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With violence flaring in South Sudan, peace talks are under way in Ethiopia to try to negotiate a cease fire. Kojo is traveling in Ethiopia and spoke with the U.S. Ambassador to the African Union about South Sudan and the African Union’s challenges on the continent. They also explored the U.S. role in Africa and its participation in efforts to end other violent conflicts there.
- Reuben Brigety U.S. Ambassador to the African Union and Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN Economic Commission of Africa
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, the link between poverty and poor health. A new study raises troubling questions about the effectiveness of public-assistance programs. But, first, the crisis in South Sudan. After 20 years of brutal civil war in Sudan, South Sudan broke away and became independent in 2011.
MR. MARC FISHERThe world hoped this impoverished East-African nation could bring a modern, functioning government by marshalling huge oil deposits and billions in development assistance from the international community. But last month, a simmering political feud between South Sudan's president and vice president quickly boiled over into ethnically tinged violence across the country, claiming the lives of thousands in just a few weeks. Leaders from across the region are meeting at African Union headquarters in Ethiopia to try to broker an end to the fighting.
MR. MARC FISHERBut some are wondering whether the African Union has the will or the leverage to impact what's happening on the ground. Kojo and two of the show's producers are traveling in Ethiopia this week on an educational trip arranged by the international-aid group, CARE. Last Thursday, Kojo spoke with the U.S. Ambassador to the African Union, Reuben Brigety, about attempts to broker peace, the role the United States is playing on the continent, and what it means to represent the U.S. at the African Union.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAmbassador Brigety, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. REUBEN BRIGETYMy pleasure. Thanks for having me. Pleased to be here.
NNAMDIWhen you were going through the senate confirmation process last year, you said your plan would be to focus on four pillars of the president's strategy for sub-Saharan Africa: democracy and governance, economic growth, promotion of opportunity, and peace and security. With all that's been going on in South Sudan, what do you see at stake right now and what role do you see for the United States in what's happening there?
BRIGETYWell, Kojo, as we sit here today, the situation in South Sudan is incredibly fragile. There are negotiations, which are ongoing as we speak, here in Addis Ababa, between the parties mediated by mediators from the intergovernmental authority on development or IGAD. I think that those negotiations are aimed at creating an immediate cessation of hostilities so that a political solution to the crisis can be found. Those negotiations are incredibly tense. They are incredibly delicate. The United States is very heavily invested.
BRIGETYOur special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Ambassador Don Booth, who's one of our best, most veteran diplomats is here in Ethiopia -- has been since Christmas day -- working on the negotiations. So -- and our government has been very invested. We played a very key role in assisting with the midwifing of a 2005 comprehensive peace agreement, which brought an end to the long-running civil war within then, sort of, main Sudan. And we obviously were very supportive of the referendum that led to the birth of Africa's newest country, South Sudan.
BRIGETYSo to be sort of two years on from that referendum with the country literally on the verge of civil war is incredibly disturbing. But I can tell you, the amount of diplomatic effort that's going into trying to resolve the process by our government and also by our allies is enormous. And we very much hope we can get to the right place.
NNAMDIWe certainly couldn't help noticing that there were a lot of people, apparently from South Sudan, at our hotel today, even though that's not the primary location of the negotiations. Obviously some people are still staying there. Can you talk any -- can you tell us anything at all about whether these negotiations seem to be making progress.
BRIGETYWell, they are making progress in the sense that the parties are talking. The principal issues required to achieve a ceasefire have been identified. All the parties are trying to work very hard to get movement on those sticking points. But those sticking points are strong. So we are working very hard with partners in the region to try to find a way past those one or two key issues. Our hope is that we will be able to do so shortly, so that we can move very quickly to a ceasefire.
NNAMDIAnd you are the Ambassador to the African Union. The African Union has been coming for some criticism lately by people who say that it has been missing in action in South Sudan, missing in action in Mali, missing in action in the Central African Republic -- to which you say, what?
