Diplomatic Pouch / September 10, 2015
By Larry Luxner
Ambassadors, diplomats and dignitaries from two dozen countries gathered Aug. 31 at Washington’s National Press Club to say farewell to Amina Salum Ali, the African Union’s first and only ambassador to the United States.
Ali, 58, had represented the 53-nation AU in Washington ever since the mission opened in July 2007 at a temporary office building on I Street, though it later moved into a mansion in Georgetown.
A lifelong Tanzanian civil servant and politician who was born and raised on the island of Zanzibar, Ali was educated in India, where in 1979 she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, and two years later a master’s in business administration and marketing. She also held various titles within the Tanzanian government before coming to Washington.
Tarek Ben Youssef, senior political officer at the AU mission here, was the first of many speakers that night to heap praise on Ali.
“We are sorry to see her leaving us,” said Ben Youssef, a Tunisian. “We are very proud of her accomplishments as the head of our mission, and her valuable contributions to reinforce the African Union’s strategic partnership with the United States, to promote Afrian interests and to build new constituencies. She has been instrumental in building bridges of engagement between Africans and Americans — particularly with the African diaspora here. Ambassador Ali has achieved a great deal during her tenure.”
Two of those achievements include the reauthorization by Congress of the African Growth & Opportunities Act (AGOA) and the first US-Africa Summit, held last August.
“It has been our great pleasure to work for Ambassador Ali, a dear sister and compassionate leader who has provided us with the opportunity to contribute to the success of our mission,” said Ben Youssef.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said Ali had been given a “daunting task” upon coming to Washington: to set up the local mission of the AU, which is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia —where its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, was established in 1963.
“She told me she was working in a little cubicle when she first started, and we know where she’s working now. Ambassador Ali and her team carried out the task she was sent here to do, and the US-AU relationship has matured significantly under her stewardship,” said Thomas-Greenfield, stressing that Ali’s team “provided key leadership” in making the case on Capitol Hill for the timely renewal of AGOA.
Mel Foote, president of the Constituency for Africa, called Ali “a tireless, fearless ambassador,” while publicist Jan DuPlain praised her as “a warrior for the cause.”
Foote said that shortly after Ali’s arrival, he began bringing people to meet her, one by one. “I told her that in Washington, you have to be careful not to get eaten by the sharks,” he said. “I thought it was a historic move by the AU to appoint an ambassador to Washington, that it was bold for them to open this office.”
Finally, after all the accolades, Ali herself took the microphone, thanking nearly everyone in the room but also expressing “profound gratitude” to members of Congress who worked with the AU on issues ranging from trade, investment and energy to the emerging terrorist threat in East Africa, and the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
“It was the U.S. administration under the leadership of President Obama that started sensitizing other partners to support Africa in overcoming Ebola,” she said. “We are all happy now that this disease has been put to rest.”
Ali singled out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Brookings Institution and other universities, think tanks and foundations represented in the audience.
She also thanked Congolese Ambassador Serge Mombouli, who became dean of the Washington diplomatic corps upon the death of Roble Olhaye on July 22. Ohlaye, 71, had been Djibouti’s top envoy to the United States since 1988 and for the past 10 years was the longest-serving ambassador in Washington.
“The first ambassador I met was the dean [Mombouli]. He advised me how to navigate Washington, how to work together with my fellow ambassadors and reach different constituencies,” she said.
“We have become stronger, we are speaking one language and we’re pursuing an African agenda together with our bilateral agenda,” said Ali, recalling Nigeria’s late ambassador to the United States, Adebowale Adefuye, who died Aug. 27 in Washington of a heart attack.
“I was with him only two weeks ago. He was also going back home, to Nigeria, and we were joking about calling ourselves ex-ambassadors,” said Ali. “He was an outstanding person and a top-notch ambassador.”
After thanking her colleagues in Addis Ababa, Ali expressed hope that the presidential election in Tanzania, set for Oct. 25, will be peaceful. The race is likely to be the tightest in the East African nation’s history. “I’m going back at a very interesting time,” she said.