Michelle Gavin, CFR’s Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies, leads a conversation on African politics and security issues.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the CFR fall of 2021 Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, cfr.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Michelle Gavin with us today to talk about African politics and security issues. Ambassador Gavin is CFR’s Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies. Previously, she was managing director of the Africa Center, a multidisciplinary institution dedicated to increasing understanding of contemporary Africa.
From 2011 to 2014, she served as the U.S. ambassador to Botswana and as the U.S. representative to the Southern African Development Community, and prior to that, she was a special assistant to President Obama and the senior director for Africa at the National Security Council. And before going into the Obama administration, she was an international affairs fellow and adjunct fellow for Africa at CFR. So we are so delighted to have her back in our fold.
So, Michelle, thank you very much for being with us. We have just seen that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went on a trip to Africa. Maybe you could begin by talking about the strategic framework that he laid out on that trip, and then we have in just recent days—with a new variant of Omicron—seen the travel ban imposed on several African countries and what that means for the strategic vision that he laid out.
GAVIN: Sure. Thank you. Well, thank you so much for inviting me to join you today. And I looked at the roster. There’s so much amazing expertise and knowledge on this Zoom. I really look forward to the exchange and the questions. I know I’ll be learning from all of you.
But maybe just to start out to talk a little bit about Secretary Blinken’s trip because I think that, in many ways, his efforts to sort of reframe U.S. engagement on the continent, trying to move away from this sort of binary major power rivalry lens that the Trump administration had been using is useful, but also exposes, really, a lot of the challenges that policymakers focused on Africa are dealing with right now.
So he tried to reset the relationship in the context of a partnership, of purely acknowledging African priorities and African agency in determining what kind of development partners Africa is interested in, what kind of security partners. I think that’s a very useful exercise. Then he kind of ticked through, as every official has to do in making these big framing statements as sort of broad areas of engagement and cooperation, and he talked about increasing trade, which, of course, is interesting right now with AGOA sunsetting soon, working together to combat pandemic diseases, particularly COVID, working together on climate change, where, of course, Africa has borne more consequences than many other regions of the world while contributing far less to the problem, working together on the democratic backsliding and authoritarian sort of surge that we’ve seen around the world and, finally, working together on peace and security.
So this huge agenda, and I think what’s interesting and what in many ways his trip made clear is that it’s very hard to get to the first four points when the last one, the peace and security element, is in chaos.
And, look, obviously, Africa’s a big continent. All of us who ever engage in these conversations about Africa are always—are forever trying to provide the disclaimer, right, that there’s never one African story. There’s never one thing happening in this incredibly diverse continent.
But it is the case that the peace and security outlook on the continent is really in bad shape, right. And so the secretary traveled to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. The headlines from his trip, really, were dominated by the disorder in the Horn of Africa that we’re seeing right now.
So you have the civil conflict in Ethiopia, which has been incredibly costly to that country in terms of lives, in terms of their economic outlook, has been characterized by atrocities of war crimes. And, I think right now, most observers are very concerned about the integrity of the Ethiopian state, its capacity to persist.
Regardless of today, tomorrow, or next week’s military developments, it’s very hard to see a lasting and sustainable military solution to this conflict and the parties do not appear, really, amenable to a serious political negotiation.
But it’s not just Ethiopia, of course. It’s Sudan, where we saw the tenuous military-civilian transitional government kind of fully hijacked by the military side of that equation in a coup that has been, really, rejected by so many Sudanese citizens who are still on the streets even today trying to push back against the notion of military dominance in their transition and beyond, and they are being met with violence and intimidation.
And the outlook there is quite worrying. You’ve got border clashes between Ethiopia and Sudan. You have electoral crisis in Somalia. So the Horn, you know, is looking like a very, very tough neighborhood.
And, of course, everyone is concerned about the impact on Kenya and East Africa itself, given the insurgency in Mozambique, which has more than once affected neighboring Tanzania, these bombings in Uganda and the sense of instability there. The picture is one of multiple crises, none of which come with easy fixes or purely military solutions.