BRIGETYI think that is an unfair and inaccurate criticism, frankly. Let's take each of those crises by turn. First of all, with regard to South Sudan, the AU high-implementation panel led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki has been engaged in issues of South Sudan and helping to negotiate essentially the Addis Ababa Accords of last year immensely well. And I think that the high-implementation panel deserves credit for all the work they've done to help smooth relations between South Sudan, prior to the latest outbreak of conflict, and the North.
BRIGETYBut, you know, the African Union operates on a principle that's called subsidiary. So you have the African Union, which is responsible for the entirety of the Continent. And then you have what are called regional economic communities or RECs, like IGAD that I just mentioned or the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, in Southern Africa. And the basic principle is that where there are issues that be resolved by the RECs, they should be.
BRIGETYWhen they can't be resolved by the RECs and they require a continental-wide solution, then it goes up to the AU. So IGAD, which is the regional community for East Africa, has the lead for the negotiations in South Sudan. And when they need to be supported by the African Union, as such, they will.
BRIGETYIn fact, I think it's worth noting that, on December 30, at the Peace and Security Council meeting in Banjul, Gambia, the African Union decided to do something they'd never done before, and that's to create a commission of inquiry to investigate human rights abuses that may -- alleged to be occurring in South Sudan. So I think they're taking a very strong role there. In Mali, I think it has to be noted that MINUSMA, which was the first peace-keeping mission in Mali after the break of violence, was an African-Union-led mission.
BRIGETYECOWAS took the lead, but there were other countries that were involved there as well. And that set the stage for the transition to the UN peacekeeping mission that is currently helping to keep the peace in Mali. In the Central African Republic, the initial African Union peacekeeping mission, which is called AFISM-CAR, which has now been translated to MISCA, is on the ground currently. In fact, today, as we speak, the United States just today began airlifting a mechanized infantry battalion from Rwanda to get on the ground in Bangi (sp?) and help keep the peace there.
BRIGETYAnd there's a special mediator from the African Union on the ground there. So I would have to say, the African Union is a young organization. It's an organization that continues to struggle with financial resources. But I am certain, and I believe this strongly, the political will to -- for the AU to address African problems with African solutions is absolutely there. And part of our job as partners is to help them do so.
NNAMDIIt just occurs to me that, coming from Washington, part of the preparation you had for this job is we tend to think of Washington as the acronym capital of the world. But it would appear that Addis Ababa is pretty high up there when it comes to acronyms also.
NNAMDIBecause you've been using quite a few. But I'm glad you mentioned former South African Prime Minister -- President Thabo Mbeki, because it seems to me that when he and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo were both in office, the African leadership and the African Union did seem to have a higher profile. There's a sense among some that African leadership in the African Union might be eroding.
BRIGETYI don't share that view from where I sit. The current chairperson of the African Union, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, has come to the AU with a very strong mandate to strengthen the actual sort of bureaucratic mechanisms of the commission itself. The African Union has essentially eight different departments, which are each led by a commissioner, which for our American audience would be the functional equivalent of a cabinet-level department led by a cabinet-level secretary.
BRIGETYI've had occasion to meet on multiple occasions with each of the eight commissioners of the AU. I've been very impressed with all of them. They are -- whether it's from the director for peace and security, or the director for trade and industry, or the director for infrastructure and energy, all of them -- they are all incredibly dynamic people. They're experts in their field. And I have to say, as well, that in the various diplomatic representational organs, like the peace and security council, which is the AU's equivalent of the UN security council, the debates are quite rich.
BRIGETYThe diplomats are very much engaged. And I think that there is -- and I would say that, accordingly, that a criticism that the leadership in the AU is lacking is not accurate, at least not from my vantage point.
NNAMDIYou have written a good deal in the past about where the American military should fit into U.S. global development and aid strategies. Where do you see that philosophy applying most directly to the regions of the world that you are now focusing on?
