A Deeper Engagement With Afrika: The Africa Braintrust 2014, Part I

BT 2014 Carson 1 PNGSeptember 26, 2014 saw the reconvening of the Africa Braintrust, an annual fall event held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington, DC to discuss the current status of the United States’ relationship with the Afrikan Continent, its leaders and its people. 

The convener is Congress Member Karen Bass (D-CA), who is the Ranking Member of the Africa Subcommittee of the US Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs.  In her capacity as Ranking Member (not the Chair because the House of Representatives is majority-Republican, and thus the Chair is a Republican), Congress Member Bass has convened a number of Breakfast Meetings over the past year, such as a session on the Electrify Africa Act and on Boko Haram, and she has participated in House hearings on the crisis in the Central African Republic, the Ebola outbreak in West Afrika and other issues of concern to Afrika and the United States.  Her annual Africa Braintrust event, however, is one of her crowning public-information projects, as she brings together panels of experts on a variety of aspects pertaining to Afrika’s development and its place in the world. This year’s event saw two keynote speeches, three panel discussions and question-and-answer exchanges between the panelists and the audience. This article will deal with the keynote speech of former Ambassador Johnnie Carson and the presentations of the first of the three panels.

Congress Member Bass opened the event with a warm welcome to the audience. She stated her commitment to honor the memory of former Douth Afrikan President and Honored Ancestor Nelson Mandela, who was commemorated with a slide show prior to the opening of the event, by working to improve relations between the United States and Afrika, “investing with Afrika’s next generation” and improving ties with Afrika. 

Congress Member Bass reflected on the recent USA-Africa Summit and stated her hope that the audience had been able to participate in some of the events. This year’s Braintrust event was planned to provide an opportunity to look at the Summit through the perspectives of “scholars, civil society and members of the African Diaspora.”  Capacity building, trade & investment, Security and Governance are the areas of focus.

She introduced the Keynote Speaker, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs from 2009-2013. Ambassador Carson was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs on May 7, 2009.  Prior to this, he was the National Intelligence Officer for Africa at the National Intelligence Council, after serving as the Senior Vice President of the National Defense University in Washington, DC (2003 – 2006).  His 37-year foreign service career includes ambassadorships to Kenya (1999 – 2003), Zimbabwe (1995 – 1997), and Uganda (1991 – 1994).  Earlier in his career, he had assignments in Portugal (1982 – 1986), Botswana (1986 – 1990), Mozambique (1975 – 1978), and Nigeria (1969 – 1971).  Before joining the foreign service, Ambassador Carson was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania.  He has a Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science from Drake University and a Master of Arts in International Relations from the School of Oriental and Africa Studies at the University of London.

Ambassador Johnnie Carson’s Address

The past 12 months has been “a difficult time” for the Obama Administration, Ambassador Carson began. Ukraine, Gaza, Syria and Libya “have frustrated the Administration.”  Many in Washington, DC predicted that the USA-Africa Summit would also fail and yield “no new major American initiatives with respect to Afrika.”  Many critics said Afrikan leaders would decline to come because of President Obama’s refusal to hold bilateral meetings and because they feared he would “scold” them; or that the Summit would otherwise fail because there would be no discussions to challenge Afrikan leaders about democracy, human rights and corruption.  But, according to Ambassador Carson, “the Summit was largely a success.  It reaffirmed President Obama’s commitment to Afrika and it highlighted the Administration’s key policies and initiatives.  And most significantly, it showcased the President’s determination to encourage American companies to invest and trade in Afrika’s emerging markets.  For those focused on the political and security issues, the President and his senior foreign policy advisors called again for greater adherence to democracy and governance and respect for human rights, including for lesbians and gays, and reassured Afrikan leaders that while the United States has no intention of militarizing Afrika, it would partner with Afrikan nations to defeat the spread of terrorist groups who pose a threat to them as well as the international community.”

