Despite the many challenges facing the continent, “Africa is not … defined by poverty, misery and violence,” said Félix Tshisekedi, the chairperson of the African Union (AU). “Our continent is also defined by opportunities.”
Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies. In a discussion hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace on July 21, Tshisekedi said the continent also offers solutions to problems that beset all humanity. He touted the example of the Congo Rainforest and Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest after the Amazon, which he described as a carbon sink that has global benefits.
But the continent also faces a broad range of challenges, including democratic backsliding; violent extremism; endemic corruption; and climate change that is producing droughts, floods, food insecurity and mass migration. In Washington, the AU has a willing partner to address these challenges, according to U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights.
Africa is a “very bipartisan issue” in Washington, said Bass, who joined Tshisekedi in a discussion moderated by Joseph Sany, the vice president of the Africa Center at USIP. Tshisekedi, who is also the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), spoke in French through an interpreter.
Noting the challenges facing Africa, Lise Grande, USIP’s president and CEO, said the COVID-19 pandemic had further put the “progress” and “promise” of the continent at risk.
Bass said U.S. lawmakers want to do everything possible to ensure that African countries can address the pandemic in terms of testing, treatment and vaccinations. It is just as important, she said, that African countries are able to produce their own COVID-19 vaccines.
In February, Tshisekedi was appointed to a one-year term as chairperson of the AU. In this role, he intends to take on some of the challenges facing the continent. Grande said Tshisekedi had “set an ambitious agenda as the chair of the African Union, focused on tackling the pandemic, fostering peace and security, accelerating trade, combating climate change, promoting Africa’s culture and empowering women and youth.”
Another challenge Tshisekedi acknowledged is implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement. The agreement, which seeks to bolster intra-African trade and boost growth, would create the largest free trade area in the world. Trading under the AfCFTA started on January 1, 2021. As of February, 36 countries had ratified the agreement; 54 AU member states have signed the agreement. “We will not be able to complete the process today, but we have decided to compile our energies and our forces in order to have a free trade agreement zone that will help Africans to enhance trade in Africa,” Tshisekedi said.
Tshisekedi said the United States and European countries should help Africa put the agreement in place. “It is in their best interest because they want Africa to prosper and to thrive,” he said, adding: “It will be a great opportunity to encourage investment in Africa.”
Over the years, Africa has been a source of millions of migrants who have left the continent in search of better, safer lives. Describing Africa’s large youth population as a blessing, Tshisekedi said it is important that African governments educate and create jobs in order to “keep our young people in Africa, rather than to lose them as is happening today.” Tshisekedi is also committed to enhancing African culture. “We need to retrieve our identity in order to build our future,” he explained.
Democracy and Security on the Continent
Sany asked Tshisekedi what can be done to strengthen democracy and improve human rights in Africa. Tshisekedi noted that most countries in Africa have a long history of being colonized and then ruled by dictatorial regimes. “The main thing here is to guarantee rights and liberties for all people … We have to hammer that point home,” he said.
President Tshisekedi (top left), Joseph Sany (top right), Rep. Karen Bass (center) discuss how the United States and the African Union can work together to address to enhance peace and prosperity on the continent.
Tshisekedi’s own election as DRC president marked a democratic highlight on the continent. Sworn in as president on January 24, 2019, his inauguration marked the first peaceful transition of power in the history of the DRC and the end of his predecessor Joseph Kabila’s 18-year rule.
In the DRC, Tshisekedi said, the security forces have a history of violating human rights that is challenging to get away from. “People still have certain instincts that go back for decades and decades … [Changing that mindset] is daily work. It is not easy,” he admitted. Tshisekedi said the international community should encourage his government and not “cry scandal each and every time there is an issue surrounding human rights.”
As the Islamic State’s affiliates have steadily spread in Africa, Tshisekedi sees a role for the international community in helping to train African government forces to combat violent extremism. In March, the State Department designated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria–Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC) as a foreign terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, the conflict in Ethiopia threatens stability in East Africa. Ethiopian government forces have been fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former national ruling party, in Tigray since November 2020 when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive in response to an attack on a military base. Eritrean forces have been helping Ethiopian federal government forces in the conflict. Thousands of people have been killed. All sides have been accused of committing atrocities.
“What is happening in Ethiopia right now is truly awful,” Tshisekedi said. He said the United States should share detailed information with the AU about human rights violations in Ethiopia. “If we actually have proof that human rights are being violated … then we can show pan-African solidarity and that will help our Ethiopian brothers,” he said. “We just don’t have enough information and we have a lot of questions, so we are a bit trapped as an institution.”
In June, the AU created a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of human rights violations in the Tigray region. However, the commission will begin its work in Banjul, the capital of Gambia, and will conduct investigations on the ground only when “the conditions are met,” according to the AU.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission are also jointly investigating human rights abuses and violations in Tigray.
Bass put the onus of responding to the crisis on the AU rather than foreign powers like the United States. She asked Tshisekedi what the United States could do to help the AU increase its capacity and ability to intervene. Tshisekedi said the AU charter prevents the body from intervening in member countries’ internal affairs. “And the current conflict in Ethiopia is considered to be an internal affair,” he said.
Bass said the United States is focused on getting humanitarian aid safely into Tigray where more than 350,000 people are living in famine conditions. She called on Eritrea to withdraw its troops from the region and for peace negotiations between the warring sides to begin immediately. She also did not rule out the possibility of U.S. sanctions. “[T]he way things have deteriorated [in Tigray] is of major concern to us here in the United States, and major concern that the situation that exists now could get even worse,” said Bass.
In the end, a peaceful and prosperous Africa redounds to the benefit of not just the continent, but the international community at large. “You certainly can’t have investment without peace and stability,” Bass said. “Enhancing our economic partnerships through expanded investment and trade is critical. Addressing COVID, strengthening democracy and peace and stability are prerequisites for that investment.”