And then you have this kind of metastasizing instability throughout the Sahel, right, and the concern that more and more states will fall victim to extremely worrisome instability and the very costly violence.
So there’s a huge security agenda and we’re just—we’re all aware of the basic facts that it’s very hard to make progress on partnerships to support democratic governance in the midst of conflict. It’s very hard to come together on climate change or to fight a pandemic in the midst of these kinds of circumstances.
So I think it’s a really challenging picture. And just to pull a couple of these threads, on this issue of democratic backsliding the Biden administration’s desire to build more solidarity among kind of like-minded countries whose democracies may take different forms but who buy into a basic set of democratic values, it’s undeniable that the trend lines in Africa have been worrisome for some time and we do see a lot of these kind of democratic authoritarian states, these states where you get some of the form, some of the theater, of democracy, particularly in the form of elections, but no real capacity for citizens to hold government accountable.
It’s not really a kind of a demand-driven democratic process, that the fix is often in on these elections, and there is polling, right, that suggests that this is turning people off of democratic governance in general, right. If what you understand democratic governance to be is a sham election, you know, at regular intervals while you continue to be governed by a set of individuals who are not really beholden to the electorate, right, and are protecting a very small set of interests, then it’s not surprising to see some waning enthusiasm.
It’s not that other forms of government are necessarily looking great to African populations, but I think it is notable in some of that Afrobarometer polling in places where you wouldn’t expect it, right, like South Africa, where people sacrificed so much for democracy, and you really do see a real decline in enthusiasm for that form of governance. So there’s a lot of work to be done there.
The last thing, just because you brought it up, on the latest news about this new variant, the Omicron variant—I may be saying that wrong. It may be Omicron. Perhaps someone will correct me. And the kind of quick policy choice to institute a travel ban on a number of southern African countries.
So I do think that in the context of this pandemic, right, which has been economically devastating to the continent—where the global economic downturn that occurred for Africans, too, but you had governments with very little fiscal space in which to try to offset the pain for their populations.
In addition, you have had the issues of vaccine inequity, right, where it’s just taken far too long to get access to vaccines for many African populations—it’s still not adequate in many places—and a sort of sense that the deal initially proposed in the form of COVAX wasn’t really what happened—you know, a feeling of a bait and switch—that looks like—what it looks like is disregard for African lives.
And while I am really sympathetic—I used to work in government and it’s crystal clear when you do that your first responsibility is the safety of the American people—these travel bans sort of fit into a narrative, right, about scapegoating, about disregard for African life that, I think, is going to make it awfully hard for this new reframing of respect and partnership, right, to really resonate.
And I would just note, as a former U.S. ambassador in Botswana, that the scientists in the lab in Gaborone and the scientists in South Africa who did the sequencing and helped to alert the world to this new variant, right, were doing us all a tremendous favor. It’s not at all clear that this variant started in southern Africa, right. We know that it exists on every continent right now except Antarctica. We know that samples taken in Europe before these discoveries were made in southern Africa—just tested later—showed that the variant was already there.
And so it is a bit hard to explain why specifically southern Africans are banned from travel. You know, I think it’s unfortunate. There are other policies that could be pursued around testing, around quarantine requirements.
So I’ll leave that there. I’m not a public health expert. But I think it’s—I’m glad you brought it up because I think these things do really resonate and they inform how the United States is understood on the continent. They inform how Africans understand global institutions and kind of global governance to reflect or not reflect their concerns and interests. And if what the Biden administration wants is partners in this notion of democratic solidarity and partners in trying to reconstruct kind of international institutions a sense of global order, a norms-based rules-based approach to multilateral challenges, it’s going to be hard to get the African buy-in that is absolutely necessary to achieve those goals when these kinds of issues continue to give the impression that Africa is an afterthought.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Michelle. That was really a great overview for us.
So now we want to go to all of you. You can raise your hand—click on the raised hand icon to ask a question—and when I recognize you please unmute yourself and state your affiliation. Otherwise, you can submit a written question in the Q&A box, and if you do write a question please say what institution you’re with so that I can read it and identify you properly and—great.
