In remarks delivered at his swearing-in ceremony on September 17 as the new U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, veteran diplomat Tibor Nagy hit all the right notes, stressing the challenges and opportunities inherent in Africa’s youthful demographics and emphasizing the enduring importance of governance in attracting trade and investment. Like other public statements he has made since assuming his post, his words gave encouragement and confidence to those who care deeply about the United States’ engagement with the continent.
Nagy closed with a well-chosen rejection of Afro-pessimism, asking his audience to “look at Africa a new way—through the windshield, and not the rearview mirror—as a continent of promise and opportunity; not problems.” Of course, he is right that healthy, mutually beneficial engagement requires a focus on the future, and a clear-headed view of how the U.S. can work with African partners toward shared goals. It’s also true that longtime “Africa hands” can sometimes become so invested in specific personalities and narratives that their analysis and judgement of new dynamics becomes distorted.
But at the same time, it can be hard to get to one’s destination without awareness of what is in the rearview mirror. Hazards from the past are not always left permanently behind. Throughout Africa, divergent approaches to addressing historical crises clearly inform the prospects for stability in the future. Ivory Coast’s success story of recovery from civil war and impressive economic growth may be threatened by unresolved tensions and discomfort with a full and frank acknowledgement of the many injustices and crimes that nearly tore the country apart less than a decade ago. In Zimbabwe, President Mnangagwa’s insistence that a “new dispensation” has given the country a clean slate is belied not just by ongoing economic crisis, but by the state’s failure to account for atrocities committed by some who hold power today. Their calls to “let bygones be bygones” sound more like self-protection than public service. In just a few days, the Gambia will launch its Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission, an effort that leaders there see as essential to enabling the country to build a new identity after over two decades under former President Yahya Jammeh.
Assistant Secretary Nagy is absolutely right to encourage Americans to look to Africa’s future, and his comments were clearly not an endorsement of ahistorical thinking or a rejection of efforts aimed at accountability for past crimes. But his artful phrasing can provoke thoughtful consideration about the degree to which external partners should be mindful of the past, and watch closely to see how African partners choose to reckon with it, when assessing the prospects of a stable future.