Meet the Africans running programmes at influential US think tanks

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s voice in Washington, D.C

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 18 April 2022 09:46

In Washington DC, a city that takes pride in wonkish debates, a group of experts meeting up for drinks to discuss African politics may seem like nothing out of the ordinary.

This is part 1 of a 7-part series

The make-up of this recent gathering, however, was history making: In a field long dominated by older white men, here was a new generation of African-born leaders who are rethinking African development and US engagement with the continent at the country’s leading think tanks.

Although he could not attend, the informal meeting was a dream come true for Aloysius Ordu, the director of the Africa Growth Initiative (AGI) at the Brookings Institution. Long accustomed to being one of the only Africans in the room, Ordu suddenly finds himself surrounded by a half-dozen diaspora thinkers who have taken charge of Africa programmes in Washington over the past 18 months.

“For many, many years, it used to be just AGI that had an African,” says Ordu. “No disrespect to the middle-aged white guys in charge of Africa in all these (other) places, but for the first time now, there are many of us.”

Team Africa

The Nigerian-born Ordu is the de facto dean of the new group, having joined AGI in August 2020. Since then, French-Senegalese politician Rama Yade and Congolese-born Mvemba Dizolele have taken over the Africa programmes at the Atlantic Council and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), respectively.

After losing control on its history, Africa may lose control of its future if this continent does not control the narrative about itself.

Over the same period, three others have been tapped to start new Africa programmes from scratch: Nigerian economist Zainab Usman at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Cameroon native Joseph Sany at the US Institute of Peace; and Morocco-born Intissar Fakir, who heads the new programme for North Africa and the Sahel at the Middle East Institute.

Together, they are helping reframe the US vision of Africa from a continent of strife to a land of opportunities.

“After losing control on its history, Africa may lose control of its future if this continent does not control the narrative about itself,” says Yade. “It’s very important to give the floor to Africans to speak about that.”

Changing of the guard

Until recently, Africans in charge of Africa programmes at Washington think tanks could be counted on one hand.

In addition to Ordu and his predecessors at Brookings, the Zambian-born Monde Muyangwa has led the Africa programme at the congressionally chartered Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars since 2014. Muyangwa, however, is leaving the Wilson Center to take over as the top official for Africa at the US Agency for International Development.

The Center for Global Development (CGD) also has a top African fellow, with Liberia’s former public works minister W. Gyude Moore, who joined the think tank as a fellow in 2018. The CGD, however, does not organise its programmes by geography but instead by area of focus.

And in Europe, Comfort Ero, who was born in England to Nigerian parents, became the first Black woman to lead the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in December after more than a decade running the think tank’s Africa programme.

Newfound interest

The new diaspora leaders credit a confluence of events for Washington’s newfound interest in African voices. These include the racial reckoning over police violence, Africa’s rising political and economic clout, and US competition against China for influence on the continent.

“In the 21st century,” says Usman, “with a lot of advocacy around representation and inclusion, perhaps having an Africa programme at a top think tank is more palatable generally if you have someone who has at least spent some time on the continent, maybe was born there or was raised there or has tangible links.”

If you aspire to be a global think tank, it doesn’t look good to exclude Africa…I think there is a realisation that this is a fast-growing continent.

Dizolele says the think-tank world is seeing some of the same dynamics that are at play in the humanitarian space, where non-governmental organisations are figuring out how to “localise” their goal setting.

“The question is, who determines the agenda?” he says. “How do we move forward in bringing the voices of the recipients of aid into the discourse, into the decision making?”

Meanwhile, the rise of Africa itself is prompting think tanks to re-evaluate their areas of focus.

“If you aspire to be a global think tank, it doesn’t look good to exclude Africa,” says Fakir. “I think there is a realisation that this is a fast-growing continent. There is a lot of commercial interest. There is a lot of industrial interest, energy, minerals, all of that. So I think that’s maybe what’s driving this.”

Making an impact

The changing of the guard has broad implications for the future of US policy making.

Muyangwa’s nomination is a timely reminder of the revolving door between think tanks and the government. Likewise, Dizolele’s immediate predecessor, Judd Devermont, left CSIS last year to craft a US Africa policy for the administration of President Joe Biden.

Even outside government, think tanks can help steer policy making, says the Atlantic Council’s Yade.

“Foreign policy, it’s a bureaucracy. It’s heavy. It’s very tough to mobilise the whole administration to change its policy,” she says. “I think the change can come from the think tanks because they have more flexibility. And that’s why it’s so important to take this opportunity to [help] this administration reflect more the reality of the new Africa.”

AGI’s Ordu says a potential drawback to the suddenly busy Africanist sphere in Washington is a proliferation of invitations to African leaders and thinkers. He hopes more coordination among think tanks can help minimise overlap and competing events.

“That’s the rationale behind having us at least know what the left hand is doing and the right is doing,” he says.

…and there are critics

The trend of diaspora leadership is not without its critics.

One source with experience inside both the US government and the think tank world tells The Africa Report that outside academics are often unfamiliar with the nuances of US politics and institutions, potentially undermining think tanks’ effectiveness in pushing their policies.

Ordu acknowledges the point but says it is not an insurmountable problem.

“I can learn that part of my job,” he says. “But [you don’t have] an understanding of dialogue in Africa because you met the finance minister of Ghana on a platform at Brookings. Do you know what the civil society conversation on the continent is about? Do you know what the youths are saying? Do you know what the women’s groups are saying? Do you know what the industrialists are saying? That, you can’t read from a book.”

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