Ambassador Carson mentioned Power Africa, Feed the Future, Trade Africa and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) as key projects.

Fifty delegations attended the Summit, some with 30 or more members.  Several Afrikan businessmen, including Sudanese philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, attended.  Discussions centered around three main areas: Trade & Investment, Security & Stability and Good Governance & Transparency.  The economics and business portion received the greatest coverage and was considered “the most innovative and successful aspect … largely because of the presence of so many American business leaders.” 

The Summit was also a means of pushing the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2015 and the implementation of Power Africa.

Security issues concentrated on discussions about Northern Nigeria, South Sudan and CAR.  “African leaders were eager to engage on this topic.”  US commitments to assist with efforts against North Afrika’s Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Somalia’s Al Shabab.  President Obama announced a new five-year, $100 million security initiative for Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Ghana, for strengthening their capacity to counter transnational threats.

Ambassador Carson mentioned democracy, good governance and respect for human rights as key agenda aims for the last 5 ½ years. “In a major speech at the US Institute for Peace on the eve of the Summit, the Pres’ Natl Security Advisor, Ambassador Susan Rice, told that audience, ‘the US cannot and does not try to dictate the choices of other nations, but we are unabashed in our support for democracy and human rights.  We will continue to invest in promoting democracy in Afrika as elsewhere, because over the long term, democracies are more stable, more peaceful, and they are better able to provide for their citizens.’”  Secretary of State John Kerry echoed these sentiments at a gathering of civil society leaders on the first day of the Summit.

Nigeria’s continued failure to deal with Boko Haram or rescue the Chibok Girls was certainly discussed, as well as the instability in places like DR Congo with President Kabila and other heads of state “who have flirted with changing their Constitutions.”

“Much remains to be done to turn the goodwill and long list of commitments and promises into reality.” Follow-up from Administration officials in the White House, State Sept, USAID and Commerce Department is needed.  Congress will need to practice oversight and the business community must follow through on its commitments.  New crises and new priorities cannot push these commitments and promises aside.  The Ebola crises, for example, must be dealt with, “but it must not be allowed to suck the oxygen out of the Administration’s other important policy initiatives in Afrika.”  Nor is it an excuse for American corporations to avoid doing business with the rest of the Continent.

According to Ambassador Carson, AGOA must be renewed in 2015. Also, the Administration needs to strengthen the Export-Import Bank.

He made several suggestions to establish standing committees, offices and positions dedicated to implementation of commitments to ensure that promises made are promises kept, even as Administrations change.

A “sustained and high visibility effort” will be needed.  One summit will not change corporate attitudes in America toward Africa.”

The Trade Africa Initiative needs to be expanded beyond just the EAC to ay least one other Afrikan REC, he said. He suggested “a modest $200,000 per year for the next five years to the Africa Bureau” so it can organize annual trade missions to Afrika and maintain the staff to do it.

In closing, the Summit “was a tremendous success, but to ensure that the Summit’s success will have a lasting impact and not just a historical one, oversight will be required and some of the recommendations I have just outlined will have to be implemented.”

Panel I: A Deeper Engagement with Africa: Moving Beyond the Summit

This panel seemed to focus on a basic review of the Summit.  Panels that followed were designed to discuss the role of the Diaspora and Civil Society (Panel II) and next steps for engaging the Continent (Panel III).  We will discuss the other two panels in related articles on this Website. 

The participants on the first panel were Dr. Monde Muyangwa of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Mr. Mwangi Kimenyi of the Brookings Institution and Mr. Adotei Akwei of Amnesty International.  The Moderator of the panel was Dr. Raymond Gilpin of the National Defense University.  We will present summaries of the panelists’ remarks as well as questions and comments from the audience.

Dr. Raymond Gilpin, Academic Dean at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University (Moderator) Three questions that have often been asked about the Summit:

  • Why now? “Afrikan countries are at a strategic juncture. … Opportunities do abound. … I think it’s an appropriate time for us to be reconsidering how we engage with the Continent.”
  • What’s different? “Focusing less on patronage and more on partnerships.”
  • Who benefits? “Some people see it as a win-win for Afrika and the United States. … I think the answer to that question is the Afrikan citizen.”

