US think tanks: Joseph Sany, the peacemaker

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

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 22 April 2022 18:57, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 17:49

Joseph Sany
Joseph Sany

Africa has been a key focus of the US Institute of Peace ever since Congress created a peace academy, akin to the nation’s military academies, back in 1984.

This is part 7 of a 7-part series

  • Think tank: US Institute of Peace, Africa Center
  • Title: Vice President (since October 2020)
  • Programme inception: October 2020
  • Country of origin: Cameroon
  • African languages: Seven Cameroonian languages, Pidgin English, West African Krio (+ French)

Today, the federal institution operates initiatives in several countries, including Nigeria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, it is only within the past 18 months that the USIP launched a dedicated Africa Centre, acknowledging a new way of thinking about Africa both in Washington and on the continent.

“In 2020, the decision was made by the board to say […] it’s important now to have an Africa Centre, to bring some sort of strategic coherence to all these programmes and make sure that we engage with the various trends in Africa in a much more coherent way, leveraging all our resources,” says Africa Centre Vice President Joseph Sany.

“I think that there was a change of perspective, that while yes, we have 54 different states, Africa is emerging as a key player on the international scene. Africa matters. Frankly, it’s not just a slogan. I think we are reaching a point today in […] global architecture, where African voices analysis are needed and they have a weight.”

A pan-African outlook

On a range of issues, from climate change to the African Continental Free Trade Area, Sany says a new approach is needed to engage with a continent that harbours not only an incredibly rich array of local cultures and languages, but also a pan-African outlook rooted in history. “I always encourage people [that when they] look at Africa, you think transnational, and you act local,” he says.

China looks at Africa as a glass half-full and the United States [views Africa] as a glass half-empty.

Sany brings a wealth of experience to this role, having spent 25 years building peacekeeper capacity and working with civil society in various countries, such as Senegal, Zimbabwe and Togo. He says on-the-ground experience is crucial to successful peace building.

“Because I work with the soldiers on the frontlines, I have that understanding of … African militaries,” he says. “The structure, the norms of operations, the code, and being an African, there is also just the ease of connecting with our African partners.”

Sany says it’s a “testament to US institutions” that they’re now recognising Africa as a key player, but he urges them to take a page from the Chinese playbook in how to think of what the continent has to offer.

“China looks at Africa as a glass half-full and the United States [views Africa] as a glass half-empty,” he says, pointing to the Western focus on aid. “[…] that has to change, because when you look at part of the world as a problem, guess what? You think you have the solution. [When] you look at opportunities, it’s a different ballgame. You put your best foot forward, because you want to leverage opportunities. That’s how China sees Africa.”

With new African-born leaders coming into their own, he says, Washington has a unique opportunity to tap into a powerful human resource that can help deepen US-African understanding for the long term. “People notice that there is an untapped resource in the diaspora,” he says, “and then the pipeline is set.”

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