Our first hand raised is from Dr. Sherice Janaye Nelson. And let me just say, the “Zoom user,” can you please rename yourself so we know who you are? So, Dr. Nelson, over to you.
Q: Good afternoon, everyone. Dr. Sherice Janaye Nelson from Southern University. I’m a political science professor in the department.
And the question, I guess, I have is that we know that the African people have a history of nondemocratic governance, right? And when we look at a place like Tunisia, we know that one of the reasons in the Arab Spring that they were so successful—although often considered an Arab country, they are successful because there had been tenets of democracy that were already broiled in the society.
The question I have is that to these places that do not have that institutional understanding or have even—maybe don’t even have the values to align with democracy, are we foolhardy to continue to try to support democratic governance as the full-throated support versus trying to look at more of a hybrid of a sovereign situation that allows for, in many ways, a kingdom, a dictator, and et cetera, with then a democratic arm?
Thank you so much.
GAVIN: Thanks, Dr. Nelson. It’s an interesting question, and I agree with you insofar as I think that it’s really interesting to think about the kind of governance antecedents in a bunch of African countries, particularly in the pre-colonial era, right, and try to figure out how they find expression afterwards.
There’s no question that, you know, colonialism doesn’t set the table well for democracy. There’s no doubt about that. But I would say that, you know, despite the loss of faith in democratic governance that we’ve seen in some of the polling, you know, very consistently for a long time what you’ve seen is that African populations do seem to want democratic governance. They want to be able to hold their leaders accountable. They want everyone to have to abide by the law. They want basic protections for their rights.
So, you know, I’m not sure that there’s any society that’s particularly ill-suited to that. But I do think that democracy comes in many forms and it’s always particularly powerful when there is, you know, some historical resonance there.
I also—you know, if we take a case like one of the world’s last absolute monarchies in eSwatini right now what you see is a pretty persistent civic movement demanding more accountability and less power for the monarch, more protection for individual rights.
And so, you know, I’m not—I think that people are feeling disillusioned and frustrated in many cases and you see this, too, in the enthusiasm with which several of the recent coups in West Africa have been met—you know, people pouring out into the streets to celebrate because they’re frustrated with the status quo. They’re interested in change. But very rarely do you see then persistent support for, say, military dictatorships or military-dominated government.
So I’m not sure that the frustration means enthusiasm for some of these other governing models. People want democracy to work a lot better.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Lucy Dunderdale Cate.
Q: Hi. Yes. I’m Lucy Dunderdale Cate. I’m with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
I wanted to just ask you about kind of the African Union’s role in this, you know, particularly and with the Biden administration, and thinking about, you know, the Horn of Africa security issues that you mentioned. Kind of where do you see that we’re going and what do you see kind of for the future there? Thank you.
GAVIN: Sure. Thanks for that question.
I think the AU, for all of its flaws—and, you know, find me a multilateral organization that isn’t flawed—is actually incredibly important. You know, for the Biden administration, which has kind of staked out this position that international institutions matter and multilateral institutions matter, they’ve got to work better, we can’t address the threats we all face without these functioning and they may need to be modernized or updated but we need them, then the AU is a really important piece of that puzzle.
And I think, you know, right now, for example, in Ethiopia that the—it’s the AU’s negotiator, former Nigerian President Obasanjo, who really is in the lead in trying to find some glimmer of space for a political solution, and this was a little bit late in the day in terms of AU activism on this issue and I think it’s been a particularly difficult crisis for the AU to address in part because of being headquartered in Addis and sort of operating within a media and information environment in Ethiopia that is one that does not create a lot of space for divergence from the federal government’s position.
So I think that, in the end, right, the prospect of the collapse of a 110-million-strong country, a place that used to be an exporter of security, a major diplomatic player in the region, right, spurred AU action. But it’s been a little bit—more than a little bit slow.