Dr. Monde Muyangwa, Director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center Dr. Muyangwa started off by “dittoing everything Ambassador Carson has said”, but she added the importance of the symbolism of the Summit for Afrika and the world should not be overlooked. The United States has been playing catch-up with China, Japan and other international players, but this Summit was an important step. “The Summit as an event, very successful. … But, as Ambassador Carson mentioned, we cannot stop here.  The real success of the Summit will be determined by follow-up, implementation and concrete deliverables.  And that’s what we need to focus on.”

Dr. Muyangwa called attention to the “diplomatic void” that has held US Ambassadors to Afrika “waiting for confirmation … absolutely contradicts the message that we were trying to send going into the Summit, that Afrika is important.  How can it be important if the top Presidential representative on the Continent in the countries is not there to follow up, to engage, to do the business of the nation? … To wait 400 days as some of them have waited?  We are not serious when we do that.  It’s not just the toll that it takes on our relationship with the countries that are waiting for political and diplomatic representation.  It’s also the toll that it takes on the career diplomats who want to do nothing more than serve their countries, and yet their families are stuck in limbo. … What impact is this having on the next generation of American diplomats when they see this political game being played with diplomacy abroad?”

Dr. Muyangwa commented on the need to ensure the Afrikan commitment to the new partnership. “This whole Summit was about setting a new tone and tenor with our engagements with Afrika.  And yet, all of the commitments to me seemed to come from the United States side.  It would be nice to get a few Afrikan commitments on the table,” for example, governance and the rule of law under the African Peer Review Mechanism, which currently involves only 35 of the Afrikan countries, and linking the Summit to the AU’s goals under Agenda 2063.

Mr. Mwangi Kimenyi, Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Growth Initiative in the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution

Mr. Kimenyi dubbed the Summit a huge success, “not the type of thing you see very frequently.”  He was, however, quite critical of the role of the news outlets in reporting on the Summit: “The US media was terrible.” He listed five major indicators of a successful Summit, and proclaimed that, according to these five indicators, he could judge the Summit a success:

  • “A tangible plan of action and commitment. We got that.”
  • “Effective and coherent participation of the Afrikan leaders. … I talked to many of the presidents and I think we can say this was not a monologue. It was not one-sided from the President. … It was a discussion.”
  • Connection to “Afrikan development priorities.”
  • Moving from unilateralism to mutuality and multilateralism. “AGOA is pretty much a gift by the United States government to Afrika. … We need to move from there. … Trade is always mutual. … To me, this creation of a mutual relationship did evolve.”
  • “Having a Summit one time, without institutionalization for sustainability does not really make a lot of sense. … We want to make sure that, post-Obama, we can continue this.”

Mr. Adotei Akwei, Managing Director for Government Relations, Amnesty International USA Mr. Akwei was the most critical of the three panelists regarding the Summit.  “I have a role here … to raise the awkward questions. … It may have been just in August, but we need to move away from the starry-eyed analysis of the conference, which was historic in nature but not in content.  Until we get the follow-up that Ambassador Carson and all of my colleagues have raised, it was an important and first conference, and that was it.  And we in this room cannot allow that to happen. … That will be dependent on not only the development of institutions here in the United States, not only on the clarity of firm commitments by the Afrikan governments that are part of this challenge … not only on Congress being convinced to actually invest more money in democracy and human rights programs and governance and rule of law programs, as opposed to more military programs. … This has to be a sustained dialog between the United States and the Afrikan governments.  It doesn’t need to be at the Head of State level, but it needs to be at a senior level, and it needs to happen annually at least.”

