By Barrington M. Salmon
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer
It is customary for the evening news and other media outlets to characterize Africa in the most negative and derisive manner. Droughts, coups, famine, civil unrest and poverty often take center stage while any number of success stories and the many positive developments occurring among the continent’s 54 nations are often ignored.
So last Friday’s panel discussion with three presidents and a prime minister at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) was a breath of fresh air because an audience of several hundred heard the leaders talk about their efforts to institute and strengthen good governance, the rule of law, and transparency. The leaders took part in a wide-ranging discussion entitled, “Consolidating Democratic Gains, Promoting African Prosperity” at USIP in Northwest, at a function that was televised live and on Twitter.
“The Africa of today is far from the cliches of war, famines and coups,” said Senegalese President Macky Sall. “We’re moving toward democracy and growth. We’re the cradle of mankind, a magical continent with diversity and resources. Africa today is a continent on the march.”
Sall was joined by Presidents Ernest Bai Koroma and Joyce Banda and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves. Each detailed their governments’ roles in fostering the social and economic upswings of their respective countries, the seemingly intractable challenges and their vision of an independent, self-sufficient and transformed Africa during what moderator Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnny Carson called “a very stimulating and delightful” conversation.
“They’re here because of the contributions they’ve made to strengthen democratic institutions in their countries,” said Carson, who retired from the State Department on Friday, March 29. “They have developed independent judiciaries, free press and vibrant economies to protect their democracies. Sierra Leone held free, fair and credible elections where 90 percent of the citizens participated peacefully.”
“This was the second term for President Koroma to continue his agenda for prosperity. The economy is expanding rapidly.”
The quartet was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama on Thursday, March 28 because of what Obama said was recognition of the fact that each leader had “undertaken significant efforts to strengthen democratic institutions, protect and expand human rights and civil liberties, and increase economic opportunities for their people.”
Carson spoke of Sall’s election a year ago, and the instability and economic contraction surrounding his predecessor’s attempts to secure a controversial third term. Since then, Sall has instituted economic reforms, worked to reduce conflict, unrest and tension in the southern Casamance region. In fact, Carson said, Senegal’s economy is expected to grow by five percent this year.
Sall prompted laughter when he said he was putting one of the two presidential jets up for sale but with no takers, may have to offer it to a museum. Both he and Banda said they have scaled back on ministerial perks and she has gotten rid of fleets of vehicles as well.
Banda was the vice president in President Binguwa Mutharika’s government until he died suddenly in April 2012. Mutharika dismissed Banda and attempted to appoint his brother leader of his political party and Malawi’s next president. When he died, some in the cabinet, his wife and others questioned Banda’s legitimacy to succeed Mutharika even though the constitution was clear on succession. Banda is said to have called Malawi’s army commander who agreed to support her and stationed troops around her home. She also acknowledged America’s role behind the scenes in ensuring her ascension to the presidency.
Toward the end of his presidency, Mutharika managed to alienate the U.S., Britain, the European Union, the World Bank and other lending institutions and all, including some other European countries suspended financial assistance. His critics expressed concern about his erratic policies and actions that threatened Malawi’s democratic institutions.
“One year ago, she implemented tough political and economic reforms, including a currency devaluation, and removed price controls for fuel,” Carson explained. “In the first 100 days, she turned the country around. The economy has expanded and continues to grow.”
Banda, who has been involved in women’s issues for 30 years, said a number of austerity measures and policy proposals that she’s enacted have been deeply disliked but vowed to continue even if it costs her personally.
“We’re on track, strengthening government institutions and increasing the level of comfort for donors to return,” she said. “The 100 days was used to also improve relations with our neighbors. I reversed all the laws that were not good and in July 2012, we started a national dialogue on the economy. Using mining, energy, tourism, infrastructure and agriculture, we will be able to create wealth for Malawians.
“For 14 months, we have implemented a very, very unpopular reform program. I should have backtracked because elections are next year but it’s OK …”
Koroma is guiding a country that still bears the scars of a brutal civil war that ended in 2002. He spoke of developing institutions to foster democratic change, such as the Independent Media Commission and the National Commission on Democracy, the work undertaken to bolster the economy and critical sectors such as mining and agriculture and restructuring police and security forces so they adhere to human rights standards. Despite the challenges, he said he’s pleased with the progress.
“What we take pride in is that we’re committed to moving forward,” he said. “We have peace and a rapidly developing country … we’ve built on the peace and positioned ourselves for growth. This is why we believe that Sierra Leone is no longer a country of blood diamonds … I believe that Sierra Leone is on the move.”
Neves presides over a string of islands – Cape Verde – off the coast of West Africa that have been lauded by Obama and other administration officials for fostering a favorable environment for investment, for its high and steady economic growth and for having one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
“I think that in order to ensure continuity, we must respect scrupulously the rules of the game,” said Neves, in answer to a question about keeping democracy on-track. “We must build consensus on the issues and we must strengthen the social dialogue with unions, businesses and management. By carrying out a government of rules, governments become more legitimate every day. They must provide answers to social needs, develop new channels of access and ensure that civil society has room to develop and grow.”
Neves said it is critical to cater to the needs of young people and women, adding that every African country’s success is tied to including them in all aspects of the country’s growth and development in ways that go well beyond lip service.
“We must invest in education, university training and professional and technical training to create conditions so that they can be employed,” he said primarily of young people. “Women represent the future of humanity, period. I have budgets that include gender questions and issues. We must reduce the inequality of the distribution of power and wealth.”
“We must now say, ‘beside every great man is a great woman …”‘
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