Top Diplomat: U.S. Should Push Africa Reform Host Michel Martin speaks with Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs, talks about the Obama’s administration efforts in African, and what he thinks needs to happen.
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Top Diplomat: U.S. Should Push Africa Reform

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Top Diplomat: U.S. Should Push Africa Reform

Top Diplomat: U.S. Should Push Africa Reform

Top Diplomat: U.S. Should Push Africa Reform

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Host Michel Martin speaks with Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs, talks about the Obama’s administration efforts in African, and what he thinks needs to happen.


Finally, we want to talk about the Obama administration's efforts in Africa. President Obama was awarded the Peace Prize because of his, quote, "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," end quote. That's according to the Nobel announcement.

Central to those efforts in Africa is a career diplomat, a veteran ambassador name Johnnie Carson, now the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs. He was sworn in in May, and he joins us now for a newsmaker interview.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. JOHNNIE CARSON (Bureau of African Affairs): Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: There's so much to talk about. I'm not sure we'll get to it all, but we will try. So let's start with your background. You first went to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania. Do I have that right?

Mr. CARSON: That's correct.

MARTIN: In 1965, what drew you there? Why did you want to go?

Mr. CARSON: The spirit of the Kennedy administration, the desire to respond to the call to ask not what you can do for yourself but what you can do for your nation.

MARTIN: You then have a career - have had a career - in the foreign service. You previously served as ambassador to Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda, and two of those countries have been very much in the news for political turmoil in the past two years. We're going to talk more about that.

Let's talk about Kenya. We're coming upon the second anniversary of the disputed election in Kenya, sparked violent protests, claimed more than a thousand lives. It took months to kind of put together a power sharing agreement, but the international community is still not satisfied with it.

What will it take to achieve stability there? I'm not sure that stability is the only goal because, you know, you can have stability in repression. But what will it take in your view?

Mr. CARSON: Compromise and good will by Kenya's political leadership and political compromise. Some of that political compromise is underway now but more of it needs to be done. Kenya needs a new constitution, which allows for the sharing of power between the president and the prime minister. It needs to have power devolve from the center to the provinces, and there needs to be a land reform bill which addresses the issues of conflict over land.

MARTIN: I want to play a short clip for you from an interview we had with Wangari Maathai, who of course is a former Nobel laureate. And when we had an opportunity to speak with her earlier in the year about her take on what's going on - she's also a former Kenyan parliamentarian. I just want to play a short clip of what she had to say.

Dr. WANGARI MAATHAI (Nobel Laureate) The international community is doing the right thing. My worry is, wow much is expected from the international community short of interfering with the governance of the country for the African leadership to recognize that they have a responsibility to their own people?

MARTIN: Well, President Obama has said Africa's problems are for Africans to take leadership on, but Dr. Maathai seems to be saying that the political leadership is more invested in the status quo...

Mr. CARSON: Maintaining their power.

MARTIN: Or maintaining their power.

Mr. CARSON: I think that the United States and other governments do have a role to play. Sometimes those people who need the most help in a country probably have the least amount of power, the least amount of influence. We fundamentally believe that we do have a role to play and it's a very useful role to play in trying to encourage reforms that will stop crises or prevent them in the future.

MARTIN: What about Zimbabwe? Not identical but a similar set of circumstances. There a disputed elections ended resulting in the formation of a unity government between President Robert Mugabe, who many people now believe is functioning as a dictator, and in the movement for democratic change, Morgan Tsvangirai, who's serving as prime minister. A number of actors have tried to play a role here.

In fact, in July he met with Robert Mugabe in an African summit in Libya, and after he called you an idiot and said that you were a shame, being an African-American. Do you see any progress being made there?

Mr. CARSON: Well...

MARTIN: Why did he call you an idiot, by the way?

Mr. CARSON: Well, Robert Mugabe has enormous control, exercises enormous control in his own country, and because if this, very few people ever talk back to him. And when he is confronted with truth and opposition internally, he can beat that opposition, he can jail that opposition, he can silence that opposition. But when he meets with an American diplomat like myself, there's no way that he can beat me, no way that he can silence me, and no way that he can deny the truth.

