Conversations With America: U.S. Engagement With the African Union

Cheryl Benton
   Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Michael A. Battle, Sr.
   Ambassador to the African Union 
Steve McDonald, Africa Program Director, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Washington, DC
March 16, 2012

MS. BENTON: Hello, and welcome to the U.S. Department of State and the Foreign Press Center. This is Conversations with America, a discussion between top State Department officials and NGO leaders where you can watch and participate in the exchange of ideas. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs. Today’s topic is U.S. Engagement with the African Union. We’ve received questions and comments on today’s topic from all around the world through our blog DipNote and through Twitter. We’ve selected several for this broadcast. Now, let’s meet our guests.

We are privileged to have Ambassador Michael Battle, U.S Ambassador to the African Union. He’s joined us today for this discussion. Ambassador Battle is in town for the State Department’s Chief of Mission conference. Thank you for taking the time out of your extremely busy schedule to participate in this program.

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Cheryl.

MS BENTON: Steve McDonald is the Director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Thank you for making time to join us for this discussion, Steve.

MR. MCDONALD: Glad to be here. Thank you.

MS. BENTON: I want to start off my first question to the Ambassador. How would you describe the relationship between the United States and the African Union?

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: The relationship between the United States and the African Union is designed around the premise that it is in our strategic, tactical, and vested interest to have a kind of capacity – to strengthen the capacity of the African Union, to make the African Union strong where it is not so strong, to cooperate with the African Union in areas where it is strong, and most importantly, to collaborate with the partners of the African Union who provide 90 percent of the program budget for the African Union and a substantial percentage of the operational budget of the African Union. So it’s working with the African Union, the UNECA, the Africa Development Bank, and the partners. And we feel that it makes good sense – not just short-term, but long-term strategic sense – to be engaged with the rapidly growing continent – the continent that has more member states in the United Nations than any other continent. So it just makes good policy sense.

MS. BENTON: Good. Thank you. Steve, can you describe your thoughts around that?

MR. MCDONALD: Well, first of all I’m delighted to hear what Ambassador Battle had to say, because one of the concerns from the nongovernmental civil society side of this equation is that we felt for years that Africa doesn’t get the kind of attention that it needs in terms of priority interest and strategic interest from the United States. And Ambassador Battle’s presence – very presence and the nature of the description that he just gave of U.S. policy towards the African Union is really encouraging.

Obviously, it needs help. The African Union, when it came into existence in 2002 replacing the organization African Unity, gave us a lot of hope that there was going to be better organization, better coordination, better leadership on the continent, and more responsible leadership than the – and the more we can do to assist that, the better it is. And I’m glad to hear the United States is committed to that. Thank you.

MS. BENTON: From both of your perspectives, I want to ask you: How is the United States working to assist the African Union’s capacity to address the many opportunities and challenges facing the continent?

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: In terms of our key programs, we function in a variety of areas. My office was responsible for providing the African Union with the monetary support and the personnel support to actually write and develop the democracy and the electoral assistance unit. So we completely funded that, but we funded it with persons that we allowed the African Union to select. And just recently, we have been able to, through cooperation with USAID, to provide for the commissioner of social affairs – who has the medical portfolio – a number of staff persons who are working to make sure that the campaign for the reduction of mortality, particularly with women who are having children, with the AIDS programs and other programs.

And we’ve taken the approach, since I’ve been at USAU that we will only provide the AU what the AU ask for. We never go the AU and say this is a pet program of the U.S. and we think you ought to – want to use this program. Now there are some times that in conversation with the African Union, we discover that there are needs that the AU – what – need our assistance in helping them to articulate the need. But we don’t give them the language. We simply talk about what it is that their strategic vision has set forth. And over the last couple of years, the African Union, African Development Bank, and UNECA has a collaborative strategic partnership with a joint secretariat.

And last June, in fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Addis, addressed the African Union in Addis and then had my office accredited not only to the African Union but also to UNECA, which gives us entré into what the UNECA and Africa Development Bank is doing with Africa policy.