BRIGETYWell, Kojo, the United States, in 2007, created something called the U.S.-Africa command. As you may know, as I'm sure your audience also may know, the U.S. military divides the world up into geographic regions. And up until 2007, there had not been one dedicated specifically to Africa. With the creation of AFRICOM in 2007, there has been this debate about what exactly should be the role, frankly, of the U.S. military in Africa. Generally speaking, the principal role is to work with African partners to help capacitate them to address their own peace and security issues.
BRIGETYFor example, like helping to airlift Rwandan soldiers to Central African Republic, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, as well as a host of other engagement opportunities to help strengthen Africa capacity in peacekeeping and logistics and things of that nature. Of course, there are other more direct military operations that AFRICOM does in partnership or in consultation with African partners, not unlike our military does in other parts of the world. But the basic mission is to help support and capacitate African countries to address their own security problems.
NNAMDIHow about the role of the military in development? Are there areas where you see room for improvement in Africa as far as how the U.S. goes about convincing those it provides aid to that it's just being delivered in the interests of the African nations, and not just U.S. interests. And that doesn't necessarily apply exclusively to the military, but U.S. assistance in general.
BRIGETYWell, you know, I think, Kojo, that the debate about U.S. foreign assistance in general, and particularly in Africa, is undergoing something of a renaissance. So there is, of course, humanitarian assistance that we do when there are major humanitarian emergencies; for example, when South Sudanese refugees are crossing the border into Ethiopia or Uganda, helping to provide emergency, life-saving assistance for camps and things.
BRIGETYBut the other sorts of assistance in terms of economic development, agriculture, animal husbandry, those sorts of things, I think that what we are increasingly seeing are models in which we not only use our aid to both capacitate a host country's abilities to address these issues but, more importantly, where we use our aid in a catalytic fashion to help jumpstart indigenous private sector. I believe very strongly that the next chapter of Africa's history will be dominated by private-sector-led economic growth.
BRIGETYIndeed it must be, both because of the massive youth bubble that is occurring -- it is said by some people that by 2030, some 25 percent of the world's population under the age of 30 will be African -- those are an awful lot of people that on the one hand can really put their labor to skilled use, where without labor or jobs, frankly will pose something of a security challenge for many countries. And I think all countries are aware of that. So the U.S. military has a role in this, in the sense that their role is to help other states provide for their own stability and security.
BRIGETYThey have a critical role to play in emergency humanitarian assistance for airlift or those sorts of things when it may be difficult to reach certain places. And, increasingly, they have a role to play in helping partner militaries do outreach to their own civilian populations, in situations where they may be very remote or they may only have -- only the military has the capacity to provide emergency medical assistance or things of that nature.
NNAMDIYeah, it is clear that the template for U.S. aid is changing and there's an increasing consensus that it should change and how it should change. How would you compare the way America is engaging in this region of the world to how China is engaging? A lot has been made about how much Chinese companies are investing in Africa. The headquarters of the African Union...
NNAMDI...were built with Chinese support. And there are those who say that China sees Africa as an investment not a charity.
BRIGETYWell, there is no doubt that the Chinese have dramatically increased their engagement in Africa, principally their economic means. I will have to say that I think this is a useful challenge for the United States and to the United States. I can't tell you the number of times I traveled the continent and met with senior African governmental and economic leaders who are literally begging American companies just to show up.
BRIGETYAnd I believe very strongly that we need to do much more to demonstrate to the American private sector the enormous economic opportunities are here, available in Africa, that you can make real money in Africa, that there are -- that the continent is actually very diverse. Oftentimes when business people who are not familiar with Africa think of the continent, they think of simply starving children or wars. And they don't understand that the continent is actually very heterogeneous. There are many places like Ghana or Batswana that are incredibly stable where one can get some really great returns on investment in areas of infrastructure, information technology, consumer goods, etcetera.
BRIGETYAnd, as I said before, that as I believe the next chapter of Africa's history will be defined by private sector lead economic growth. It is absolutely imperative that American companies, the American private sector be part of that story going forward.
