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Johnnie Carson, Obama’s man in Africa

By Patrick Smith in Washington DC
Posted on Friday, 18 March 2011 17:21

Veteran diplomat Johnnie Carson doesn’t duck the tough question of ?democracy as the United States’ top policy maker on Africa

United States diplomacy, overshadowed by the political power and financial muscle of the Pentagon, is reasserting itself after the debilitating effects of the Iraq war and the financial crisis of 2008. Key to those efforts is Johnnie Carson, who presides over the State Department’s team of diplomats in Africa and is shaping policy at a time of fast-moving change.

Faced with what Stephen Morrison and Jennifer Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies call a “more intensely competitive political and economic marketplace” in Africa, the US wants to reassert its role in trade and investment, while promoting effective multilateral diplomacy.

In Africa, expectations of US policy were higher than ever following the election of President Barack Obama, whose Kenyan father had won a scholarship to Harvard University in the 1960s. In his first year as president, Obama spoke of popular aspirations for change and new economic opportunities. Carson emphasises these themes within the State Department and on his frequent swings through Africa, where he is on first name terms with many officials.

Carson exudes a good-humoured talent for the intricacies of diplomacy and a studied optimism about Africa’s prospects. The question of the day is how far developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will spread.

Carson sees the democracy movement in North Africa as broad-based, embracing professionals, entrepreneurs and middle-class activists, as well as trade unionists. He cautions against drawing easy comparisons with the situation in sub-Saharan Africa, where the movement for multiparty politics was launched 20 years ago in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Many sub-Saharan African countries are far less politically closed than either Egypt or Tunisia before their revolutions, says Carson: “I regard Kenya as a democratic country with a multiparty system, with a leadership that represents a variety of political views across the country. The democracy isn’t perfect, but I would argue that the level of political freedom and the openness of the media and the political space is far greater than in Egypt, and has been so for some considerable time.”??

A transition from putschists to multiparty systems

Africa, Carson says, hosts a range of political systems, but over the past two decades there has been a steady move towards pluralism and constitutional rule. “That’s true of Nigeria, with its strong, independent media and multiparty system. And the constitution works.” Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo are at the other end of the spectrum. Their courts and political institutions are among the weakest, argues Carson, adding that they are newly established in the wake of civil war.

Might African armies get a political boost from the apparently positive role they played during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions? Carson insists that any tolerance of military regimes would backfire: “I don’t think any coup is good. Some may, of course, become essential to avoid chaos and regain a level of stability. The African Union (AU) has been quite clear in its view that coup d’états are not legitimate these days. If you go back to the 1970s and see a line-up of leaders at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summits, perhaps as many as a third would have been in military uniform, leaders such as Idi Amin, [Jean-Bédel] Bokassa, Mobutu [Sese Seko] and several Francophone leaders. Now that is really passé.”?

Carson may lead on policy but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has developed her own strong interests in Africa after a six-nation tour in 2009, focusing on women’s rights, the campaign against sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and building stronger ties with South Africa. Pressed at home on Sudan policy, trade and human rights, President Obama was expected to be a regular visitor to Africa, not least to his father’s homeland of Kenya.

In the 1980s, a senior official in the White House said the job of the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa was to keep the continent’s troubles off the President’s desk. Today Africa has become mainstream foreign policy. The White House and State Department officials see Africa through several different, sometimes contrary perspectives: trade and economic partnerships, health initiatives, climate change, counter-terrorism and regional security.

So far Obama has visted Egypt and Ghana, using each trip to make a keynote speech about the Arab world and Africa respectively. Both speeches tackled the need for democratic reform and greater accountability. With some prescience in his first year as president, Obama also spoke of a popular aspiration for change and new opportunities for economic development.

The evolution of the OAU – that “trades union of dictators”, as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni called it in the 1980s – to the AU has promoted a transition from putschists to today’s multiparty systems, says Carson. “The top three leaders at the AU – Jean Ping, Erastus Mwencha, Ramtane Lamamra – are all outstanding public servants, committed to promoting strong democratic institutions, human rights, regional trade and integration, strong on regional security and willingness to help UN peacekeeping.” ?

Having praised the AU for leading on regional issues with other international organisations, Carson takes issue with the growing criticism of the International Criminal Court (ICC): “We believe that all the countries that are signatories to the ICC should live up to their treaty obligations. We believe there should be an end to the cycle of impunity.”?

Although some officials in the AU and Kenyan and Sudanese governments have claimed that there is support in North America and the European Union for the deferment of ICC cases against officials from Nairobi and Khartoum, Carson reiterates Washington’s stance: “The United States is not supportive of any deferment. We believe those individuals accused of serious offences should present themselves before the ICC to answer the charges that have been brought against them.”?

However, Carson is encouraged by the successful holding of the referendum on independence for Southern Sudan, saying that both the north and south deserve credit: “We have laid out a road map that would lead to the normalisation of our relations with Sudan if they successfully allowed the completion of the referendum and resolution of all the post-referendum issues.”?

In West Africa, Washington strongly backs the Economic Community of West African States and the AU in their support of Alassane Ouattara’s victory in Côte d’Ivoire’s November 2009 presidential elections. The US has recognised a new ambassador to Washington ­appointed by Ouattara and has already applied targeted sanctions against ­President Laurent Gbagbo and his closest advisors.

For Carson, the importance of ­upholding the UN-certified elections in Côte d’Ivoire goes beyond the country’s borders: “It’s awfully important that elections be held honestly and the people’s voice be heard. It would be an enormously bad precedent to see the election in Côte d’Ivoire overturned and Gbagbo come out on top.”?

As for voting elsewhere, Carson sees signs of progress ahead of Nigeria’s national elections in April: “We won’t really know until the day after the elections how significantly different things are [from 2007], but they are certainly off to a better start. We have a new election commissioner, Professor [Attahiru] Jega, who is committed to holding the best possible elections.” If Jega succeeds, Carson will almost certainly be one of the first foreign diplomats in Abuja to congratulate him.

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of The Africa Report

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