But you have seen some pretty forward-leaning stance at the AU as well. Their response to the military coup in Sudan this fall was pretty robust and clear. Now this sort of new transitional arrangement that appears to be more palatable to much of the international community than to many Sudanese citizens is a—we’re wading into murkier waters there.
But I think the AU, you know, it’s the only game in town. It’s essential, and particularly in the Horn where the subregional organization EGAD is so incredibly weak that the AU, as a vehicle for an African expression of rules-based norms-based order, is—you know, actually its success is incredibly important to the success of this major U.S. foreign policy plank.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to take the next written question from Rami Jackson. How much of the democratic backsliding is supported by outside powers? For example, there was a chance for a democratic movement in Chad but the French threw their weight behind Déby’s son after he was shot.
GAVIN: That’s a great question. I think that it’s, certainly, not the case that external partners or actors are always positive forces, right, for democratic governance on the continent. There’s no doubt about that, and it can be France and Chad. It can be, you know, Russian machinations in Central African Republic. There’s a lot. It can be some of the Gulf states in Sudan, right, who—or Egypt, who seem very comfortable with the idea of military dominance and maybe some civilian window dressing for this transition.
So you’re right that external actors are kind of an important piece of the puzzle. You know, I don’t think that there are many situations where there is a single external actor who is capable of entirely influencing the direction of government. But there are, certainly, situations where one external actor is tremendously powerful. Chad is a great example, again. And it is something that, I think, you know, again, an administration that has staked so much of its credibility on the notion that this is something very important to them, you know, is going to have to deal with.
And it’s thorny, right. Foreign policy always is where you have competing priorities. You need to get important work done sometimes with actors who do not share your norms and values, and it’s the messiness of trying to articulate and integrate values in a foreign policy portfolio that runs the gamut, right, from counterterrorism concerns to economic interests.
But I think that those are tensions that the administration will continue to have to deal with probably a little more publicly than an administration who didn’t spend much time talking about the importance of democratic governance.
FASKIANOS: Great. And I just want to mention that Rami is a graduate student at Syracuse University.
So I’m going to go next to a raised hand from Mojúbàolú Olufúnké Okome. I know you wrote your question, too.
Q: Good afternoon. Thank you very much. Yes.
Q: I wrote my question because I couldn’t figure out how to name myself on the phone.
You know, thank you for your presentation. When I look at democracy in Africa—I mean, this is not the first go-round—and the response by people, by citizens, to the backsliding by governments is not—it looks familiar to me because, you know, in the 1960s—from the 1960s, there were similar responses. People were dissatisfied. They welcomed authoritarian governments again and again because the government they voted for rigged elections, were also authoritarian, and they were kleptocratic. So what’s different now and where’s the continuity and what has changed, really, with democracy?
The other thing is about this COVID—the management of the COVID situation. I also kind of see the—I think I agree with you. The way Africa is being treated looks very familiar—you know, with disdain, with disrespect, as if the lives of the people there don’t matter as much. And what is it going to take, really, to change the—because, you know, if a pandemic that cannot be stopped by walls and borders is not instigating change what is it going to take to change the way in which world politics is—world politics and its governance is done?
GAVIN: Fantastic questions and ones that, I think we could talk about for, you know, a week-long conference. But so I’ll start from the beginning and just take a stab.
I think you’re absolutely right. There have been these interesting cycles when it comes to governance on the continent and I think—when I think about sort of what’s different from what we were seeing in, say, toward the end of the ’60s, I think it’s a couple things.
One is geopolitical context, right. So my hope is that what we’re not doing is kind of doing a reprise of this bipolar world where we’re subbing in China’s authoritarian development model for a Soviet Communist model and sitting here on the other side and, you know, trying to manipulate other countries into one camp or another. I don’t think we’re quite there yet and I think the Biden administration is trying very hard not to wade into those waters. So I do think the geopolitical context is a bit different.
