-Bruce Wharton Deputy Asst Sec for Public Diplomacy for the Bureau of African Affairs
By Ajong Mbapndah L
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have Africa very high on the U.S Foreign policy priority list says Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the State Departments African Bureau. Although President Obama in his fourth year in office has made it to Sub Saharan Africa just once, Mr. Wharton uses a broad list of very high U.S government Officials who have visited the continent to stress the importance of Africa in the Administration’s Foreign policy. In an interview which took place towards the end of last year, Mr. Wharton’s expectation that Secretary of State will return to the continent in early 2012 was on mark as Hillary Clinton recently rounded up another trip to Africa with stops in Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Cape Verde. The Obama Administration according to Mr. Wharton sees partnership in its relationship as oppose to patronage. The USA is not in open competition with China in Africa he says, opining that both countries bring very different things to the table. Whereas the Chinese are interested in raw materials, Mr. Wharton who has served in South Africa and Zimbabwe says his country is more focused on building human capacity. The United States he believes however has a responsibility to urge American Businesses to take a fresh look at the opportunities that abound in Africa. Interviewed by Ajong Mbapndah L, the affable State Department Official offers insight into the USA Foreign Policy in Africa and the logic behind some positions taken by his country in Libya, Ivory Coast and the D.R.Congo.
PAV: Pan African Visions is grateful for your willingness to grant this interview Sir, may we know the place that Africa currently occupies in the U.S Foreign policy?
Bruce Wharton: President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have placed Africa very high on our foreign policy priority list. A number of reasons for that of course. First of all, there are deep deep connections between the USA and Africa. I think the aspirations of the African people and nations and the United States are very similar. We want freedom to express ourselves, we want the opportunity to grow a strong economic future, we want to be able to choose our governments and choose the way forward. So Africa is very important to the USA.
PAV: President Obama at the sunset of his first term of Office has been to Africa, well Sub Sahara Africa just once; in the face of this how do you convincingly make the case that the USA is sincere and willing to step up its cooperation with Africa?
Bruce Wharton: Well again I maintain that Africa is extremely important to our foreign policy. You are right the President has only been to Sub Sahara Africa once. I know that he wants to return but let me point out that the Vice President has been to Sub Sahara Africa. The Secretary of State has been on two really extensive trips. In 2009 she spent nearly two weeks on the continent; I think it was ten or eleven days. Just this year in 2011, she spent another week on the continent. I expect she will go again early next year. We have had our Under Secretary for Political Affairs go to the continent. The Under Secretary for Global Affairs has been there. My Boss, Assistant Secretary Carson has been there many times. So I think it is important to point out that a lot of very high level American Officials have spent time in Africa. The Presidents’ Global Health Initiative has dedicated $63 billion to health initiatives around the world. That is a global number but if you look at the countries that benefit from the Global Health Initiative, a majority are in Africa. So I think President Obama is building on the good work that was done by his predecessors.
PAV: There are many who see great need greater partnership between the U.S and Africa, there are also many who are increasingly wary of what the US actually wants in Africa especially in the lines of interventions like the one your country was engaged in Libya, how does the U.S draw a line between its own interests and the respect of what Africans actually think is right for their continent?
Bruce Wharton: Well, I think one of the characteristics of the Obama Administration is a new approach to International Affairs especially in Africa. It is more of a partnership rather than a patronage relationship. We have worked hard to build a strong relationship with the African Union for example and with regional organizations such as ECOWAS, the EAC and SADC. The Libyan example is an interesting one. I will tell you that we responded, NATO and the USA responded to what we perceived as an emerging humanitarian crisis in Libya. We did not act alone. The Arab League essentially demanded that the world intervene to prevent Muarmar Kaddafi from inflicting harm on the 700000 people that were in Benghazi at the time. Kaddafi’s aircrafts, artillery and troops were rolling into Benghazi and the world was seriously concerned that we were about to witness a slaughter on the scale of the Rwandan genocide. So the United Nations Security Council issued security resolution 1973 demanding action implementing a no fly zone. The Arab League asked the world to protect the people in Benghazi. The US and NATO began to work on this. There was a meeting in London to which the African Union was invited, there was a subsequent follow up meeting in Paris to which was invited to attend. I can’t explain why they were not able to attend .So NATO took action and the African Union felt there had been left out but I don’t think that takes into account the impending danger in Benghazi or the United Nations Security Council Resolution or the Arab League’s call to relieve the situation.
PAV: We asked this question because the position of the African Union was at odds with what the British and French backed by the US decided to do in Libya, African leaders and indeed a number of Africans feel that there was actually much to the intervention in Libya than meets the eye.
Bruce Wharton: It was a humanitarian intervention. Muarmar Kaddafi and the Government he controlled was making war on its own people and I think after the events in Rwanda in 1994, the determination the world made was that we will not stand by and watch that happen again. So the world intervened to protect the people of Libya.