NNAMDIIn fact, because China is making that a challenge for you, how does not persuade American companies that the investment that they put in African countries might be -- might provide a better return? Because it seems as if what they're concerned about is the risk.
BRIGETYRight. Well, I guess I would say three things. The first is that the numbers speak for themselves. Six of the ten fastest growing economies on the planet are in Africa. And in an environment where investors are increasingly looking for rates of return beyond the lowest single digits, I would encourage them to look to the continent.
BRIGETYThe second thing I would say is don't take this from a government official or a diplomat. Take it from other American companies that are here on the ground doing business, doing deals, making money. And I think that that credibility coming from other peers in the private sector I think is something that would resonate with American companies that are not currently on the ground in Africa. You may hear my sons yelling in the background. They're just there in the...
NNAMDIWe have been anticipating their arrival. We're conducting this interview in the home of the ambassador. And he gave us fair warning before that during the course of the interview that we might be invaded by his wife and family and children. You know, over the years, Ethiopia has become a huge part of Washington's story at the local level. The Washington area's home to one of the largest Ethiopian communities in the world. It's my understanding that Africa in general, and Ethiopia in particular, are also a big part of your family's story. Tell us about that.
BRIGETYThat's right, in fact. My father was one of the first volunteers with Operation Crossroads Africa and it was then northern Rhodesia in 1964. And so I grew up sort of listening to stories of his from that very precious time in his life. And I was very fortunate to marry a wonderful woman who, as it happens, is Ethiopian by birth. She was born here in Addis Ababa in 1973, and fled with her family to the states when she was four years old. They fled Ethiopia with nothing but the clothes on their back and two suitcases.
BRIGETYAnd so the -- I have a great set of -- you know, personal interest in this as well as my professional work with regard to Africa.
NNAMDIYes. I do remember Operation Crossroads very well. With that in mind, what did it mean to you personally when you began this post last year?
BRIGETYWell, I have to say, I mean, to ever be asked to represent the United States as an ambassador anywhere is a great honor. But for us personally, given our own family's history with Africa to be asked to come back to Addis Ababa, the land of my wife's birth, to represent the United States to the African Union, which is the successor organization to the organization of African Unity, an organization whose principal objective was to liberate the continent from colonialism at apartheid, was just a tremendous, tremendous honor.
BRIGETYYou know, I have to say the work is intense. But beyond that, it's incredibly professionally fulfilling and personal fulfilling to be back here in Ethiopia.
NNAMDIWhat do you expect will be your priorities when the African Union meets here in Addis later this month?
BRIGETYWell, the African Union has two summits a year, one in January, the other usually in May or June. The January summit is always held here in Addis Ababa. And typically they like for the June summit to be held somewhere else on the continent. The January summit will be dominated, we think, by a number of themes. The first is that the African Union has declared 2014 as the year of agriculture. We think this is incredibly important, although the continent has 60 percent of the world's available arable land. It is still a net importer of food.
BRIGETYIn finding ways to increase food security in Africa, there's not only a humanitarian importance. It's also of great business importance, so how does one build on not only agriculture but agribusiness across the entire value chain on the continent. That will be a major topic of discussion. Of course, all the latest crises in South Sudan, in Central Africa Republic in particular, will be major topics for discussion of the summit.
BRIGETYWe anticipate that the AU will also review something called the Gambari report, which is a report written by former Nigerian Foreign Minister Ibrahim Gambari, which is intended to look at the -- what is needed to create a sustainable indigenous African security capacity. So that Africa can deploy its own peace-keeping forces to address its own crises without having to rely on external powers or UN peace-keeping operations to do that.
BRIGETYSo those are three of the sorts of big-ticket items that'll be discussed in the summit in the next couple of days.
FISHEREthiopia is a major ally of the United States in this region. The African Union is headquartered in Ethiopia. Yet there are concerns about how democracy is evolving in Ethiopia. Three are elections that are scheduled to take place here next year. How do you combine your role as ambassador with an advocacy for, well, what the U.S. always is looking for, improved democracy?