I also think, you know, that where so many African states are is at—in terms of kind of the scope of their existence as independent entities is an important difference, right. So I think that in the immediate kind of post-colonial era, for an awful lot of governments the fundamental basis for their legitimacy was having—is not being a colonial administrator, not being a puppet of some external power and so the, you know, legitimacy came from liberation, from independence. In places that had terrible conflict sometimes legitimacy came from, you know, delivering some degree of security from a long-standing insecure situation. So, you know, you look at—I think that’s where sort of President Museveni derived a lot of legitimacy in the late ’80s and through the ’90s.
And I think that, you know, now, as you have these very significant young populations whose lived experience is not one of ever knowing a time pre-independence, you know, they’re looking for service delivery, right. They’re looking for opportunity. They’re looking for job creation, and I think legitimacy is increasingly going to be derived from the ability to deliver on these priorities.
And so I do think that that makes kind of the governance landscape a little bit different, too, sort of different ideas about where governing legitimacy comes from. And, you know, I think that can be manifest in really different ways. But if I had to try and, you know, grab onto that interesting idea about what’s different, that’s what comes to mind.
In this, you know, incredibly important question about what’s it going to take to recognize African states as equal players and African lives as—every bit as urgently valuable as any other, you know, I do think that as the world continues to grapple with this pandemic and with other issues that can only be resolved globally, like climate change, it will, over time, kind of force a reckoning and a rethink about what are the important states and what are not.
You know, it’s interesting to me, it’s absolutely true that by not moving out robustly to ensure that the whole world has access to vaccines the richest countries have created opportunities for new mutations to emerge. I hesitate to say that, in some ways, in this context because it sounds like I’m positive that these emerged from Africa, and I’m not. But we do know, you know, as a basic matter of science, right, that we’re not safe until everyone’s safe.
And so I do think that as these kinds of issues that military might and economic power cannot address alone, where it really does take global solidarity and an awful lot of multilateral cooperation, which is messy and cumbersome, right, and necessary, my hope is that that will start to change perceptions in framing.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. So I’m going to go next to a written question from Abbey Reynolds, who’s an undergraduate student at the University of Central Florida. What steps do you think that international and regional organizations can take to preempt future attempts to derail democratic governance in the region—coups, circumvention of constitutional term letter—limits, rigged elections, et cetera?
GAVIN: OK. I’m sorry. What steps should who take? I’m sorry.
FASKIANOS: Multilateral—international and regional organizations.
GAVIN: OK. You know, I think that in a number of cases subregional organizations have been taking steps, right—ECOWAS, certainly, in rejecting coups and suspending memberships, et cetera. I think, you know, if you look at the sort of articulated and documented principles of a lot of these organizations they’re pretty good. It’s really about the gulf sometimes between stated principles and practice.
So, you know, I think the Southern African Development Community is sometimes guilty of this where there are—you know, there’s a clear commitment in static kind of principle documents and protocols around democratic governance but you also have an absolute monarchy that’s a member state of SADC. You’ve had, you know, significant repression in a number of states—Zimbabwe leaps to mind—that SADC doesn’t have, really, anything to say about.
So you can have organizations that have kind of principles and procedures. At the end of the day, organizations are made up of member states, right, who have a set of interests, and I think that, you know, how governments understand their interest in standing up for certain norms, it’s—I think it’s specific in many ways to those governments in those states how they derive their own legitimacy, the degree to which they feel they may be living in a glass house, and, you know, frankly, relative power dynamics.
So I’m not sure. Certainly, it’s always—you know, I’m a believer in multilateralism. I think from an African point of—you know, if you imagine African states trying to assert themselves on the international stage, multilateralism is really important, right, to get if it’s possible, where interests align, to have as many African states speaking with one voice. It’s a much more powerful message than just a couple individual states. But there are always going to be intrinsic limits.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Gary Prevost with the College of St. Benedict. And if you can unmute yourself.
Q: Speaking today, actually, as honorary professor and research associate from Mandela University in South Africa.
