Promise keeper

EXCLUSIVE: US Veteran diplomat Johnnie Carson races to enact Biden’s Africa agenda

By Julian Pecquet

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Posted on May 29, 2023 08:40

Having just turned 80 in April, veteran US diplomat Johnnie Carson shows no signs of slowing down.

A former top Africanist at the State Department, Carson returned to government service in December to serve as President Joe Biden’s point man for delivering on the promises of his US-Africa Leaders Summit. Since then, the former ambassador to Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda has been tapping into his half-century of connections across the continent to help turn America’s lofty rhetoric into concrete results.

The Africa Report caught up with Carson on 4 May just down the street from the State Department at the US Institute of Peace think tank, where he has been serving as a senior advisor since 2013.

It has been more than five months since African leaders gathered in Washington for the first time since 2014. What are you hearing from them?

Money is flowing, projects are being supported, programmes are being implemented, and people are working [on following up on commitments] both in the US and in Africa. And they’re making a difference in people’s lives.

I can tell you […] from talking to African diplomats, here and overseas, they would welcome greater high-level summits and meetings on a more regular and closer timeframe. It’s in our interest to do so because of Africa’s growing importance and the realisation that the challenges that we face globally require Africa’s participation at the table to ensure the right solutions are found.

What does a Special Presidential Representative for US-Africa Leaders Summit Implementation do, exactly?

We’re about encouraging our side to move as quickly as possible to implement. It’s also about assuring African parties who come to me that we are committed to facilitating discussions in relations. And also keeping the diplomatic community in Washington apprised of what we’re doing, talking to African diplomats, talking to the ambassador of the African Union here in Washington, and also trying to look for ways to ensure we are continuing not only to move forward but also looking for ways to come up with ideas for future engagements.

The stretching out over eight years [between summits] is a little bit too long. One of the things that I’ve already done and will continue to do is to make recommendations for opportunities to meet on a more regular basis. Obviously, it’s not going to be every year, it may not be every two years, but it shouldn’t be every 5, 6, or 7 years.

What have you been up to since December?

Over the course of the past several months, I have met with the entirety of the African diplomatic corps. I’ve met with the members of the European Union – representatives, ambassadors and political officers here – to talk about the summit. I’ve also met with individual ambassadors, including from several countries that were not invited to the summit, but who wanted to reach out to find out about the summit and whether they might be able to participate in some elements of the summit outcomes [Editor’s note: Five countries were excluded from the summit because they were suspended by the African Union or don’t have full diplomatic relations with the US: Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan, and Eritrea].

Over the past couple of days, both here and at the Department of State, I had an opportunity to meet with the president of the African Development Bank, [Akinwumi] Adesina […] To add to that list, I’ve met with the [secretary general] of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, Wamkele Mene, I’ve met with the CEO of the Africa Finance Corporation [Samaila Zubairu].

I’ve met with the leaders of some of Africa’s largest banks and commercial entities, all of whom are committed to trying to deepen the commercial, business, and financial relations between African countries and to building out on the successful discussions that were held on the second day of the summit at the business meetings.

You’ve also been to Africa.

I travelled with Assistant Secretary Molly Phee and her team out to the African Union meetings in Addis Ababa, where I had an opportunity to meet with a number of leaders, all the way from presidents to foreign ministers to development ministers, to talk about the summit. And most recently, three weeks ago, I had an opportunity to participate in two of the stops on the Vice President [Kamala Harris’] trip. I was a part of the delegation in Ghana and also a part of the delegation in Lusaka.

A crucial part of your job is to keep the heightened engagement going for the long term, especially after the first summit in 2014 had no follow-up for eight years. The creation of a new 12-member President’s Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement, expected in early June, is a key deliverable from the summit. How is that going?

That’s been a pretty big part of the initial work […]. We have been working very hard on establishing the regulatory and legal framework for that within the US government, as well as soliciting and asking prominent Black American diaspora organisations who they would consider to be outstanding candidates. Seems like it would be an easy thing, but there are challenges.

[…] There are some 45 million Americans of African descent in this country. Over the past 25 or 30 years, the rate of African immigration into the US has significantly increased, and like all immigration into this country, it has made the US more vibrant, stronger, and more resourceful. A lot of talent has come into this country from Africa. And they can be a powerful vehicle and channel for strengthening relationships with Africa.

Over the course of your half-century career working on US-Africa policy, the US has led the charge in providing healthcare, food, and education to millions of Africans. What needs to change as America continues to lose ground to China and other powers on the continent?

The US has always had a strong interest and engagement in Africa. What is important now is to build on it, and deepen it, and make sure Africa feels a strong, mutual partnership in what we do.

We must continue to broaden what we do because the world is changing. If we were going back to [the 1980s], we wouldn’t be talking about the internet and the digital economy, or fintech. One of the initiatives of this administration is to strengthen digital transformation across Africa, not only helping to strengthen the backbone but also educating people […] and also ensuring that people have access to it. The question is being current, remaining relevant, being supportive, and working on issues that Africa believes are critical and important for the continent.

Among the outcomes of the summit was the signing of several memorandums of understanding, with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the Afreximbank and the Africa Finance Corporation, with Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is their significance?

These are important, concrete elements of the US government’s intention to formalise and strengthen those relationships. They were not meant to be casual, one-off, symbolic documents, but in fact meaningful ones for working together on key issues of importance to Africa.

…to work with Africa as a partner in addressing economic and social concerns and a recognition that none of the global issues can be resolved without Africa’s participation.

As a part of this summit, we had a number of new elements that have never been reflected before. First of all, the President and the administration reiterated two fundamental things that are important. One is for the African Union and Africa to be represented at the G20. They need to be a part of that global discussion of the highest leaders and organisations. Second, the administration has said clearly that they believe Africa should have a permanent seat at the UN on the UN Security Council, a permanent seat, not one of the rotating seats.

In addition to that, the President of the United States signed with the then-President and Chair of the AU, Macky Sall of Senegal, and with the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki, a vision statement. It’s the first time that the US government has in fact signed a vision statement with the AU, setting out our common desire to deepen and strengthen the relationship.

Even as the Biden administration looks to focus more on trade and investment, the US still finds itself getting sucked into regional conflicts, whether it’s in Ethiopia, Sudan, or the Sahel. Where does America’s peace-making role fit into its Africa policy?

I don’t think you can have sustained economic development and progress, nor can you have people living up to their full potential, nor can you have countries playing increasingly important roles in their region, if there’s conflict. And so, the effort to end conflict … should always be a central part of what we do in Africa.

Anytime that we can help, prevent, help to mitigate and help to resolve conflict is a better day for people to begin to live normal lives, to be able to access clean water, health care, education and jobs, and to be able to provide resources for their family, their communities, and their countries and to be able to express themselves democratically in the way they are governed. And to the extent that there is a serious conflict out there, none of that is possible.

President Biden is set to visit Africa later this year. What can we expect?

I think the message there probably will be the same message that we heard at the summit, and that is a strong desire on the part of the US to work with Africa as a partner in addressing their most fundamental economic and social concerns and a recognition that none of the key global issues can be resolved without Africa’s participation.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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