Africa's Strategic Importance to U.S. Is Growing, Envoy Says

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - A senior diplomat says her recent appointment as the first full-time U.S. envoy to the African Union (AU) highlights a growing U.S.-African partnership aimed at pursuing political stability and economic prosperity on a strategic continent.

“This is an historic moment both for the African Union and the United States” as the focus of Africans’ attention moves from a preoccupation with the colonial era to today’s globalization, Ambassador Cindy Courville said in a May 10 interview with USINFO.

In December 2006, Courville was named to represent the United States at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, becoming the first non-African envoy to be exclusively accredited to the 53-nation multilateral organization. Most other non-African envoys are accredited to the Ethiopian government and secondarily represent their countries at the AU, which was established in 2002 as a successor to the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

"We are the only non-African mission at the AU," Courville pointed out. She said Africans welcomed her new assignment because "serving as President Bush's special assistant for Africa, they knew my appointment had the highest level of attention at the White House."

Courville, a former analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), served most recently as Africa director at the White House National Security Council, where she developed and coordinated U.S. policy on engagement with Africa.

While the United States has an economic interest in Africa - close to 15 percent of all U.S. oil imports come from the continent - it also is interested in helping the continent achieve political stability and economic prosperity. The result is that foreign assistance to the continent has tripled in the past six years to about $4 billion, Courville told USINFO. (See U.S. Aid to Africa.)

"The United States recognizes the evolutionary change the continent is undergoing" and is partnering with Africans to find African solutions to problems with health care, conflict resolution and good governance, Courville said. A former university professor, she wrote her doctoral dissertation on the struggle for independence in Zimbabwe.

In the critical area of conflict resolution, "the United States has provided over $400 million to the AU for peacekeeping operations in Darfur in the last four years alone," Courville said. "We know the AU has the political will and heart to go into crisis regions" but lacks the resources to undertake these missions, she added.

With that in mind, the U.S. aim has been to buttress AU peacekeeping capabilities through initiatives like the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program, which is working with a number of African militaries to build up an AU standby force of 25,000 troops to respond to emergencies.

To further that effort, Courville said, her small mission staff now includes two military liaison officers from the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), responsible for assistance to most African countries, and the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), the 1,500-troop force centered in Djibouti responsible for anti-terrorism efforts and regional humanitarian outreach.

Another "major step" in that direction was the recent decision by the U.S. Defense Department, in collaboration with the State Department, to establish a new geographic military command for the continent, to be called U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), Courville explained. (See related article.)

Also, more than $1.7 million in U.S. funding has been devoted to the support of the AU political affairs directorate, with another $250,000 going for the support of diplomatic initiatives by the organization, Courville said.

In addition, the U.S. mission is currently working with the AU to help set up a "strategic planning cell" to monitor the growing crisis in Somalia. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer is behind the effort and is giving it her full attention, Courville added.

These initiatives are all in line with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's transformational diplomacy, “based on a proactive rather than a reactive approach to international problems," Courville said.

"This means not only a high-level recognition of Africa's strategic importance as an integral part of the international community," she explained, but also a recognition of the continent's importance "as a partner across the board."

This is also a transformational time for the AU, Courville said, "as they look at restructuring their own organization: how commissioners interface, the leadership's responsibilities - their role politically, economically, socially and on the security front.

In launching the new U.S. mission to the African Union in the past four months, Courville said, “we have been on the cutting edge of the AU's transformation and have had the most incredible access, and will continue to work with them in a 'hands-on' approach."