Monday, April 20, 2009

Africa’s Diplomatic Advocates

Among the many advocates for Africa’s well-being and development are the African-Americans who have served as America’s ambassadors to African nations. Having just come from the African American Unity Caucus retreat, this fact was brought to mind vividly by participants and guests at this event.

One of the AAUC members is Ambassador Shirley Barnes, who served as U.S. ambassador to Madagascar. Her service to our country dates back to the days of Patrice Lumumba in Congo-Kinshasa. Since her retirement from the State Department, she has dedicated herself to the welfare of African Diaspora girls and women, especially in ending their victimization in modern-day slavery.

Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater (Benin and Ghana) was the closing speaker at the AAUC retreat. Her encouragement of education on Africa at institutions of higher learning such as Howard University have expanded American understanding of Africa, and her support for African self-help project have continued to enrich the lives of Africans in the countries in which she represented our nation.

Two prominent African-American ambassadors were guests at the event: Ambassadors Johnny Carson and Howard Jeter. They both provided then-Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice with perhaps the most Africa experienced staff anyone in her position has had. Ambassador Carson (Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe) has served in many vital posts (including Staff Director for the House Africa Subcommittee) and is now himself the nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Ambassador Jeter (Botswana and Nigeria) served as the President’s Special Envoy for Liberia and played a critical role in the American response to the wars and post-war recovery programs in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

There was a time when the only post an African-American could expect was to an African country. Those were the days of Terence Todman, considered by many to be the “Jackie Robinson” of African-American ambassadors. Todman served with distinction as U.S. ambassador to Chad and Guinea before breaking the Africa-only barrier to serve as U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, Spain and Denmark. Similarly, Ambassador Ruth Davis (Benin) has held non-Africa high-level positions, including Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of the Foreign Service Institute. Even in their non-Africa positions, Ambassadors Todman and Davis have been able to advocate for a U.S. policy that takes Africa more fully into account.

The work of the pioneer African-American ambassadors has led to the blossoming of opportunities for their successors in countries such as Guinea (Gayleatha Brown), Cote d’Ivoire (Wanda Nesbitt), Gabon (Eunice Reddick), Liberia (Linda Thomas-Greenfield), Namibia (Gail Mathieu), Niger (Bernadette Allen), Nigeria (Robin Sanders), Senegal/Guinea Bissau (Marcia Bernicat), Sierra Leone (June Carter Perry), Swaziland (Maurice Parker), The Gambia (Barry Wells) and Zimbabwe (James McGee). Their presence doesn’t guarantee that African countries get everything they want, but it should and usually does mean that someone is fighting to see that they get what they need.

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