My second point would be about the missing guests. … In too many Afrikan countries, the discussion of investment and of trade and of rule of law is a monolog. There’s no dialog because civil society [and] political opposition are not only having their ability to free expression, association and assembly curtailed, they’re having it violently curtailed.  Now, there may be a sense that, well, the Afrikan governments are representative, but they are not the only stakeholder in what happens in those countries.  And until we can change that equation of not seeing critics and think tanks or human rights groups as threats who also have potentially interesting ideas [and] solutions to problems, Afrika [is not] going to be getting the most out of its own population. … While many may be questioning why there was so much of the NGO community that was raising a fuss about civil society not being invited, or not being officially invited, the side events, I think, were extremely exciting but they were side events.  In fact, there was probably more dialog between them and the United States government than there was between them and Afrikan governments, and that is what was unfortunately too much the case.”

Questions from the Audience & Answers from the Panel

Questions were asked by members of the audience in groups, then the panelists attempted to answer these questions. Some examples of the queries from the audience: Ÿ
♦How is AGOA a “gift”?
♦ It seemed futile to some to be talking about concepts such as “governance” and “security” in the face of crises such as that of Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the still-missing Chibok girls.  “What kind of governance do we have when citizens are missing, the world is looking by, and it seems nobody cares?”

Ÿ♦ How can the US facilitate business in Afrika “in a way that is transparent … that incentivizes these partnerships with civil society?”
♦Ÿ At least one person had not so much a question, but an answer, or more exactly, three answers, which pertained to the initial questions posed by Dr. Gilpin: “Why now?  Well, China is why now.  What’s the difference? China is the difference.  Who benefits?  That’s a good question.”

Mr. Kimenyi tackled the AGOA question: AGOA allows importation of 6,400 products duty-free and quota-free. “To me, a duty-free, quota-free access to the American market is important.”  Critics of AGOA might consider that answer simplistic, but the prevailing attitude at the Braintrust session was that AGOA needed to be renewed in 2015, and this attitude seemed to prevail among US officials, Afrikan officials and many of the established Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).  We hope to study the issue of AGOA in a future story.

Dr. Muyangwa was challenged on whether or not the members of this panel, or advocates and activists in general, were in position to make any major change in how Afrika is regarded, is treated and is able to lift itself up, simply because most of us lack the major capital (say, in the millions or billions of dollars) to fuel the establishment of the United States of Afrika or any serious confederation of Afrikan states. Her response echoed the ideology of many grassroots activists: “From my perspective, change also comes from those who feel it here.  Money is important, money does help, but it is the ordinary Afrikans, the ordinary Americans, the ordinary citizens who feel the need to do something, no matter how much money they have.  Those are the people who are going to bring about change.” On the issue of governance and the prospects for the current group of Afrikan leaders to make considerable strides in the areas of governance and democracy, she said: “We currently have on the Continent about five or six Presidents who have been in power over 30 years. I could be wrong about this, but I always think that the longer you stay in office, the less the chance of building these democratic institutions.”

Members of the audience called for better inclusion of the Afrikan Diaspora, from Afrikan American CEO’s to Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), grassroots organizations and other representative bodies.

The “terrible” media coverage was also discussed at somewhat greater length, as one member of the audience represented the Washington Informer, a local Black-owned newspaper that had encountered difficulties gaining access to the proceedings of the Summit, in fact insisting that the Black Press was denied access, especially to the Policy Forums.  “The Black Press will tell the correct story, but we need to have access,” he said.

Issues of sustainability and climate change, the role of religion, faith and culture, the involvement of youth and the issue of limiting undue French influence over West Afrikan affairs were also brought up in the audience’s questions.

Dr. Muyangwa noted that the true value of the Summit will be determined after the performance of a much-needed after-action review, especially with regard to the implementation of commitments, participation of civil society and youth, and media access.

