By Stephen Kaufman 23 May 2013
Washington — Secretary of State John Kerry’s attendance at the May 19–27 African Union (AU) Summit in Ethiopia showcases the importance of the African continent to the United States as the organization marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity.
“The fact that Secretary Kerry is coming to the African Union says volumes about how important the African continent is to the U.S.,” U.S. Ambassador to the AU Michael Battle said. He described the visit as a “natural follow-up” to President Obama’s new strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa from June 2012 and his 2009 speech in Ghana in which he called for a partnership with Africa that is “grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.”
The new strategy was followed early this year with an agreement between the United States and the AU that identified four areas of mutual interest: peace and security; democracy and governance; economic growth, trade and investment; and promotion of opportunity and development.
Battle said the United States was the first non-African entity to have a fully accredited diplomatic staff in place to serve the AU in Addis Ababa. This arrangement gives U.S. policymakers “immediate access to the leaders of the continent,” and allows U.S. officials to share the views of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on peace and security issues critical to the African continent.
Beginning in 2011, the U.S. mission is also the only non-African one to employ a volunteer from the African Union Youth Volunteer Corps, which encourages youth leadership and engagement in the AU’s continental development agenda.
EVOLVING U.S. APPROACH TO AFRICA
In 2009, President Obama said Africa is “a fundamental part of our interconnected world,” and the United States and other countries “must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.”
The president’s approach contrasted with the Cold War years, when there was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to use their influence to shape Africa’s development.
“Now there is an intentional effort to listen to, learn from and engage with the African continent on the development issues that we think will advance African growth and opportunity,” Battle said.
The ambassador described the U.S.-AU relationship as a “partnership alignment.”
“Our responses to the African continent are not generated by our taking the initiative to go into African nations and influence African policy and development. Our course now is to listen and learn what the needs and urgencies are and then to respond to the African continent in light of its defined needs and urgencies,” he said.
A major area of cooperation is with the AU’s peace and security missions for the continent, such as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and response to extremists in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The United States has been working to increase the AU’s capacity to handle security challenges on the continent by providing training and preparation for AU troops, giving logistical support, facilitating transportation and providing uniforms and other nonlethal equipment.
“The African continent is important to us because of the amount of resources that the African continent has that are beneficial to the whole of the world, and also because we must stop the encroaching of terrorism that destabilizes African nations,” Battle said.
Africa is also important for trade and investment, boasting six of the top 10 fastest growing economies and a rapidly growing population that is creating one of the world’s most rapidly growing markets. Battle said the African continent also has the most abundant natural resources necessary to fuel the current technological age, and its vast energy supplies are essential to the rest of the world’s development.
Africa’s potential to help feed the world adds to its importance. It is “the only continent on the face of the Earth that has abundance of arable, farmable land,” Battle said. In Europe and North America, “we have essentially run out of additional arable land for farming,” but as an “abundant space of opportunity,” Africa is in a position to help solve food security concerns.
The AU is marking the 50th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity as an opportunity to celebrate “pan-Africanism” and the “African renaissance.” Battle hopes its 54 member states use the summit as an occasion to come to an agreement on how to precisely define both concepts.
He also anticipates intense discussions on how Africa will achieve its projected goal of a continental free-trade area by 2017, followed later by continent-wide harmonization of trade regulations. That would help businesses from the United States and other countries more easily invest in African countries and see their efforts multiplied in neighboring nations.
Among the goals of the U.S. private sector is to see how agribusiness investment can stimulate African job growth by improving technological and production sites and by training people to maintain and operate the equipment onsite. The goal, he said, is for Africa’s raw materials to be produced on the continent without the need to maintain production through overseas infrastructure or personnel.
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE NEXT 50 YEARS
The AU has a vision of where it wants the African continent to be in 2063, and Battle says it is consistent with the peace and prosperity that he envisions.
“In 2063, I see it as a better integrated continent where many of the barriers to trade have been eliminated, where the movement of people from nation to nation is more streamlined, where there would be a central African passport that will allow people from one African country to move more expeditiously throughout the continent without having to go through different immigration processes when they move from one nation to the other,” he said.
Africa will be “at peace with itself” as well as its neighbors, prosperous and governed by Africans. The continent will be “engaged in partnerships with the rest of the world, not as a dependent continent but as an intradependent continent working collaboratively with the rest of the world,” Battle predicted.