I’ve had several students in recent years—doctoral and master’s students—study U.S. and allied counterterrorism strategies both in the Middle East and in Africa, and they’ve come away with a general perspective that those strategies going back several administrations have been almost solely focused on military action and that it has led them in their recommendations sections of their theses to argue that other steps must be taken if these efforts in places like Nigeria or Somalia or Mozambique or even in the Middle East, Syria, and Iraq, are to be successful they must have a changed mindset about counter terror. What’s your perspective on that?
GAVIN: Well, thanks for that. I wholeheartedly agree, right, and I think, you know, you’ll even get plenty of military officers, right, who will say there’s no way we can address some—these problems, these, you know, kind of radical violent organizations aligned to global terrorist groups with a purely military approach.
It’s frustrating. I’m sure it’s frustrating for your students, too, because it feels like everyone keeps coming to this conclusion, and, certainly, there have been efforts to, you know, counter violent extremism, provide opportunity for young people. But we’re not very good at it, right. We haven’t been very good at it yet. There’s still a mismatch in terms of the resources we pour into these kind of relative—these different streams of effort, right.
But I think also while it’s very clear in a situation like Mozambique that if you want to weaken the insurgency you need to be providing more opportunity and building more trust in a community that’s been disenfranchised and alienated from the center for a very, very long time.
But the how to do that, how to do that effectively and how to do it in a climate of insecurity I actually think is an incredibly difficult challenge, and there are, you know, brilliant people working on this all the time. You know, some of the best work that I’ve seen suggests that some of this can be done but it’s an incredibly long-term undertaking and that, you know, is sometimes, I think, a difficult thing to sustain support for, particularly in a system like the United States where, you know, our appropriations cycles tend to be very short term. So people are looking for, you know, quick impact, things you can put on a bar graph quickly and say that you’ve done. And I think that, you know, a lot of the kind of peace building research suggests that that’s—that, you know, building community trust, which is a huge part of what needs to happen, operates on a very different kind of timeline.
So it’s a really thorny, thorny problem and how to get—you know, how to sustain political and budgetary support for those kinds of efforts. I don’t know the answer yet. I’m sure somebody really smart on—maybe on the Zoom does.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to go next to Pearl Robinson at Tufts University.
Q: Hello, Ambassador Gavin.
First of all, I’d like to congratulate you in your new position as Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa, and that’s actually—as I’ve been sitting here listening to this, my thought was I’d like to know if you have thought about ways in which you can use your position at the Council to help actualize forms of partnerships about policy dialogues related to Africa.
You began by articulating the U.S.’s new strategic vision for Africa. That was an American statement. I haven’t really heard an African statement that would be engaging with that policy dialogue. These one-on-one trips of the secretary of state and other people going to individual African countries, based on our agenda, and having one-on-one dialogue discussions, in a way, does not get towards that real notion of African agency in policy and partnership.
So I’m actually wondering whether you might envision the Council playing a role and creating some kinds of policy dialogue fora that would have American(s) and Africans participating in ways that would be visible to American publics as well as African publics.
So I’m suggesting that you might, you know, be uniquely well suited to have the Council play a role in actually making visible and operationalizing this concept. I just thought about this sitting here listening because what I realized was everybody talking is talking from the American side and I’m wondering if—well, my dear colleague, Olufúnké, actually was an African voice.
But I think what needs to happen is there needs to be a way for this taking place maybe with African institutions, academics, civil society actors. So I just throw that out for you to think about and I’d like to hear your first response to that idea.
GAVIN: So I think it’s exciting and I’d love, actually, to follow up with you. I’m delighted that you’re here. I heard some wonderful things about your work.
I think there’s always the hard part of, right, who speaks for Africa, right, because there are so many diverse African perspectives. But I don’t think you’re suggesting there’s necessarily a unitary voice. You’re talking about sort of different actors, and I would agree with you that it’s always incredibly rich to have conversations.
You know, I recently did a panel with Professor Ed Vitz, who is working on some—working on a paper, I think, that will eventually be a book about sort of U.S.-Africa policy and particularly interested in the kind of frame of major power rivalry. But it was such a refreshing conversation to examine that and compare notes on what we thought the flaws of that frame might be to hear his perspective on where he thought there might be advantages to be seized from it. It was wonderful, and I agree with you that the more dialogue and the more opportunity not just to sort of talk amongst ourselves in a U.S. community that cares about Africa and about U.S. policy the better.