Mr. Kimenyi commented on politics in the United States that could limit what tangible results come from the Summit, as well as the issue of French influence:  “The United States Congress works in very mysterious ways.”  On French interference, is it perhaps really indicative of an Afrikan vacuum in which “France is coming all the way … to the Central African Republic to rescue us, and in Mali, where is the AU?  What’s happening in time of peacekeeping and strategizing?  And that is why a big part of what came out from the Summit about our peacekeeping forces is important.”  It’s unclear whether or not that effectively answered the question about French influence, especially with the French banking system’s control of much of West Afrikan countries’ economies through the imposition of the CFA Franc.

On sustainability, Mr. Kimenyi also seemed dodge the real issue of environmental destruction by comparing Afrika’s potential for greenhouse gas emissions through industrialization with what the current “first world” already belches into the atmosphere. “If you look ay our contribution to greenhouse gases, to hydrocarbons, it’s extremely minute.  If you compare what even one state in the US produces of greenhouse gases. … And this is coal [and] oil-based energy.  And we are told to not focus on these. … [But] this is what we’ve got. … I am not convinced that we should be discouraged from developing what we have.”  Many people make the argument that “Afrika must industrialize”, despite the heavy toll that development strategy has taken in environmental degradation from drilling and processing, and the exploitation visited upon those who happen to live in resource-rich areas and find themselves “in the way” of the major resource-extraction corporate interests (such as in Eastern DR Congo with coltan and the Niger Delta with oil).  To us, the real question is how can Afrika leverage the knowledge, skills and abilities of the best minds of the Continent and the Diaspora to skip industrialization altogether and thus enter the late-21st Century without committing the sins and paying the environmental price of the Western industrial nations?

Mr. Akwei discussed the issue of better involving the Diaspora and the religious community, “because they all touch on constituency.” The US Congress hinges on votes.  “That all depends on not only Afrikans and Afrikan Americans and the religious community mobilizing, but working together, to actually become a block of voting constituents that actually push Congress to do the right thing.  Congress has no inherent bias or interest either for or against Afrika.  Their primary focus is the United States. … And neither does the Administration.  We may be looking at the end of a very Afrika-focused policy with the end of the Obama Administration, and then we’ll all be looking at each other wondering What the hell do we do now? So, we can’t rely on anyone to do this instinctively.  They need to be encouraged to listen to their better angels.  But that also means that we need to encourage our allies and our partners in Afrika to also do the right thing.  You can’t do one without the other or else they undermine each other.  So, the religious community and the Afrikan Diaspora have been critical on many things.  The religious community were at the forefront on mobilizing the United States on the HIV-AIDS front.  You may remember that.  They pushed the Bush Administration to actually invest in HIV-AIDS programs that are credited with doing so much.  We now face Ebola.  That community is going to be essential in that response also, as is the Afrikan Diaspora.  Because it’s going to take Afrikan Diaspora people to talk to their relatives and their Congress members and say, This is serious, this is not something on the outside, you have to start working together to start to address this.

“So I would just end by saying, Mobilize, mobilize. Follow up, follow up.  The Summit, for all of its flaws that we may have critiqued and all of the successes we’re celebrating, was the first step.  If we don’t take the next steps, we’ll all be sitting here in 20 years having another conference and saying, Well, what have we done? And that will be the real disaster.”

Dr. Gilpin closed the comments with some rather basic advice that more policy-makers, organizers and think-tankers need to heed. He stated that we have to start thinking differently about US-Africa relationships, in three important ways:

  • We have to deepen the analysis. “There’s been a lot of superficial discussions about where Afrika is going, what Afrika needs. … Afrika deserves a lot better than superficial analysis.”
  • “We have to think creatively. We are way too accustomed to using yesterday’s solutions to answer tomorrow’s questions. The questions that are facing [Afrika] tomorrow require fresh thinking, innovative thinking.”
  • “We need to think proactively. A lot of what we have done … is respond and react. We’re not as proactive as we should be. …”

In summary, “We need to think deeply, creatively and proactively to ensure that we’re able to translate the goodwill initiated into action that will be meaningful to each and every Afrikan citizen.”  

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