I encouraged, respectfully, Robert Mugabe to live up to the political agreement that he signed with Morgan Tsvangirai, to stop the land invasions, to stop harassment of MDC members of parliament, to stop the censorship of the news, to stop human rights violations that are perpetrated.

He, of course, denied that any of this was going on, and when I insisted and gave him proof of it, his reaction was to become very angry. From the outside, I can speak freely and I do so. If I am a Zimbabwe and on the inside, my comments probably would've landed me in jail, detention, and probably would've gotten me beaten up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs, Johnnie Carson. And of course we can not let you go without talking about Sudan. This is an area in which a number of Americans have a deep interest.

There are those who would argue that we're watching a breakdown of the peace deal that ended more than 20 years of civil war between North and South Sudan. And three top Southern leaders were arrested in Khartoum this week for supporting a demonstration for democratic reforms. Southern leaders are now saying that they want a break from the North.

The two sides don't seem to be able to agree on the ground rules for upcoming elections. And the U.S., of course, was instrumental in getting a peace deal signed in 2005. Is there anything that the U.S. can do to avoid a return or to help this country avoid a return to civil war?

Mr. CARSON: The peace process between North and South has not broken down. We're in the last year and a half of a six-year agreement and it is incumbent upon all of us in the United States, in Western Europe, and most particularly, those in Khartoum and those in Juba to see that this agreement is fulfilled and that people of the South are allowed to decide their future - their political future, whether it is as an independent state or is a part of the north.

MARTIN: We have focused a lot on the difficulties and the challenges that Africa is facing. We've talked about political turmoil. We've talked about war. We've talked about all of these things. Are there bright spots that we should be talking about and thinking about?

Mr. CARSON: Absolutely. There is a good news story in Africa and I think it's frequently overlooked. Last month the world celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall some 20 years ago. And many people regard that as a seminal event for East and West Germany and its reunification, a seminal event in Europe. But it was also a particularly important event in Africa because it ended the Cold War conflicts that had created divisions across the continent for so long in which some states were aligned with the East and some aligned with the West.

We have also witnessed in Africa a remarkable revolution that people don't acknowledge, and that is the growth of democracy, a growth of democracy across the continent and a rejection of military rule, a rejection of authoritarian rule, and a rejection of central planned economic systems and market-based systems.

So if you look across the system and people say, there are, you know, it's a continent full of conflict, the reality is, is that there are an increasingly large number of African countries that have moved into the democratic camp very strongly. You look at places like South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Mauritius, Senegal, Mali, Benin, we have seen a growth in democratization. We've seen a growth in free market economic policies. We've seen a liberalization of economies across the continent.

And in fact even on the conflict side, while there's no doubt that conflict remains a serious problem, there's actually been a decrease in the level of conflict in a number of countries. It's not an entirely negative story out there and I think sometimes that story isn't gotten out there.

MARTIN: Another important historical event obviously is the election of this country's first president of African descent. He's truly a son of Africa, his father being a Kenyan. Has that made a difference?

Mr. CARSON: Yes. I think it's engendered an enormous amount of good will for the United States across Africa. But it's also generated enormous expectations that Africa will be looked upon more favorably than it has in the past. And let me just say, this administration has in fact gotten off to a remarkably fast start in dealing with Africa, in demonstrating a commitment to make Africa a foreign policy priority and not a foreign policy backwater�

MARTIN: And finally, I have a very difficult question for you. Are you ready?

Mr. CARSON: Yes.

MARTIN: You're in? World Cup being hosted in South Africa in 2010, the first African nation to host the World Cup. Who you rooting for?

Mr. CARSON: America. But most importantly, I'm rooting for South Africa to hold a successful World Cup. I think the fact that the World Cup is taking place in South Africa is a demonstration to the rest of the world that Africa is capable of being up there at the very, very top. South Africa will do a remarkable job. I am confident of that. There is...

MARTIN: How confident are you in the U.S. team?

Mr. CARSON: They've shown great skill, and this is 20 years on from where we were. I think we are a contender. I think we're a real contender.

MARTIN: Well, that's said like a real diplomat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Johnnie Carson is the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

Mr. CARSON: Thank you. A pleasure to be with you.

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