Piracy and maritime security, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ethiopia, corruption, and freedom of the press — all important issues in the U.S.-Africa relationship — were addressed April 29 by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs-designate Johnnie Carson before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
As part of his confirmation hearing, Carson engaged in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with senators on various aspects of the U.S.-Africa relationship. Carson is a career diplomat, former Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania and a lifelong friend of Africa. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Kenya (1999–2003), Zimbabwe (1995–1997) and Uganda (1991–1994) and in diplomatic posts in Portugal, Botswana, Mozambique and Nigeria.
According to Carson, the ongoing piracy off the coast of Somalia is directly related to the absence of any government or law enforcement there and a breakdown of the formal and informal economy. The United States, he said, “needs to be positioned wherever we can with diplomatic representation in the region to help facilitate the efforts to find solutions … in Somalia.”
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, who chaired the hearing for the full committee, Democrat Russ Feingold, told Carson the United States needs “a full-court diplomatic push to engage a wide range of actors within Somalia and stakeholders in the wider region, both in the Horn of Africa and also in the Middle East.”
Carson said much of that push is already under way. “The United States is a part of a Contact Group of largely Western European and maritime powers working to devise rules and regulations that will improve the security of shipping through the Red Sea and the northern part of the Indian Ocean,” he told the lawmakers. The Contact Group has had a number of meetings “to work out details on how they can help address this issue.”
Carson cited “an unprecedented level of cooperation among navies of the world to deal with this issue,” and said the United States government has been very active in working with maritime shipping companies in the United States, encouraging them to adopt policies that will make it harder for pirates to capture or to attack their ships as they move through the region.
Asked about the appointment of President Obama’s new special envoy for Sudan, retired Air Force Major General Scott Gration, Carson termed that selection “a wonderful choice.” Carson described Gration as “a man who is very much dedicated to the job and the assignment that he has been given and a man who has an enormous amount of experience in Africa as well.”
Turning to Zimbabwe, Carson called it an “extraordinarily tragic” case. “We have seen Robert Mugabe take Zimbabwe, a once very successful, economically strong country, down to the lowest level. It is a country that has extraordinary agricultural and mineral potential. It has a citizenship that is broadly well educated for Africa. But under Robert Mugabe’s dictatorial, authoritarian leadership he has basically destroyed the country in order to maintain himself and a small group of leaders in power.”
Carson said the United States has “worked very hard” for change there and that effort has resulted in some progress. “We now have a transition government in place with the leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, serving as the prime minister, but Mugabe and the key leadership of [Mugabe’s political party] continue to control the instruments of power in that country … the intelligence services, the police and the military. They also have enormous control over the central bank and the reserve bank. Until we see changes in those areas, it is unlikely we will see any real change in the governance of that country.”
Looking at the political situation in Kenya, Carson called Kenya the “strongest partner” of the United States in the Horn of Africa. “We have our greatest economic ties there. We have our strongest military ties there as well, and it has been an important partner with the United States.” Carson added that the United States is “deeply concerned” over the stalemated political situation there and pledged that, if confirmed, he would do everything he could to help address the political impasse.
Asked to comment on reports of arbitrary arrests in Ethiopia, Carson acknowledged that “Ethiopia has, in fact, been a strong partner in the effort to combat extremism emanating from Somalia.” He added, however, that the United States “needs to have a broad and balanced relationship with Ethiopia — one that is based on a common set of shared ideals and principles based on democratic values.” He said it is “extremely important that Ethiopia … try not to close down its democratic space, that it allows its political opposition, its civil society to participate broadly in the political life of that country.” He also called for Ethiopia to allow a free press and trade unions to operate there.
On the broader issue of press freedom across the continent, Carson underlined the importance of a free press as a major pillar of democracy. He said press freedom has improved on the continent over the past 20 years, aided by the introduction of electronic media, telephones and Internet and radio broadcasts both local and international. A free press, he said, provides information and “a check on government excesses. It allows individuals to make their governments and organizations more accountable and is the backbone of good democracies.”
Carson said that, if confirmed, he will speak out against corruption, which he called a cancer on the economy of any country. Corruption is “particularly devastating on the African economies,” he said, “because they tend to be weak and small.” In too many places around the continent, Carson said, there is a misuse of resources that undermines the integrity of government budgets and development objectives.
Carson’s nomination is yet to be confirmed by the full Senate.