Diplomatic Pouch / May 5, 2009
By Larry Luxner
When Erastus Mwencha came calling on Washington last week, he had plenty of issues on his plate, from economic disruption and regional energy concerns to Sudanese poverty and Somali pirates.
Mwencha is deputy chairman of the African Union, which represents 53 countries (basically, all African nations except for Morocco). His objective was to ensure that President Obama — the first occupant of the White House with African roots — pays attention to the critical problems now plaguing Africa.
"The purpose of our visit is to meet the new administration and discuss what we see as Africa's strategic issues, and how the administration could take those issues into consideration," said Mwencha, who took over the AU's number-two spot a year ago. Before that, he was secretary-general of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).
While he didn't land a face-to-face with Obama — who like Mwencha traces his roots to Kenya — the 61-year-old African bureaucrat did hold meetings with officials of the World Bank, the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State Department, the National Security Council, various business executives and members of Congress.
Mwencha's visit coincided with a policy speech by Johnnie Carson, Obama's nominee to be assistant secretary of state for Africa. Carson, who served in six African countries and was U.S. ambassador to three — Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe — has traveled to 40 of sub-Saharan Africa's 48 countries. Carson said that if confirmed, he'd focus on four specific policy areas: strengthening democratic institutions, preventing conflict, fostering economic growth and partnering with Africa to combat global threats.
Without a doubt, said Mwencha, Africa's biggest current challenge is the global economic crisis.
"This has impacted Africa by reducing the continent's growth rate, which five or six years ago was 5 percent, to around 3 percent this year," he told Diplomatic Pouch. "For Africa to reduce the number of people living on $1 a day and achieve our goals, Africa needs to grow at no less than 7 percent a year. So if we're growing at only 3 percent, this means we'll have more people living on $1 a day or less by 2015, when we were supposed to cut this number by half."
Other major concerns on the AU agenda include food security, energy independence and the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Unlike the United States and the 27-member European Union, Mwencha declined to call what's going on in Darfur "genocide."
"The ICC has already issued a finding that it's a crime against humanity but not genocide. Even the UN itself has come to that conclusion," said the Kenyan bureaucrat. "From the African perspective, we have issues with that. We would like peace and security taken together in the process. All we are asking is, give us more time."
Yet Mwencha readily conceded that the hybrid African Union-UN peacekeeping force now patrolling Darfur is not effective because there aren't enough troops.
"This is a huge area, and up to now, we have only 10,000 soldiers when we really need 30,000," he said. "It's a very costly operation, you need financing and logistics, and this could cost over a billion dollars. It's very difficult for us to cope with that kind of budget."
Another hotspot is Zimbabwe, where Mwencha says events have taken a turn for the better.
"We now have a government of national unity in Zimbabwe, and the accord seems to be working for the time being. We hope Zimbabwe can now focus on humanitarian issues," he told us. "The country has moved out of a political crisis, and it is now an economic crisis. President Mugabe and the opposition have agreed to work together. It's not an ideal situation, but at least there's a functioning government where before there was none."
Things are much better in neighboring South Africa, despite lingering concerns that the country's next president, Jacob Zuma, could become the continent's new "strong man."
"This election was hotly contested, but the fact it was peaceful is significant, because we've been worried that in many African states, elections end up in disputes," he said. "South Africa constitutes almost 30% of Africa's GDP, so it's important that this country continues to function as an example for others in the region. We pray that South Africa stays on course."
Mwencha, whose term of office is for four years, said the AU now employs a staff of nearly 1,500 people at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Its mission in Washington, located at 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue and headed by Tanzanian diplomat Amina Salum Ali, opened two years ago and has a staff of six.
"We will soon increase that to 10 or 12, and we'll be looking for a more appropriate location in the areas where most of the embassies are," he said. "We are, in fact, in the process of identifying a property, though this is a long process."