Webcast Recap

Keynote Speaker

Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Bureau of African Affairs, Department of State

Jane Harman, Director, President, CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center

Steve McDonald, Director, Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity

On April 5, 2011, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity hosted the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, for an important presentation on the role the administration's policies play in effecting positive change in the continent. The event was cosponsored by the Constituency for Africa and Africare. The speech was highly anticipated and over 250 persons were present in the audience.

Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire

After a brief introduction by the new Wilson Center President, Jane Harman, Ambassador Carson began his presentation by diverging from the current headline grabbing events in the media and focused instead on the elections in Nigeria. Carson felt that the Nigerian elections have not been receiving due attention, because they have been "eclipsed" by the Japanese earthquake and the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. This is unfortunate, he contended, because Nigerian elections are of tremendous importance, being that Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and second-largest economy. As such, what happens in Nigeria has direct consequences for Africa, the US and the global community as a whole.

Carson briefly recounted Nigeria's history and past experience with elections, pointing out that Nigeria had not had fair national elections since 1993 and that this "negative legacy" posed significant implications for the success of democracy on the continent. Nonetheless, the Ambassador was hopeful about the current elections largely because of the June 2010 appointment of Dr. Attahiru Jega as national electoral commissioner. Jega, in Carson's eyes, had "brought much needed integrity and competence to the position." He concluded his discussion of Nigeria by saying that the United States fully encourages and supports the Nigerian people in their democratic aspirations. He also warned that any setback to democracy would undoubtedly cause Nigerian citizens to become disillusioned with efforts to democratize, which would thus diminish Nigeria's capacity to "sustain a democratic trajectory in the future."

Carson moved on to discuss a matter of great concern which was also not receiving adequate media attention – the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire. He emphasized the fact that, according to the unanimous conclusion reached by Ivorian and international observers, particularly the United Nations, Alassane Outtara had, in fact, won the November 2010 elections. He cited the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo's "intransigence" as being the primary cause of the country's current "chaos, violence, and humanitarian crisis," saying that Gbagbo was using the situation in order to "cow" the African Union and the international community into acquiescing to a compromise.

Carson continued by addressing the widespread conception that compares the Libyan situation to the Ivorian situation in terms of the international community's duty to protect human rights all over the world. According to Carson, this comparison is "simply wrong." He pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, the US has been working with the international community to ensure a peaceful solution to the Ivorian crisis and that the international peacekeeping force in the region is largely the reason why the situation in Cote d'Ivoire has not deteriorated completely into an all-out civil war. Notably, he pointed out that the assistance given to Cote d'Ivoire was sufficient for the situation on the ground. Unlike Libya, Gbagbo has no significant airborne military assets and whatever heavy weaponry he did have has already been neutralized.

The 5 Core Principles of Foreign Policy

Carson then spoke about the five principles that comprise the foundation of the United States' Africa policy – the vitalization of African governments; economic growth; addressing public-health issues; peacemaking; and alleviating transnational challenges. Carson referred to the recent Sudanese referendum as the "greatest achievement" of the past two years, stating that the United States itself (along with the African Union and the United Nations) had made considerable effort to help the process along. He also mentioned democratic successes in Guinea-Conakry and Niger. He cited Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and Eritrea, however, as areas of concern.

The most pressing "preoccupations" of the US this year, however, will undoubtedly be the unresolved conflicts in Darfur, Somalia, and the eastern DRC. Carson briefly recounted all that has been done to reinforce the peace process in these respective areas. In Darfur, diplomatic efforts have significantly intensified. The US has adopted a "dual-track strategy" in Somalia. Diplomatic efforts are also well underway in eastern DRC, as well as the revitalization of the UN peacekeeping operation MONUSCO.

Carson concluded his remarks by declaring that the US will not be fazed by any lack of progress and "slacken in our efforts" in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and Eritrea. "You don't win a basketball game with a single jump shot or a single dunk," he said, they only make a difference if you've been consistent with your efforts to keep the score up with persistence and hard work – "that's what diplomacy is all about." Furthermore, the Obama administration is fully aware of Africa's "enormous promise and potential," and thus will work to ensure economic growth. He also mentioned that the US is taking proactive measures to improve conditions on the African continent while also looking to engage in dialogue to address the challenges it faces.

When asked during the Q/A session, about Chinese and Indian interests in Africa, Ambassador Carson asserted that the US views their presence on the continent as "legitimate economic competitors" and that they were merely "taking full advantage of an exploding market." America, the Ambassador said, would do well "not to rail at the sun" and should be equally "aggressive and entrepreneurial in Africa as we have been in China, Latin America, Europe, and in our own country." However, Assistant Secretary Carson also pointed out that China's "aggressive" economic expansion into Africa was not without a downside and characterized their investment model as "authoritarian capitalism, free-market enterprise with a non-democratic face." Ambassador Carson expressed hope that African countries would note that "the difference" between the democratic law-based approached of the West incorporates technology and skills-based transfers, career mobility, and local employment, while on the other hand China does not engage in this regard.