MR. MCDONALD: Well, again, I think that’s very laudable. We – I think the strength of Africa in the long-term, in terms of development and security issues as well, and development writ large in terms of the trade investment as well as infrastructure development, et cetera, will be in leadership and unity at the top, and the development of regional integration. I’m happy to see that those things are beginning to go forward and hear the kinds of engagement that the U.S. Government has with that. From the private sector side that I represent, there’s a limited amount we can do. Mostly, it’s in terms of encouraging and empowering. We work very closely with Ambassador Amina Ali, who I know you know well, who’s the AU – who’s your counterpart --

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: My counterpart. Yes.

MR. MCDONALD: -- the AU Ambassador to the United States, in helping her to interact with members of Congress on the Hill. And, for instance, I co-host something called the African partnership for economic growth coalition with members of the Hill and the African diplomatic corps and Ambassador Ali.

And we’re also working, as you know – and you’re cooperating in this – on a conference on African regional integration that’s going to take place in Addis this coming May, which is co-sponsored by Romano Prodi’s worldwide foundation – he’s the former prime minister of Italy and also the president of the European Union. So, we’re very involved in this.

But bringing in other major powers, not just the European Union, the United States, but China, Turkey, India, Brazil – to talk about international cooperation around the integration of issues in – on development, security, trade, investment.

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: May I follow-up just briefly?

MS. BENTON: Absolutely.

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: One of the things that Steve mentioned with regard to the Prodi conference, and I think is absolutely essential – in fact, we first met at the Prodi conference two years ago in Bologna. And I strongly urged Prime Minister Prodi to have the conference in Addis, on the continent. Last year’s conference in the U.S. was splendidly attended. There were not enough leaders from the African Union or the UNECA present. But by coming to a capital – diplomatic capital of the African continent – I think the Prodi conference offers phenomenal opportunity to be a game changer, because he focuses on the African continent as a single continent without the artificial divide between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. It’s 54 nations in one continent. It is not a divided continent. And I think that’s essential not only for what Prodi is doing, but is essential for articulating what nations that support the African continent have to make the transition of understanding. That is ultimately one continent. It is not two continents.

MR. MCDONALD: The very title of the conference, “54 Countries in One Union.”

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

MR. MCDONLD: And you’re quite right. This time it will be co-hosted by the African Union and UNECA, the Economic Commission of Africa, and the rest of us are (inaudible).

MS. BENTON: That’s great. Now Steve, you work a lot with civil society.


MS. BENTON: How does that interaction with civil society respond to the crises on the continent? Whether this is violent conflict, humanitarian crisis, or disaster relief efforts?

MR. MCDONALD: Well, of course that’s writ very large, and the Wilson Center itself tries to track and be as involved as it can. But our mandate is really helping to engage and inform the policy community on, not just issues – I mean, Ambassador Battle doesn’t need to be told what’s going on in Africa, he knows very well – but to look through constructive options on how to respond and address. And working with members of the Hill who don’t have all the time in the world to devote solely to Africa, and yet they have responsibilities on passing legislation around it.

So, whether it’s the beginning of the drought situation in the Sahel or whether it’s the violence against women in eastern DRC, whatever it may be, we run a variety of programs, which include everything from public programs to off-the-record Chatham House Rule, working groups with the very key players. We’re working on Sudan, for instance, with your colleague, Princeton Lyman, the Special Envoy for Sudan, and members from the Hill, and others.

Or also, the Woodrow Wilson Center itself is engaged in actual conflict resolution programs. Now this is something that’s a little bit unusual for us, because we really are practitioners on the ground with post-conflict collaborative capacity building exercise of leadership in Burundi, in Liberia, working with the governments there in the DRC, working on security sector reform, as well. And again, we coordinate, of course, and sometimes are funded by USAID, State Department, and coordinate very closely with them and with AFRICOM as we – the African Command, as we undergo these programs. The whole civil society community, whether they’re focused on peace building, humanitarian assistance, crisis intervention, I think work the same way.

MS. BENTON: Good deal.

MR. MCDONALD: There’s a great partnership between public-private sectors on this kind of work.

MS. BENTON: And I assume you also represent civil society?