You know, I will be honest with you, I often, in a situation like the one right now, I try hard to stick to—to at least keep circling back to U.S. policy because that’s where my background is and I, you know, have no desire to posit myself as speaking on behalf of Africans. That’s nuts and, you know, not my role. But I do—I have spent a lot of time thinking about how the U.S. engages with the continent.
And so I think it’s a really interesting notion. I’d love to follow up with you.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to take the next written question from Krista Johnston, who’s a professor at Howard University. The African Continental Free Trade Area will create the largest consumer market. What are the barriers U.S. businesses investing in Africa and positioning themselves to take advantage of this new trade area and what can the Biden administration do to incentivize this kind of engagement with China?
And perhaps I can tack on another question to that because we have a lot of questions—(laughs)—both raised hands—is just to talk a little bit about China’s footprint in Africa as well.
GAVIN: Sure. Well, so I absolutely agree that the African Continental Free Trade Area is a really incredibly promising step forward for African economic integration and that is, you know, compelling in any number of ways. I think, for example, about the very hot topic of pharmaceutical production, right. And between the Free Trade Area, the standing up of the African Medicines Agency, right, which should help to harmonize regulatory standards for pharmaceuticals and medical equipment throughout the continent, investments seem a lot more attractive, right, when you’re looking at much bigger markets than any one country, even than a giant like Nigeria, can provide. So I think that there’s tremendous potential here.
I will go back to what I said earlier, which is that even with these positive steps, right, it’s going to be really important that the peace and security parts start trending in the right direction because it’s very—you know, I would say this. U.S. investors are already quite bad at assessing risk in Africa and a backdrop of instability is not going to help that situation, right, and it is, in many cases, going to make a given investment opportunity or partnership opportunity too risky for many.
So, you know, there’s just no way to jettison those concerns. But wholeheartedly agree it’s an exciting development. If the world hadn’t gotten sort of hijacked by COVID, I think we’d be talking about it a lot more.
On China, you know, the Chinese engagement on the continent is a fact of life that’s existed for a very long time and is not going anywhere. It is economic, it is political, it is, increasingly, cultural, and I think, you know, for a state like China that aspires to be a major global power it’s entirely predictable and understandable.
Do I think that there are some ways in which Chinese investment and engagement are not always beneficial to African states? I do. I have concerns, certainly, about the way China sometimes uses its influence to secure African support for Chinese positions that appear antithetical to stated values in AU documents and other(s) and I have concerns about the transparency of some of the arrangements. I have concerns as well about some of the tech standards and just sort of play for technical dominance that maybe does not have the cybersecurity interests of Africans as its top priority.
All that said, I think it’s really important for the United States to, you know, understand that there’s no—there’s nothing to be gained by constantly vilifying China’s engagement, some of which has been incredibly helpful for African states hungry, particularly, for financing on major infrastructure projects, and, you know, it’s a fact of life we all have to learn to deal with.
I do think, you know, there’s some natural tension between the Biden administration’s democracy focus, right, and the very explicit and intentional efforts of China to present a different model, and I don’t think that the U.S. needs to shy away from that or pretend that those differences don’t exist.
But I do think it’s incredibly unhelpful to frame up all of U.S. policy as if it’s intended to counter China as opposed to intended to find those areas in the Venn diagram of, you know, those overlaps of African interests and U.S. interests and work together on them.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Anna Ndumbi, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi. Please unmute yourself.
Q: Thank you very much. I really appreciate the presentation.
I have a quick question in regards to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is center of Africa.
About three years ago, there was a new president that stepped in by the name of Félix Tshisekedi, and he decided to pass a law saying that all the secondary education should be free because, obviously, in Africa schools aren’t free. And I, personally, think that maybe it wasn’t really—it was something they should have probably considered before passing the law. The result of that is that you have classrooms where there were maybe twenty students and now there’s, like, there could be over a hundred students in one classroom, right.
