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Diplomats urge 'solidarity' and 'women empowerment' at 2015 Africa Day gala
Diplomatic Pouch / June 4, 2015

By Larry Luxner

On May 28, more than 600 dignitaries filled a ballroom at Washington’s JW Marriott Hotel to celebrate Africa Day 2015 — an extravaganza of music, dancing and speechifying aimed at promoting solidarity among Africa’s 54 independent nations.

The event marked 52 years since the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), later renamed the African Union (AU).

Curiously, one of the two Arab countries hosting the party, Morocco, isn’t even a member of the AU. It withdrew from the organization in 1984 after the regional body admitted Western Sahara, a disputed territory which Morocco occupies.

And the event’s other host country, Egypt, was suspended from the AU in July 2013 following the military government’s ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi. Egypt was welcomed back into the fold nearly a year later at the AU’s 2014 summit in Equatorial Guinea.

Yet it was all smiles at the “solidarity” dinner, which was underwritten by three U.S. multinationals — Coca-Cola, Chevron and ExxonMobil — and which featured Moroccan music as well as traditional dancers from Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt and Rwanda, and a speech by presidential candidate and civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.

“Tonight, we celebrate together Africa’s success story,” declared Mohammed Tawfik, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States. “Africa is today the second fastest-growing economic region of the world, with average growth of 5 percent annually over the last decade. Our continent has a third of the world’s mineral resources, a tenth of its oil and two-thirds of its diamonds. But its most precious resource is its people. Africa is a young continent, with our youth constituting 65 percent of our population.”

As attendees feasted on braised short rib and pan-roasted lemon herb chicken breast with mashed potato, demi-glace and seasonal vegetables, Tawfik reeled off a raft of statistics showing how — despite the many ethnic wars that have ravaged the continent in recent decades — life is actually improving for the vast majority of Africans.

“Life expectancy has jumped from 40 to 60 years, infant and maternal mortality has declined by 15 percent, and more kids — including girls — are in school than at any time in our history. And university enrollment has tripled,” said the ambassador, who’s been Egypt’s top envoy here since September 2012. “Overall poverty in our continent has declined faster since 2005 than in the preceding 15 years.”

But that’s not enough, he insisted.

“By declaring this year’s theme ‘women empowerment,’ the AU demonstrates a commitment to achieve sustainable and sound development in which women and girls are economically, socially and politically enabled — a future in which African women have full access to education, health care and political participation, a future in which they are protected against gender-based violence,” said Tawfik, quoting late Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser, who addressed the OAU’s second summit in Cairo, in 1964.

“He said we all struggle one way or another for independence, but at the moment of triumph, we realize that our destination is nothing but a beginning of other challenges ahead of us,” the ambassador recalled. “Despite the progress Africa has achieved, this aspiration remains as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago. Success still depends on the ability of all Africans to work together, toward their common goals.”

Next week, he noted, Egypt will host a historic trilateral summit of Africa’s three economic blocs: the Southern African Development Community (SADIC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the East African Community (EAC). Together, these three blocs have a population of 625 million people and a combined GDP of $1.2 trillion, or 58 percent of Africa’s total GDP.

At the June 7-10 event, leaders of 26 African nations are expected to launch a Tripartite Free Trade Area, in what Tawfik predicted will be “a major step towards achieving a pan-African free trade agreement.”

Rachad Bouhlal, Morocco’s ambassador in Washington, praised the Obama administration for hosting the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which brought 50 leaders to Washington for three days last August to discuss key regional issues ranging from gender equality and food security to wildlife trafficking and the Ebola epidemic.

“The relationship between Africa and the United States has been increasingly reinforced,” said Bouhlal. “Last year’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was one step forward to enhance cooperation and partnership. No doubt U.S. experience and expertise are most welcome to help African countries meet their expectations and goals.”

Dignitaries attending the 2015 Africa Day celebration also heard from Donald Teitelbaum, deputy assistant secretary of state for East African affairs.

Like Tawfik, he lauded Africa’s economic progress, noting that the continent’s telecom operators added 316 million mobile subscribers in the last year alone.

“But to maximize advancement,” he said, “African leaders need to engage women and girls. No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its population behind.”

Teitelbaum, who was U.S. ambassador to Ghana from 2008 and 2012 and who also served in the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda, asked what would happen if the next Einstein happens to be a girl born in a rural village in Africa.

“If she doesn’t have education and opportunities, we may never know her potential, much less benefit from it,” he said. “This is why the United States believes gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity and peace, and why investing in women and girls worldwide is critical to U.S. policy.”

Teitelbaum said that thanks to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — a multibillion-dollar U.S. initiative begun by President George W. Bush — more than a million African babies have been born HIV-free to HIV-positive mothers.

Yet HIV/AIDS remains the leading cause of death in women of reproductive age, and nearly 60 percent of people living with HIV are women, said Teitelbaum, insisting that Africa’s gender problems are complex and daunting. Childbirth, for example, kills 289,000 women each year, and in sub-Saharan Africa, a woman’s risk of dying in childbirth is 47 times greater than in the United States.

“Girls are married as young as eight years old, and in some countries, there are no laws to prohibit female genital mutilation. Even today, girls need permission to apply for a passport in some countries,” said Teitelbaum, concluding his speech by urging African leaders to do more when it comes to empowering women. “With some exceptions, gaps remain in female labor participation. While the glass ceiling may be cracking, it has by no means been shattered — not just in Africa but around the world.”

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