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: It is absolutely essential to work with civil society, in part because there’s a perspective that is not affected by governmental policy. It’s a perspective that is affected by what is heard and seen on the ground.

Prior to my accepting the appointment as ambassador, I used to be vice-chair of the American Committee on Africa, which is now, of course, Africa Action. So I was very engaged on Steve’s side of the coin. And now, to be engaged on this side of the coin, I’m even more convinced that the voices from the NGOs, from civil society, ought – voices that must be heard, that we must collaborate with – not to shape and redefine policy, but to understand and articulate policy well. And that collaborative relationship makes for a stronger African Union – in fact, it makes for a stronger world, when all of the voices are being heard.

As you know, on the African continent, there are some nations that are not so inclined toward NGOs and civil society. So we, as partners of the African Union are constantly saying to the African Union that if your countries don’t listen to civil society, don’t listen to what the NGOs are doing on the ground, your political leaders are going to run the risk of missing the opportunity to forecast social change and to avert change and mitigate conflict before conflict emerges. So the relationship with Woodrow Wilson Center and with the Institute of Strategic Studies in Addis – absolutely essential.

MR. MCDONALD: And to add to that, and you really alluded to it, Ambassador, is the fact that we’re really great partners in this. The terminology they use on this sort of the conflict resolution side of track one, track two, is really a working partnership, because often government can’t. In culturally sensitive situations where there’s an assumption of an agenda by government entities, need a neutral third party to able to make those linkages and bring together for trust building and collaborative relations.

MS. BENTON: Well, very good. I wanted to get some questions in, and we’ve received many questions on DipNote and Twitter regarding today’s topic. Brock in New Jersey writes: What can the State Department do to promote in the United States a wider awareness of the AU’s charter for democratic elections?


MS. BENTON: It’s a great question.

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: I’m very pleased to state in this context that our offices were very very instrumental in assisting the African Union in articulating the process of getting the needed number of states on the African continent to endorse the charter. Now that 15 nations have endorsed the charter, it is continent-wide policy. We could not do a whole lot in the American context in terms of generating interest prior to the endorsement by 15 nations in part because we did not want to give the impression that we were putting pressure on any of the nations to endorse the charter – even though we were, in fact, strongly encouraging the charter to be endorsed. But the reason we resisted the appearance of pressure is because we were told very clearly by the Commission on Public Affairs and Political Affairs of the African Union, we don’t want you out front on this. We want you to help us from behind. And so that’s what we’d done.

Now that the charter has been endorsed by 15 nations, and now that it becomes continent-wide policy, we are deeply engaged now in articulating to the American population what that charter means. It gives African – the African Union the authority because of its non-indifference policy. It gives the African Union the authority to say to all 54 nations there is a standard on democracy, there’s a standard on good governance, there’s a standard on elections, there’s a standard that all of us must apply to – not only because we want to meet our millennium development goals, not because we’re looking for a contract with USAID, but because it makes good policy sense. So that’s what we are doing now, articulating the good policy sense of the charter.

MS. BENTON: That’s wonderful.

MR. MCDONALD: Yeah. Well, I can add very little to that. Obviously, the great difference between the organization of African Unity and the African Union is exactly this. There’s this taking on the responsibility, policing their own territory, not acquiescing to humanitarian and undemocratic activities within a country. So this is a major difference.

Your question is, of course, what can we do – to the question that we were asked, is what can we do to make this better known, because it’s not that well-known. And now, Mike fully understands this, that we need to reach out to the broader public here – Conversations with America is a good way of doing that – so have more programs like this that focus on this issue.

Our engagement with Congress, all kinds of organizations like Africare and Constituency for Africa, and many others that are trying to better inform people really need to work with him, because this is a message that doesn’t come across. There’s still this stereotype of Africa broadly-speaking and including amongst policy makers on the Hill, that Africa’s a lost cause, that it all is Somalia, if you will. It’s all the bad news, and they don’t understand what’s going on in terms of the Charter and a very honest attempt – maybe there’s still some leadership problems, maybe there’s still some problems with coordination and implementation. But a very honest attempt to make Africa responsible on a democratic --

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: Absolutely. And the fact that the African Union and the African continent wants to assume that responsibility. It is the only regional organization that has a non-indifference policy, as opposed to a noninterference policy. And the non-indifference policy invites the African Union and mandates that the African Union does in fact interfere where bad governance is taking place.

