By Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ambassador Johnnie Carson is special advisor to the president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was assistant secretary of state for African affairs from May 2009 to March 2013 and has also served as ambassador to a number of African nations. The views expressed are his own.
As President Barack Obama wraps up his six-day, three nation trip to Africa, much of America’s traveling press will be packing up to leave, too. Let’s hope that the media take home with them a more nuanced view of the continent – and how the United States has a genuine opportunity to improve its standing across the continent and reaffirm its longstanding historical, cultural and political ties to Africa.
Africa is changing rapidly, but much of the way Americans and Europeans view the continent is caught up in old stereotypes. Driven by episodic headlines and the publicity of well-intentioned humanitarian organizations and advocacy groups, many people across the United States and Western Europe believe that Africa is run by dictators, mired in conflict and overwhelmed by poverty, disease and starvation. They point to the conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then draw unfair conclusions about what is happening on a continent comprised of nearly a billion people, living in 54 countries and occupying a land mass that is three and a half times the size of the continental United States.
Yes, conflict, poverty and disease continue to challenge various parts of this large continent, but this is not the whole story and it should not be portrayed as the dominant one.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Africa has moved progressively into the democratic column. Numerous African countries have adopted new constitutions, embraced multiparty democracy, established functioning parliaments and independent judiciaries and in some states imposed term limits on their top political leaders. Elections – many of them monitored by American and European organizations – are common place.
In the past four years, sitting presidents in Senegal and Zambia have been defeated and replaced by opposition leaders; vice presidents in Malawi, Ghana and Nigeria have assumed power without conflict following the untimely deaths of their presidents; and term limited presidents have won office in Namibia, Tanzania, Benin, Mozambique, South Africa and several other states. And in 2011, Nigeria – Africa's most populous state – held its best multiparty elections in decades.
The African Union, the continent's most important regional organization, has now imposed a rigid rule that no president, prime minister or government can take its seat in the organization or participate in deliberations if they have come to power as a result of a military coup d'état or an unconstitutional change of government.
With 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, there will obviously be some occasional democratic setbacks, but the trend line is positive.
Economically, Africa remains the poorest and least developed continent in the world, but most of the macro-economic indicators and projections are looking better. Africa largely avoided the worst effects of the recent global economic downturn. Over the past decade, African economies have grown by more than 5 percent a year, and the IMF is projecting that African economies will expand by close to 6 percent in 2013 and 2014. The Economist recently reported that six out of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa's new growth spurt is different from previous years, when it was driven by large reserves of oil, gas and an abundance of minerals. Today's growth is being fueled by new developments: rapid urbanization; an educated and expanding middle class; access to and innovative use of digital and wireless technology; economic liberalization and policy reforms; easier access to credit; and greater inward investment in infrastructure and capital development projects.
New oil and gas discoveries along the coast of Mozambique and Tanzania and new oil discoveries in the waters off Liberia are also contributing to the continent's growth surge.
Africa does face a new threat: the spread of international terrorism and the emergence of radical Islamic groups in Mali, northern Nigeria and pockets of East Africa. But as the arc of stability expands, we sometimes forget how many of Africa's worst conflicts have been resolved and what is being done to mitigate those that are ongoing. Bloody liberation conflicts in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa all have been wound down, and all but Guinea-Bissau have escaped a recurring cycle of massive violence. Liberia and Sierra Leone – torn apart by the brutality of Charles Taylor – are now peaceful, multiparty democracies. The long war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has ended; and in Rwanda, a genocidal regime that killed an estimated over 800,000 mostly Tutsis, has been replaced by a stable government that has generated substantial economic progress.
The fact that Africa hosts more U.N. peacekeepers than any other continent in the world indicates how conflict continues to exist in parts of the continent. But these are the ones that have been most intractable and difficult to solve. Even Mali – Africa's latest conflict zone – has had an extended history of fighting.
As President Obama and his entourage wound their way through Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania – three strong democracies – they highlighted the continent's democratic progress and reiterating the message of his 2009 visit to Ghana: that Africa needs more strong institutions and not strong men, and that democracy, rule of law and good governance not only protect citizens’ rights but also increase the confidence of business leaders and investors. American companies have always been major players in the oil and gas sector and in the sale of aircraft, locomotives, and large generators. But the Obama administration will try to encourage more American companies to expand their trade and investment interests to energy, agriculture, electronics, telecommunications and industrial projects – not as a counterweight to growing competition from China, Brazil, France or Great Britain, but because it is in our economic interest to be engaged in Africa.
As a nation, we have strong economic, political and security interests in Africa. And those interests are likely to grow as Africa's importance grows. Africa is already one of America's most important sources of hydrocarbons. But Africa's new economic and commercial opportunities extend beyond hydrocarbons, and it is important for the U.S. to ramp up its trade and investment activities in Africa. We should not be left behind as Africa's marketplace expands.
On the political and security side, we need to forge closer partnerships with Africa to address the common threats – of violent extremism and international terrorism, narco-trafficking, money laundering, trafficking in people, climate change and piracy. As one of the largest and most important voting blocs at the United Nations, and one of the world's great landmasses and ecosystems, Africa cannot be ignored – and its positive engagement as a friend and a partner can and should only be seen as a benefit to the United States.