BRIGETYWell, let me state initially, Kojo, that the United States' diplomatic mission in that is a bit unique in the sense that we actually have two ambassadors here in Ethiopia. We have one who is the bilateral ambassador to Ethiopia, my good colleague ambassador Patricia Haslach. And then I’m ambassador to the African Union, which, as you say, happens to be based here in Ethiopia. Now what I would say is that our approach to Ethiopia on these issues of democracy and human rights are the same in our approach to other countries with whom we're allied with whom there are challenges.
BRIGETYAnd that is we have very frank conversations. We don't shy away from them. We continue to encourage and then push sometimes as needed our partners to respect the importance of democracy and human rights with the arguments that not only is it the right thing to do as a matter of principle, but in terms of long term stability. Ultimately that is the way you have to go because any country which does not give its citizens full democratic access to institutions, to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly ultimately cannot be stable for very long.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, there are social issues that have been rocking American for years that are now universal in their scope. There have been a number of countries that have either pondered or enacted policies targeting LGBT communities in recent years. Nigeria's new law banning same-sex relationships is drawing attention around the world. How are such laws or such political debates shaping the way American policymakers want to engage with these countries on issues related to human rights? What expectations do you have, if any, for how those issues will factor into the African Union meetings later this month?
BRIGETYSure. Well, first of all, Kojo, I mean, let me state unequivocally that our government's position is that rights for LGBT individuals are human rights full stop. And that those who may even be LGBT origin deserve to be treated every bit as equally as anybody else. Those are arguments that we have made to our African partners. I've personally worked very closely on the issues of the LGBT laws as they are in Nigeria and also in Uganda and in other countries in the world.
BRIGETYI can tell you I've had very frank conversations across the continent with clergy people, with LGBT activists, with politicians. What I would say is that in most countries on the continent, the issue is a very sensitive one. And it has only been in the last couple of years where there have been very specific laws that have been so ardently pushed in parliaments in other countries. We've tried very hard to have these discussions with our African partners in a way that recognizes their sensitivities, but nevertheless upholds the principles for equal treatment of people that we believe -- not only that we stand for but indeed are enshrined in documents like the International Covenant of Civil Political Rights and others.
BRIGETYSo on the issues in particular, as you mentioned, Nigeria and Uganda, we will continue to push back. We will continue to engage our partners there. And I think we should state no one should make any mistake that unequivocally the United States is absolutely supportive of equal treatment for all people in Africa to include those who may be LGBT.
NNAMDIAnd, as we said, you took this post last year and this is of course just January of this year. But how would you say your relationship with your peers has been so far?
BRIGETYMy relationship with the rest of the diplomatic community here has been fantastic. First of all, I inherited this post from a fantastic ambassador, Ambassador Michael Battle, who's my predecessor and is also my friend. He had very great relationships across the diplomatic community here in Addis Ababa, which has made it much easier for me to engage as well.
BRIGETYInterestingly, as we sit here in the residence, if you look 20' that way, we're having a dinner tonight for ambassadors from the UN Security Council countries and also key ambassadors from the African Union's Peace and Security Council countries, which has never been done before. And we're doing it as a way to try to improve relations between the two councils so that we can work as cooperatively together on matters of peace and security that affect the continent.
NNAMDII'd like to thank you so much for joining us and wish you good luck.
BRIGETYMy pleasure. Thanks for coming.
NNAMDIAnd I'd like to thank your wife and family because apparently they heeded your earlier warning to be quiet on coming home. We haven't heard any more noise.
BRIGETYThank you very much.
FISHERThat was Kojo talking last week with Reuben Brigety, the U.S. ambassador to the African Union. We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, the link between poverty and poor health. We'll look at why poor people with diabetes have more medical emergencies at the end of the month when household budgets are at their tightest. And what's at stake as congress debates the future of food assistance programs. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo.
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