US think tanks: Mvemba Dizolele, the interpreter

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

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Thursday, 21 April 2022 18:13, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 17:49

Mvemba Dizolele
Mvemba Dizolele

Congolese-born Mvemba Dizolele is the latest diaspora African to lead a think tank programme, having joined the CSIS in late November after the administration of US President Joe Biden tapped Judd Devermont to develop a US-Africa strategy.

This is part 5 of a 7-part series.

  • Think tank: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Africa Programme
  • Title: Director (since November 2021)
  • Programme inception: 1968
  • Country of origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
  • African languages: Swahili, Kikongo, Lingala (+French)

A well-rounded expert who speaks nine languages, including Norwegian and Spanish, Dizolele is also a US Marine veteran. He was most recently a senior adviser for Africa at the International Republican Institute.

He is now charting his own path at the CSIS by focusing on four areas of study: security and governance; the intersection of climate change and conflict; youth civic and political engagement; and the independence and strength of institutions.

Diaspora Africans, he says, bring a “certain skill set, certain intangibles” to the world of think tanks. These include languages and a familiarity with cultural differences that many Westerners do not understand.

Africa ‘perceived a certain way’

“This is part of the difference with the Chinese or the Indians, the advantage they have,” he says. “Because an Indian shows up in Africa, they don’t feel out of place. People may look different because of skin colour or language, but that entire chaos, that entire hustle, the dynamics of the city — it looks like Mumbai.”

Some people still may feel like, ‘Oh, he’s Black like me. Is he really competent’?

He sees his role as that of an interpreter between Africa and the West. “What’s happening on the continent often looks like a mess, to an American mind,” he says. “My job, having been raised and trained in both worlds, is to interpret what’s happening in Africa in terms that an American can understand.”

At the same time, he says, Africans respond well to someone who can speak to them in French or a local language. “We can have this frank conversation in a way that another American may not be able to. It may be perceived a certain way,” he says. “They’re not going to accuse me of being anti-African.”

“Now, it also can come with some drawbacks,” Dizolele says. “In certain areas, people may not take me as seriously [due to] the weight of the colonial legacy. Some people still may feel like, ‘Oh, he’s Black like me. Is he really competent’?”

‘Fighting for a piece of the pie’

Dizolele says the US focus comes as other governments are also waking up to the continent’s potential. “Even just 10 years ago, the market dynamics, the investment dynamics in Africa, were totally different from today.”

He says he was surprised to see a Turkish military cooperation mission in The Gambia. “If we had a rush during the Berlin Conference [in 1884-1885] to split the continent as a piece of cake among Western powers, there’s something similar that is happening. Everybody is fighting for their own piece of the pie.”

60 years after independence, we are still going to the Belgians, to the French, to design our Africa policy… That makes no sense…

The US is well-positioned on the continent, Dizolele believes, because of the appeal of its popular culture, technological innovation and democratic ideals. However, he insists that Washington must first settle on a comprehensive approach to its Africa policy, just as the Chinese have done, instead of jumping from one priority to another.

He further notes that the approach needs to be from a US perspective, unconstrained from the views of former European colonial powers in places like his native Democratic Republic of Congo. “60 years after independence, we are still going to the Belgians, to the French, to design our Africa policy,” Dizolele says. “That makes no sense whatsoever to me.”

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