Africa Day Keynote Address

Reuben Brigety
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
Washington Hilton
Washington, DC
May 23, 2013

Thank you for that kind introduction. Ambassador Mombuli, Ambassador Baali, Ambassador Odembo, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, and all protocol observed, good evening. It is a distinct honor to be here with you this evening to celebrate Africa Day and all that this day represents – pride in the continent, reverence for its history, its partnerships in the present, and faith in its future, lifting up the vision of an Africa that is peaceful, prosperous and proud.

It is fitting that on this particular Africa Day in 2013, we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Organization of African Unity. Just as 1963 was a seminal year in the fight for freedom in Africa, so it was also a seminal year in the fight for freedom in the United States. Just as brave freedom fighters fought for their independence in Kenya, Algeria and other places across Africa, so did brave citizens march for their freedom in Birmingham, Selma and other cities across America. Just as Africa’s founding fathers – like Kwame Nkruma, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Sekou Touré, Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Haile Selassie - created the OAU in Addis Ababa as an expression of unity amongst all Africans, so did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. march on Washington to share his Dream as an expression of the inherent equality of all Americans. And just as the African Union has evolved to be led by the first woman in its history – Dr. Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma – so has our country evolved to be led by the first African-American in its history – President Barack Obama.

Yet the histories of our peoples – Africans and Americans – are much more than lives lived in parallel, like eucalyptus trees growing tall but separately. Instead, our histories are more like sturdy vines, weaving into each other as they grow toward the sunlight, increasingly and inevitably intertwined. The explosion of independent African states in the early 1960s gave hope to millions of oppressed people around the world, including here in the U.S., that freedom was on the march and that a brighter day was coming. The heroism of Nelson Mandela and the martyrdom of Stephen Biko inspired a generation of Americans to make common cause with those fighting to end the last vestiges of apartheid and colonialism in Africa. Prominent Americans, like Dr. Ralph Bunche and Amb. Andrew Young, worked to midwife the birth of free African states from the Congo to Zimbabwe. The riveting prose of Chinua Achebe and the elegant verse of Leopold Senghor awakened the consciousness of Africans and Americans to the beauty and the challenges of contemporary Africa. And when the scourge of HIV/AIDS threatened to decimate a generation of young people across the continent, the United States responded with PEPFAR, spending billions of dollars to save millions of lives. We are, without a doubt, peoples inextricably linked.

To be certain, our common histories are also full of painful memories and instances of profound regret. It was the horror of the transatlantic slave trade that first brought Africans, including my ancestors, to the shores of North America in great numbers. Also, there is no doubt that our government could have and should have done more to support many of the liberation struggles in Africa. And former President Bill Clinton publicly and prominently apologized for the failure of the United States to do more to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Yet anniversaries such as today offer an opportunity to embrace the future as well as a chance to reflect on the past. The United States is optimistic about Africa’s future, and we are committed to being a stalwart and unshakable partner in the project of building a prosperous Africa at peace with itself and the world. It is in recognition of our shared past and faith in our common future that President Obama will make an extended trip to Africa in late June, accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama. Yes, we are indeed confident in Africa’s future, particularly with regard to Africa’s political unity, growing economy, and expanding opportunity.

One of the most encouraging and exciting African developments in the last decade has been the degree to which the African Union – successor to the OAU – has set the pace for unified political standards and conflict resolution on the continent. It has taken an indispensible leadership role in addressing political crises from Madagascar to Mali. The adoption of the AU Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance by member states is a collective commitment to a transparent and participatory government. And the African Union Peer Review Mechanism is a powerful and admirable means for African states to hold themselves accountable to one another. It was in recognition of the potential of the AU to serve such a powerful role for Africa that the United States was proud to be the very first non-African country to accredit an ambassador solely to the African Union. Further, we were pleased that as one of her last acts of office, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a Memorandum of Understanding with AU Chairperson Dlamini-Zuma creating a Strategic Partnership between the United States and the African Union. And it is in recognition of the reality of the AU’s influence and importance today that Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the AU Summit and 50th Anniversary celebrations for the OAU in Addis Ababa this weekend, making him the first sitting U.S. Secretary of State to attend an AU summit.

The spread of democracy and good governance is one of the key factors leading to increased economic growth in Africa. We are pleased to recognize that six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. In the past fifteen years, two-way trade between Africa and the United States has grown from $31 billion to $99 billion. The African Growth and Opportunity Act has opened the American market to some $424 billion of African imports over the last twelve years, and the Obama administration is committed to the renewal of AGOA in 2015. There is enormous economic potential in infrastructure, agribusiness, consumer goods, manufacturing and a host of other sectors beyond extractive industries. The U.S. Government recognizes that the economic future of Africa is bright, and we want to help American companies benefit from these opportunities by engaging, investing, and partnering with African businesses. For this reason, a number of very senior American delegations have travelled to Africa in the last year alone to showcase African commercial opportunities to American firms. This has included visits by Deputy National Security Advisor for Economic Affairs Michael Froman to Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Nigeria; Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank to South Africa and Kenya; and Commerce Under Secretary Franciso Sanchez to Zambia and South Africa, to name but a few. We will make every effort to show the American private sector that Africa is open for business, and that they should seek opportunities to engage, partner, and invest there for our mutual benefit.

Finally, this trend of economic growth will hopefully lead to expanded opportunity for citizens across Africa. Africa is a young continent, with 60 percent of the total population under the age of 30. These young people have a great dynamism and hope for their future, but they will also need jobs and education to realize their individual potential and to contribute to the prosperity of their countries. For this reason, the Obama administration has pioneered the Young African Leadership Initiative, or YALI, which to date has engaged more than 250 young Africans in leadership training and networking with their peers across the continent. We continue to support over 260 students from 34 African countries to study in the United States through the Fulbright Program. And we are anxious to learn how we can be supportive of the Pan African University, which has great potential to revolutionize both the content and accessibility of tertiary education in Africa.

In conclusion, we should recognize that while our histories as Africans and Americans are well behind us, our future has yet to be written. As we celebrate this Africa Day, and reflect on the challenges and triumphs that have brought us to this moment, let us resolve to make our common future bright and prosperous, rooted in shared values, marked by mutual respect, and committed to dignity for all.

Thank you.