Sunday May 18 2014

Open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on US-Africa relations

By Dr Theogene Rudasingwa

Honorable Secretary, You have been on a tour of Africa that took you to some of Africa’s troubled hot spots. In South Sudan, civil war rages. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, decades of mis-rule, and vicious predatory proxy wars from Rwanda and Uganda, have left behind six million people dead and a country that is in shambles.

As you toured the continent, Somalia and Central African Republic were burning. Just a few days ago, terror struck again in Kenya. As you embarked on your journey, 300 innocent young girls were abducted in Nigeria. The United States has its Special Forces and aircrafts in Uganda to capture or kill Joseph Kony, the notorious warlord. Libya and Egypt are on edge. Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi in east and central Africa, epicenters of violent conflict and genocide for more than two decades, are again poised for civil war.

Being a good student of history, you are familiar with Africa’s contending narratives. Our continent falls perfectly within the ‘glass half-full or half-empty’ analogy. Of late, many among Africa’s ruling elite and the international community have amplified their voices; selling the idea that Africa is on the ascendancy, destined to become a powerhouse within the next few decades. To them, the glass is half-full. On the other hand, there are those who point to Africa’s sore spots and open wounds; poverty, HIV/Aids, illiteracy, poor infrastructure, poor governance, human rights abuses, violent conflicts and terrorism, failed or failing states, and environmental degradation. To these folks, Africa is your typical half-empty glass.
Between these two extremes of optimism and pessimism lies the true condition of the African people.
Some US policies towards Africa are broken, counter-productive, and harmful to Africans and Americans in the short, medium and long term.

Here are some suggestions to fix them.
First, be aware that the United States carries historical and current negative baggage in Africa in terms of its allies in Africa. Even as the Cold War recedes in the minds of the older generation, there is a discrepancy between what successive US administrations claim to be a values-driven foreign policy (freedom, democracy, human rights) and guilt by association with some of Africa’s most notorious dictators, as long as they serve ‘US interests’.

Second, the US should engage pro-democracy and modernising voices among the political forces, civil society, women and youth organisations, academic institutions and communities. Out of these will emerge the future leaders and managers of Africa. The US embassies in Africa should take the lead in this engagement. Historically, these embassies have either been compromised by the local ruling elite, or too involved on behalf of narrow US security and economic interests. Either way, they are prone to becoming irrelevant because they are far removed from the ordinary lives of Africans. Instead of being a beachhead from which to deploy the whole of US government and international power to make sustainable impact on the lives of Africans by winning their hearts and minds, the embassy often becomes a theatre for pitched battles among various departments and agencies.

Third, be aware of revolutionary pressures that are building up within Africa’s youth bulge, the hundreds of millions of unemployed, unemployable, and often uneducated young men and women. Extremist ideologies and religious fanatics find fertile ground among the marginalised. Of late, if your embassies and intelligence analysts are telling you (or know) the truth, there is a growing anti-American, anti-West, sentiment that is both concealed and open. The publicised economic growth in Africa in recent years, largely from natural resources, hardly reaches the poor. The international community, United States included, does not significantly help willing countries to invest in higher education or small and medium enterprises to create jobs and act as a motivation for the future among the jobless youth.

Fourth, invest in holistic women and children health at the community level, with HIV/Aids, TB and Malaria integrated at this level, with a bias towards prevention and systems strengthening. This year alone, over four million under-fives will die in Africa due to preventable conditions. It is estimated that in the same period, more than a quarter of a million mothers in Africa will die during delivery. Africa’s future is bleak without putting women and children at the centre of the development and foreign policy agenda.

Fifth, to help end and prevent conflicts in Africa, encourage, champion and support negotiations, accommodation and consensus-building. In particular, in the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa, support Tanzania and South Africa in the peacekeeping work they are doing in DRC. Put pressure on the presidents of Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, and Uganda to have dialogue with their opponents and open political space.

Sixth, reign on your national security team. The hawks among them will insist that there is a red threat (China) looming over Africa, which must be contained or neutralised. Furthermore, these hawks argue, it is US security and economic interests that should take precedence over anything else, even if this means baby-sitting some of Africa’s most dangerous big men.

Seventh, be aware of the rising tide of two world religions, Islam and Christianity, on the African continent. From the north to the south, east to the west, the ordinary people in every African country have generally lived together peacefully for centuries. Both Islam and Christianity have largely been forces for good, and together they make Africa what it is and stronger.
Mr Secretary, the US should do no harm. Use your big stick, cheque-book and the threat of America’s gunboats as arrows in your quiver, to be used wisely. If you have to promise a cheque, let it be to support Africa’s youth in education, small and medium enterprises, and women and children’s health.

Dr Rudasingwa is former Ambassador of Rwanda to the United States, and author.