PAV: Africa is today a source of great competition certainly for its resources and huge market from the Chinese, Canadians, Indians, the Europeans etc, what does the U.S bring to the table , in other words if you had to sum up a solid case for Africa to prefer partnership with the U S over other countries with competing interests.
Bruce Wharton: I don’t think it is an either or equation. I think that Africa can benefit from Chinese interests, Indian interests, European interests, American interests and from South American interests because the Brazilians are very active in parts of Africa. Everybody brings something different to the relationship. The Chinese are very interested in raw materials and good at building infrastructure. The U S, our special relationship is building human capacity. Trying to help people become Doctors, Engineers, Lawyers and strengthening Institutions. So I do not see it as a head to head competition with the Chinese. I think we bring different things. We do think the United States does have the responsibility to urge American businesses to take a fresh look at Africa. We think there are economic and trade opportunities that American businesses have not yet seen. We for example will be leading a big Trade Delegation to Africa early next year as a way to get American business to take a fresh look at Africa. We are excited about potential for the economic growth of the continent and will like American businesses to be part of that.
PAV: The U.S is a country known for democratic values, rule of law and respect of human rights that are the envy of many. These are values many Africans have been fighting for, these are also values held hostage by a lot of leaders with doubtful legitimacies across the continent, how does the U.S navigate between legitimate aspirations of African people and the whims and caprices of leaders especially in countries where there seem to be vested interests?
Bruce Wharton: That is a good question and part of the answer is that Africa is not a single place. There are 53 countries in the continent, in Sub Sahara Africa; we deal with about 45 of them. Each one is different, each one is unique. There is no single approach that makes sense. I think we have to deal with the culture, history and reality of each country separately. We do believe we have to do the best job possible to listen to the people of Africa and respect the dreams and desires of people of individual countries. So for example in Cote D’Ivoire we and ECOWAS, the African Union and the United Nations believed that the results of the Presidential elections held there showed very clearly that Alassane Ouattara won. So we then worked with the International Community to try to make sure that the wishes of the people of Ivory Coast were respected. Gbagbo left power and Alassane Ouattara was allowed to occupy the Presidency.
On Zimbabwe where we have profound concerns on the elections that have been held there in the last ten years, we have sort to bring targeted sanctions to a small number, less than two hundred individuals and enterprises that we believe are working against the wishes of the people. More recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we have openly expressed our concerns about the severe short comings in the electoral process. We don’t know that those short comings changed the outcome so we think the important thing now is to keep peace, to take a technical look at the electoral process, figure out how we can support a process where people of the D.R.C are satisfied with the results and can move forward. Again each country is at a different stage of development. Botswana and Mauritius have this whole democratic cycle. This is the first time that the DRC has ever managed its own elections in a very long time so we have to take those differences into account.
PAV: In making these decisions, does the US arrive at its own conclusions or goes along with position of its more entrenched European allies in the continent? In Zimbabwe Britain the former colonial master calls for sanctions ,in Cote D’Ivoire France the former colonial master recognizes Ouattara and in both cases the USA does same, how much of the decisions are based on independent assessment and how much is based on going with allies with greater interests?
Bruce Wharton: The answer is we arrive at our own conclusions about situations in each country and the best response to it. In Cote D’Ivoire we had teams in close contact with election observers. Of course we shared notes from people with the United Nations but ultimately our judgment that Ouattara had been elected with some 54% was based on our own data collection and data that was shared with us from international organizations such as the Carter center and multi-lateral groups such as the United Nations.
In Zimbabwe, again I think we have reached conclusions on our own about the legitimacy of elections in the last ten years. Those conclusions are shared by other people as well. I think SADC, the international organizations and other countries believe that the elections have not been free and fair, those are our conclusions. We don’t copy others.
PAV:As Africa grapples with the challenges of democracy each time elections take place, the US seems to have a way of categorizing them free and fair with examples in mind been Ghana, flawed with examples been the way the last elections in Zimbabwe or Ivory Coast were characterized and a more nuanced reaction that leads to many scratching their heads, the elections had irregularities but it is doubtful if this could affect the overall conduct of elections, is this not often a way to bail out those in the good books of the US as is the case with Desire Kabila in D.R.Congo today?
Bruce Wharton: Well first of all there is no such thing as a perfect election and we have proved that in our own country. We have issues with elections in our own country. So an election is always a process .There is never a perfect example. Like I said earlier, I don’t think it is fair to hold a country like the DRC to the same standard that you will hold a country like Botswana, or the United Kingdom or the USA. Many countries in Africa are very young democracies. Their independence only came fifty years ago
It’s enormously complicated, infrastructure is poor and institutions are weak. The key to us is whether or not we think to the best of our ability an elections reflects the will of the people .Sometimes it is very hard to tell and you know in case of the DRC we simply don’t know .The game then becomes how best we can help to improve on next elections and how best we can support the people in Congo who are working towards a better election.