Three U.S. lawmakers have urged more than 100 young activists from Africa to continue to challenge their governments to increase their transparency, accountability and ethical standards.
“You are the future of your countries and your continent,” Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin told the activists. He urged them to continue their work of drawing greater numbers of young people into public service. Africa is a continent of “weak governance” and “pervasive insecurity,” the senator said. Feingold, the chairman of the subcommittee on African affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Africa needs general political reform to accompany the strong economic growth taking place on the continent.
The young activists were part of the President’s Forum with Young African Leaders, held in Washington August 3–5. They were invited to Washington to be honored for their work in bringing about positive social change in their home countries. They met with the members of Congress August 4.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights, said he is intent on using his influence in the U.S. Congress to address all forms of human rights violations in Africa, be they incidents of human trafficking, drafting child soldiers or taking political prisoners. He said that there is a “thirst” for African minerals that are extracted from African conflict zones by western companies. He said those companies must be held accountable for human rights abuses to which they may be party. He also said he is backing legislation that will prevent fallen, corrupt African leaders from finding refuge in the United States.
Representative Don Payne of New Jersey compared the ferment for change in Africa now to the activism in the United States in the 1960s, when he fought for civil rights. He praised President Obama for calling this forum 50 years after 17 African countries won their independence.
Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia took a different tack, emphasizing economic development. He said Africa offers great opportunity for partnership with the United States in the 21st century.
The young activists, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, responded enthusiastically to the encouraging words from the lawmakers.
A young journalist from Sudan, Alsanosi Ahmed Ibrahim Ali, said the interests of the United States and Africa overlap. “For example, trade between the United States will create jobs in both places. I will carry that message back to Sudan,” he said. He added that the Sudanese government paints an unfairly negative image of the United States.
Sydney Chisi, executive director of the Youth Initiative for Democracy in Zimbabwe, works on training young community leaders. He prepares young people to run for office, registers citizens to vote and demands change in government actions and policies.
“Zimbabwe’s youth have to be included in decision-making processes,” he said. They have to “take it upon themselves” to build a new democracy and governing system, and confront the internal security forces. “It is very dangerous, but somebody has to do it,” Chisi said. He said in 2008 he lost four close friends to political violence.
Assale Tiemoko Antoine, a journalist from Ivory Coast, was appreciative of the honor of being invited to the forum. Antoine spent 12 months behind bars from December 2007 to December 2008 for his reporting on government corruption. He said he hoped that being part of the young leaders’ forum will raise his status back home and afford him greater protection from people who would like to silence him.
“You must keep the freedom of independence alive,” Payne said. “Many leaders in Africa feel that the people must serve them. I’ve told that to their faces. They didn’t like it. You need to go back home and do work.”
Payne was surrounded by many young leaders in the street afterward as they jostled to have a picture taken with him.