MR. MCDONALD: I might actually talk about the peer review mechanism (inaudible) --

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

MR. MCDONALD: We’re actually reviewing its --

MS. BENTON: Good. I want to take another question from Michael in Uganda: Will the U.S. give both logistical and technical support to the newly formed AU Joint Task Force to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army?

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: Well, actually we have already done so, and we’re in the process. So I’m glad that the question was raised in the context of will we do, because it allows me to say yes we are. In fact, we were the first nation to actually engage early on. We have at least 100 advisors working with the LRA – not only with Uganda, but with South Sudan, which is probably the most fragile state on the African continent because of its newness.

So we are – and the reason that we have the advisors is that it is to help the nations that are affected by the LRA to actually track Kony. Kony has a very small group of people that somehow they’ve managed to intimidate four nations because of their very aggressively negative, violent behavior toward women in particular and to our children. So what we’re trying to suggest is that the nations that are affected cannot track Kony with the technological expertise that they have. So we’re lending technological surveillance advantage. We’re not engaged in any kind of hot pursuit of Kony; we’re assisting the capacity of the African nations.

Now, we have been collaborating with the four nations that are engaged. We’re collaborating with the UN. We’re collaborating with the African Union. So it is essentially an African Union regional activity supported by U.S. expertise.

MS. BENTON: All right. Good. Do you have any interaction or willing --

MR. MCDONALD: Well, the only thing I would add there – and it’s not a contradiction at all, it goes back to my point of the need for government, nongovernmental – is as we look at security issues of this major terrorist issues that are really serious and have to be responded to, often in a military way, never lose sight of the need for conflict resolution for dealing with the core causes of the problem. Because Joseph Kony starts a long, long time ago, and there are many problems around that in terms of inequities and unfairness in the northern Acholi, Langi regions of north Uganda that need to be addressed. And so those are things that we look at and people need to keep conscious of.

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: And you see one of the ways that the NGO community and civil society is going to be exceedingly up for in this process is military intervention cannot reintegrate the women who have been abused. You have women who are 30, 40 years old who have been sex slaves since they were 13. And military cannot reintegrate them into society. It doesn’t have the capacity to reintegrate. The military cannot reintegrate these children soldiers back into society. These are young children who were forced to see their fathers murdered, see their mothers and sisters raped in front of them, and then they were recruited into an army protecting the people who killed their father and raped their mothers and their sisters. The NGO community is the only community that has the capacity and the long-term vested interest and facility to help these women and children reintegrate into society.

Where the military becomes important is, it opens up the space to capture Kony – because if you don’t capture him, you’re not going to reintegrate anybody, because everybody is so afraid of him. So we need to capture him militarily. He needs to go before the international criminal court. He needs to be prosecuted. And once he is done away with, the number of women who will be able to come out and celebrate a new opportunity in life, which they will not celebrate as long as he is running around, because they are absolutely and justifiably afraid of this man. So we capture him, you guys reintegrate into --

MR. MCDONALD: Well, and beyond the human tragedy and reintegration also is that it opens the space for development --


MR. MCDONALD: -- and to begin to all the other things that we want to in terms of assisting Uganda.

MS. BENTON: Okay. I wanted to get a question in from Twitter, and we’ve received a number of them. One from @estherclimate asks: What does the U.S. think about China donating a modern building complex to the African Union?

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: I was asked this same question when I was doing a taping with Ethiopian TV, and the person who was doing the interview said, “How are you going to feel walking into this massive building built by the Chinese?” I said, “I’m going to feel absolutely splendid and wonderful walking into the building,” for two reasons: the U.S. would never build the building. The African continent cannot afford to build the building. So China is doing some of the infrastructure development that we cannot and will not do and that the African continent cannot afford to do.

