on a scholarship to Hawaii, has been celebrated as a kind of secular second coming throughout Africa. The symbolism is obvious. President Obama arrives with enormous expectations among Africans and Americans interested in Africa, expectations that he will do more and care more. I submit to you that the central challenge of U.S.-African relations today is the management of those unrealistically high expectations.
But the task will not be as hard as it could be. That’s because the outgoing administration of George W. Bush can rightfully claim a strong legacy in Africa. I don’t mean to be a cheerleader for the outgoing administration; remember that I am a career officer. But one of the reasons I love my job and that you sense a passion in my voice, is that truly good things happened over the last eight years. The Bush Administration has set the bar high on Africa, and for now the Obama team needs only to continue what is already in place.
B. The Bush Legacy
In 2001, few had any expectation that Bush would pay much attention to Africa, even less leave a legacy of unprecedented accomplishment. Bush started low on Africa and finished high. And he did it with a geopolitical strategy and bipartisan support that has earned the admiration of even his fiercest critics.
Major new programs, built on the hard learned lessons of the past, have been implemented, and have been given sufficient resources. Since 2001, foreign assistance to Sub-Saharan Africa has quadrupled in real terms.
I was asked a month ago in Arizona what I considered the Bush Administration’s major accomplishments in Africa. I responded off the top of my head that there were two that will stand the test of time. A month later, I stand by my answer.
(1) PEPFAR and PMI
First is public health. Specifically, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (or PEPFAR, as we call it). PEPFAR is the largest foreign assistance program by any country since the Marshall Plan. Now programmed for $30 billion over ten years, it is remarkable in scope, purpose, and effectiveness. Upwards of two million Africans are alive today because PEPFAR and its multilateral counterpart, the Global Fund, are providing anti-retroviral therapy on a continent where many said it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done. I was in on part of PEPFAR’s inception in Mozambique, and can tell you how hard it was. We made mistakes, but we persevered, working hand-in-glove with the Mozambicans. We found out what works, and did it.
That PEPFAR happened at all is an amazing story. That a conservative Republican administration fathered this massive program makes it even more remarkable and ought to challenge certain assumptions about the constituency for foreign policy and foreign assistance. It passed with and has maintained strong bipartisan support since the beginning. I will add that church missions played a crucial role. The evangelical constituency took a crucial leadership role. Pastors – American and African – were telling mother churches in America that their congregations were dying. That was and is the reality. Two of the most prominent were Rev. Franklin Graham and Pastor Rick Warren. They helped carry the message to the White House that, Mr. President, you have to do something and do it fast. That something was PEPFAR.
I would argue that PEPFAR also made it possible to get the bipartisan political support to tackle another major disease. Africa’s No. 1 killer is not AIDS, or war; it’s malaria. And malaria kills children first and last. The great tragedy of malaria is that we have known for a long time how to confront it, how to treat it, how to prevent it, and even how to wipe it out. That’s how the President’s Malaria Initiative was launched with the goal of wiping out malaria in target African countries. It’s already had a success in eliminating it from Zanzibar. Treated bed nets, a cheap yet effective tool, are already saving young lives that three years ago would have been lost.
(2) America’s Strategic Vision of Africa
The second great accomplishment can’t be explained in terms of lives saved, people treated, mouths fed, and dollars spent. It’s a fundamental change of attitude of how we perceive Africa. For the first time in history, the United States views Africa as a real place, with real governments, with real interests, and with real people. Those are my words. Political scientists and foreign policy specialists put it a bit differently: since 9/11, U.S. global strategy has recognized the threat of weakly governed states and non-state actors to our national security. In other words, Africa matters. I like to say that Africa has gone from being two centuries on the margins of American foreign policy to being in the center.
Specifically, we understand that there are rising regional powers in Africa with their own national interests: Nigeria and South Africa. I include Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ghana as well. They all have national interests in regional stability, long term prosperity through the rule of law and trade, and collective security. Thus, the U.S. has supported the African Union as the continent’s collective security organ. Sub-regional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) buttress the AU and allow for greater roles for small countries. The creation of the new Africa Command – AFRICOM – reflects this new strategic vision – that Africa matters.
We now use the term “partnership” to convey the idea of strategic relationships. Partnership signifies a relationship of sovereign equals. Former Secretary of State Rice put it this way: "Partnership means working with, not for, Africans." One preposition says it all: with. This represents a new vocabulary for Africa. At its core, this reflects a maturing of the American attitude toward Africa. But listen closely and you will hear the very same vocabulary that we have used for our relations with Europe since at least World War II. We now view Africa as we have always viewed Europe – a real place with real people who have real interests.
To be sure, one administration cannot and should not take credit for this – after all, I’m really talking about changes that have been in place since the high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement 45 years ago. Put differently, the recognition at the highest levels of government that Africa matters was long overdue. Bush II simply recognized it under the gun of 9/11.
Two great accomplishments: PEPFAR and maturing of our attitude, a new strategic vision, toward Africa. Moreover, it took that change of attitude, of assumptions, to make PEPFAR and every other new program possible.
That’s quite a legacy to leave to the new Administration. Believe me, it is appreciated – there are more than enough challenges elsewhere without having to try to reinvent Africa policy, too.
I have argued that in terms of Africa, Barack Obama marks not change -- a word I don’t use lightly -- but continuity. For four and a half centuries, Africa has been part of who we are as Floridians and Americans. For more than a century, citizen activists, citizen diplomats – not the government -- have defined the American engagement with Africa, much as they have pushed to overcome our own flaws at home, such as what Sydney Catts did in1916. One day history will look back and say that they were among the real sources of this ever strong, dynamic, and positive U.S.-Africa relationship.
Maybe even we in the Federal Government can stand back and learn from this story. I think that great soldier-president, Dwight David Eisenhower, the man who led us to victory in Europe in World War II, had it right when on another 9/11 -- September 11, 1956 – he called for people-to-people diplomacy, an army of citizen diplomats that resulted in Sister Cities, world affairs councils around the country, and expanded academic and professional exchanges.
Presidents come and go. Secretaries of State come and go. Congresses come and go.
What will not and cannot change is this fundamental shift, a societal shift, of attention towards Africa, one based in history as well as national interest. It is here for good, at this, the grassroots level. It is here for good because, in reality, it has always been here, though under wraps. It’s out in the open now, the genie is out of the bottle, and it’s a very good genie if we treat it well. You, the Florida Chautauqua, are part of this phenomenon. By choosing this theme for your 2009 conference, you are steering full throttle into the mighty current of the U.S.-Africa relationship. I know you will enjoy the ride these next few days and more. Maybe even you will swept up by the current, just as I have for all these years.
Thank you for this opportunity. I’ll be glad to take any questions and listen to comments.