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February's Last Word


By Steve McDonald
Director, Africa Program and Leadership Project, The Wilson Center

I want to remark this month on the directions of U.S. policy on Africa under the new Administration team in Washington, but I would like to begin by a little self- examination of our blog and an appeal to readers.   A review of the outreach that Africa UP Close has made is revealing.  Since January, we have had a total of 2,025 visits, with 264 new visitors.  That almost doubles our total of 1,081 total visits in the last three months of 2012.  Quantitative measure is an important gauge, so we are very pleased that so many readers are clicking on us.  Just this month, we will undergo another major design and format change, which should make this site an even more useable and useful product.  And you can now follow us on Twitter where we will engage our followers in online discussion and debates.

The quality of our contributors has been very high, and they have taken on issues that are often controversial.  New for this month are posts, like the one from Francis Kornegay of the Institute for Global Dialogue, who challenges the Obama Administration to construct initiatives and policies that recognize Africa's importance in the global community, both economically and strategically.  David Zounmenou of the Institute for Security Studies challenges Africa to rethink both national and regional defense strategies, and give serious attention to real security sector reform.  James Ciera, Violet Murunga, and Juliette Mutheu of the African Institute for Development Policy urge African nations to enact appropriate policies and promote investment to enable Africa to harness the "demographic dividend" that the Asian Tigers did in the 1970-80s through reduced birth rates, greater maternal and public health, family planning, and sustained economic growth.  Fritz Nganje, a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue, will post a piece this coming Monday looking into the benefits of South-South cooperation for state building in post conflict societies. Nureldin Satti, UNESCO advisor for the Culture of Peace in Africa, will post in the coming month an article that asks Africa to understand its past, yet look to the future with respect for human dignity, mutual respect, and appreciation for the value of time and of honest, hard work. These are all essential building blocks of the African Renaissance, which is the theme of the 50th Anniversary of the OAU/Africa Union celebration in 2013.

We always welcome and encourage feedback from the continent on these issues, and the many more covered each month by our contributors.  We hope that Africa UP Close becomes both a resource and an outlet for your own considered opinions, experience, and insights. So, thank you for reading us, and please continue sharing your comments with us.

Now, on to the U.S. Administration.  Francis Kornegay's admonitions are spot on when he argues that President Obama and his government need to recognize the importance of Africa in the global context.  Despite many positive initiatives directed at Africa, including ones we have discussed in these pages, there is no African policy equivalent to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that is the cornerstone of the U.S. Asian policy.  Even the identification of the new "Global Swing States," as discussed by Kornegay, leaves out Africa.   To not understand the importance of the South Atlantic or the Indian Ocean as strategic imperatives is very short sighted of U.S. policymakers.

With that said, however, I was heartened by the first speech from our new Secretary of State, former Senator John Kerry.  Made at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville last week, Secretary Kerry mentioned Africa 8 times in various contexts.  One could expect his reference to Mali as a lesson to be learned for America when reviewing global commitments and national security decisions, as well as references to policy initiatives like PEPFAR and Feed the Future.  The refreshing aspect of his speech was the recognition of the continent's economic potential. Kerry cited not just the well-worn reference to 7 of the 10 fastest growing economies being in Africa, but noting that 4 of the 5 largest oil and natural gas discoveries had been made off the coast of Mozambique. He also pointed out that not only were there 600 U.S. firms doing business in South Africa, but a major South African energy company has made a multi-billion dollar investment in Louisiana and is creating jobs in America.

Secretary Kerry made special note of the independence of South Sudan, celebrating the end of the conflict that took 2 million lives, and praising "the intensive diplomatic efforts alongside our partners," including the Africa Union.   While he declared South Sudan as having been "born free," he seemed to fully understand the challenges ahead.

"I've stood in South Sudan," he said, "and have seen firsthand the challenges that still face the world's newest country and its government. These challenges threaten to reverse hard-won progress and stability there. That is why we are working closely with that nation to help it provide its citizens with essential services like health, water, education, and agriculture."

All in all, this seemed to be a very pragmatic, realistic presentation that proved remarkable in regards to the Secretary's breadth of attention towards Africa in his speech and the contexts in which that attention was given.  It provided insight into his own thinking about the need for continued and strengthened partnerships with African states and institutions on African issues, particularly with the AU.

We have to wait and see how the "Africa Team" will shape up at the U.S. Department of State, as key appointments like the new Assistant Secretary of State for Africa are filled, but we have gotten off to a good start with Secretary Kerry.  In addition to State is the importance of the Congressional leadership on Africa, which has grown stronger over recent years.  The committee chairs in the House and Senate have remained the same, with experienced and committed individuals in Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), and in the ranking minority Member in the Senate subcommittee, Johnny Isakson (R-GA).  The new ranking minority Member in the House sub-committee is Karen Bass (D-CA), taking the place of recently deceased Don Payne (D-NJ), who has shown a remarkable desire and ability to fill those big shoes.  She has met extensively around Washington with the broader community of stakeholders on Africa, not just the State Department and White House, but also with NGOs, advocacy and community groups, the private sector, and African diplomats.  She is currently on her first official trip to Africa led by Senator Coons as I write this.  Congresswoman Bass is carving a significant role for herself, but doing it the right way, by listening and learning.

We still have to wait and see what the future holds for African policy, but these first inklings are good ones.  Stay tuned!

Related Program

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more