So we spoke about the pandemic. When COVID hit a lot of schools were shut down. They were shut down for a long period of time, and when you look at a lot of schools in Africa they don’t have the ability of giving out maybe laptops or anything like that to assist students to continue school at home.
So in result of that, you see a lot of children who are really below what they should be, below the average when it comes to education, and my question with that is where do we see the future going as far as maybe having international organization(s) or United States intervene because the future is not bright when we look at education with the children or the youth.
How can United Nation(s) or maybe other international organization(s) assist, especially with what happened during COVID, going forward? What does the future look like for Africa? And I’m speaking more for the Democratic Republic of Congo. How can nonprofit organization(s) or United States intervene and assist in this matter?
GAVIN: Well, thank you for that, and I have followed this a little bit because it was an interesting and kind of splashy promise and initiative on the part of President Tshisekedi and it’s been disappointing, I think, to see that some of the, you know, government’s budget that was intended to be allocated for that appears to have found its way into a handful of individuals’ accounts.
But I think that, you know, the fundamental point you’re making, which is that in DRC but also throughout the African continent, right, there are these vast populations of young people. It is the youngest region of the world. And if you look at it historically at how other parts of the world have dealt with youth bulges, right, investing in that human capital so that they can be drivers of innovation and economic growth has been a really powerful kind of transformational tool—for example, in Asia.
And so I definitely think that you’re onto something really important right now about prioritizing investing in young people and their capacity, and you’re absolutely right that the disruptions of the pandemic have, in many cases, fallen most heavily on children. You know, how to tackle that, I think, is sort of—you know, I can’t design a program in this moment, I’ll be honest with you. But I think that you’re absolutely right, it’s an incredibly important and too often easily overlooked priority.
You know, there have been some interesting education innovations on the continent but they’re too often kind of small, not scalable, and the need is so incredibly vast. But here, again, I will be a broken record. We do have to go back to this issue that peace and security matters, right. It’s very, very hard for kids to get a sustained education that’s going to provide them with opportunity in a context of insecurity, which, for a lot of children in eastern Congo, is still the case.
FASKIANOS: OK. We have three minutes left. I am going to—and so many questions, and I apologize that we’re not going to be able to get to all of you.
So I’m going to give the final question to Caleb Sannar.
Q: Hi. Yes. Thank you for joining us today, Ambassador Gavin. As they said, my name is Caleb Sanner. I’m a student from the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater.
My question is with the Abraham Accords the Trump administration signed the agreement with Morocco to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Following that, there was some discrepancies in the southern territory controlled by the U.N., MINURSO, and the Polisario Front, the external Saharawi government, ended up declaring war again on Morocco, resuming the war from nineteen years previously.
My question is what is the Biden administration’s policy on that?
GAVIN: Great question. Reporters have been asking that question, too, and with great message discipline the administration continues to say is that they’re supporting U.N. efforts. And so whenever they ask, are you are you going to reconsider this decision regarding recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara, they respond not by answering that question but by saying they’re supporting U.N. efforts.
So that’s the most I can report to you in—regarding that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Well, we are at the end of our time. So, Ambassador Gavin, thank you very much for being with us and, again, to all of you for your fantastic questions, and I apologize for not being able to get to all of you. But we will have to continue doing webinars on this important topic and on digging in a little bit deeper.
So we will be announcing the winter-spring academic lineup next month through our academic bulletin. This is the final webinar of this semester. Good luck with your finals—(laughs)—and grading and taking the exams and all of that. I know it’s a very busy and stressful time with the pandemic layered on top of all of it.
If you haven’t already subscribed for the bulletin, please, you can do so by emailing us at [email protected] You can follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Academic. And of course, please go to CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for new research and analysis on global issues. You can see on CFR.org Michelle’s latest post on Africa—blog posts, so you should follow her there as well.
So, again, thank you. Thanks to all of you, and happy holidays, and we look forward to reconvening in 2022.