But yet, there was a great need for the African Union to have a facility that could actually house its summit, because up until this year the African Union has had to rent UNECA to have its own buildings, which was costing the African Union money, taking money out of the African Union budget, putting it into the UNECA budget. So I have zero problems – zero difficulty with much of the activity that China is doing. What I would like to see and what Assistant Secretary Carson is actively trying to see is how we can find synergies that we could work with the Chinese. I mean, the Chinese Government is not a competitor for the U.S. on the African continent, because we have strategically different orientations. They are not the bad guy; they are the people doing stuff that we are not going to do. And so I embrace it. Yeah.

MR. MCDONALD: Well, couldn’t agree more. The larger issue of China in Africa is one that we – is a reality that we need to face and we need to see how we can work together. I think that it was once best addressed by the managing director of the World Bank who is now the Nigerian minister of finances who said, “Well, the only problem here is for Africa to set its agenda on its dealing with China.” So that’s the way it should be done. We should cooperate with Africa within and how Chinese influence investment development unfolds in their countries, but let them set the agenda.

And I think you would agree, Ambassador Battle, that over the last 10 years the presence of China has changed dramatically. The China of ten or so years ago where they were accused, quite rightfully so, of coming in to do large infrastructure projects and bringing all Chinese labor and supplies and really not helping the economies that they were engaged in. That’s changed. The Chinese are learning their lessons under some pressure from the international community, but because Africans are demanding that they do.

And so it’s a matter of cooperation. There is plenty of room for all, enough work to be done --

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: Oh, absolutely.

MR. MCDONALD: -- and as you say, we’re not doing the big infrastructure projects anyway, we can’t, we don’t have the money to do it. So better – more power to them.

MS. BENTON: Well, I’m always startled when I get to the end of a great conversation, and – but it is time to conclude this session. Ambassador Battle, will you share your final thoughts with us, and then I’ll – Steve, I’ll turn to you.

One of the things I want to say is I’ve been struck by the common theme here that whatever is done on the continent most likely has to be led by the continent.

AMBASSADOR BATTLE: Absolutely. President Obama articulated in his Ghana speech that the international community cannot dictate to the African continent. The international community cannot shape the future of the African continent. It can partner with the African continent. And that is a significant difference. Not only was the language different, but there is a philosophical difference between partnering with and seeking to guide.

My office just sponsored a couple weeks ago a discussion in Addis on a review of 10 years of the African Union, and we invited a number of people in Addis to talk about what the successes of the African Union in these 10 years and some of the failures of the African Union. But at the end of the day, the conclusion was that the African Union needs to be stronger. We have the capacity to help make it stronger, and we have the obligation to help make it stronger. And we partnered very closely with the international community of development and with the NGOs and with civil society – critically important.

MS. BENTON: Okay. Steve, can you give us your final thoughts?

MR. MCDONALD: Yeah. Well, just briefly I’d pick up on the two things already developed in, and I know Ambassador Battle has no problem with either one of them, and that is that it’s imperative that we understand the rightful role of Africa in terms of the global village, their importance to us in economic and strategic terms that we as a government and we as a civil society pay more attention to that. Africa’s going on a billion people and it’s a huge place. I think I’ve seen statistics that China and Russia together would fit geographically inside the continent of Africa. It’s really currently underpopulated. It has potentials in agriculture. Fifty percent of the arable land in the world that’s not being used, but at the same it’s also the largest GDP growth in the world, return on investment in the world, it’s just a place where we need to be involved and we need to focus in.

And the second theme is to reiterate the need for private-public cooperation on all of this, because there’s roles for all of us to play. One of the great ironies in my life of 40-some years watching Africa and working in Africa is that particularly in a divided time like this in American politics, Africa is one of those bipartisan issues that we can get Republicans and Democrats and policy makers and government and non-government to work together in a constructive way.

MS. BENTON: Wonderful. Well, sadly that concludes this session of Conversations with America. I’d like to thank Ambassador Battle and Mr. Steve McDonald for sharing their work and knowledge with us. Also I’d like to thank each of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Department of State’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again soon. Thank you.