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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / International Relations and Security

Interview with Ambassador Amina Salum Ali, Permanent Representative of the African Union to the United States

The following interview was conducted by APJ’s Ngozika Amalu on the occasion of HE Ambassador Ali’s visit to Harvard University, sponsored by the Center for African Studies and co-hosted by APJ, the Africa Caucus, and the Harvard African Students Association. Ambassador Amina Salum Ali is the African Union Ambassador to the United States. As the African Union’s first female ambassador, she is committed to promoting women’s rights and children’s issues. A long-serving Member of Parliament, she has also held various ministerial positions in the Tanzanian government, most recently as minister of state in the office of the chief minister in Zanzibar.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and an M.B.A. in marketing.

10689552_464235777063134_1750492316004253581_nAfrica Policy Journal (APJ): Thank you for your time Ambassador. To start I conducted a little bit of research on you and on your office.  The primary functions of your office are “to develop and promote relations with the US administration, undertake resource mobilization and consolidate constructive and productive institutional relationships between the African Union and Africans in the Diaspora, the Bretton Woods Institutions and other stakeholders.” Given that this is a broad mandate, what unique role does your office play in strengthening African ties in the US, and what specific value do you bring to your US stakeholders that is different from what a country embassy in DC would bring?

Ambassador Amina Ali (AA): First of all, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your patience.  We intended to do this interview a little bit earlier, but you agreed to stay behind and wait for us. This shows your commitment to working for this journal here at Harvard, and also your commitment to bringing in information about Africa – what is happening in Africa and what are the programs and policies. I believe the Africa Policy Journal is a very important journal. For us, I think, it’s a good vehicle to convey messages from the African Union to those who are the readers of the journal, who are using the journal to make decisions. So I’m very happy to have this opportunity to talk to you.

APJ: Thank you it’s our pleasure. Thank you for being here.

AA: As you know, the decision was taken in the late 80’s that there was a need to open up a bureau at that time for the Organization of African Unity so that it would enable institutions to engage the American system, the American administration. Especially taking into consideration that the US at that time was engaging in its own African foreign policy. At that time, coming out of the Cold War conflict situation left us with the perception that Africa was not given the attention it deserved from partners. So that’s why our leaders decided to have an office to directly engage the Administration, Congress, communities, and other stakeholders like the Diaspora. In some cases to help the African agenda, but also to be able to give them information, because the information that communities here receive about Africa is distorted.

It took us a while to open this office, and the office was officially opened in 2006 with a big mandate of things to do. I think there were 21 mandates that I was asked to pursue when I joined. We saw this office as an opportunity to bring Africa nearer to the US. We realized that the US as a partner has played a very important role in the development of Africa and engaging African people. The decisions the US has taken towards Africa have really impacted Africa, so we thought we had to find a strategy to work with this Administration to realize the mandate of the African Union.  When we opened this office we looked into areas that we could pursue so that we could really make a difference and add value to the relationship between Africa and the US. We realize that America has a lot of potential and that we can use that as an opportunity to develop Africa. So we build, sort of, a bridge that Africa can use to interact with America, to work with America, to partner with America, for the benefit of Africa. We look at economic areas, we look at political areas, and we look at social and cultural areas.  When we talk about social and cultural areas we identify education in terms of technology research, this is a key area for Africa.

With respect to the difference that we bring in this engagement with the US, there are a lot of benefits. For example, we didn’t have a formal bilateral partnership between the US Administration and the African Union Commission, but we managed to have an MOU that created a platform for Africa and the US to meet each year, articulate their respective positions, and come out with a program of engagement based on that. Because of this MOU we have had a number of activities and we have scaled up these activities – previously we were more engaged in peace and security areas, but now we have expanded into cultural and social areas like I said education, as well as health. In the field of economics, although we did not work for AGOA, African Union is now part of the AGOA system. The mere fact that the Africa Union is part of the AGOA system, gives our member states support and capacity to negotiate that they didn’t have before, and helps them look at alternatives in terms of how to go another mile in the future for AGOA.

APJ: I like that you brought that up, and I just want to ask a quick follow up question. Do you find that there has been a difference between when individual countries engage bilaterally with the US and when they decide to go through the AU?

AA: You know, one of the missions of the African Union is to bring member states together so that we take a decision as Africa and we speak with one voice in all of the issues we address. This is to avoid competition and also to avoid dilution of our power. If we discuss issues as Africa with one voice, we discuss those issues from a position of strength. But if we don’t discuss as Africa, individually, we’re weakened.  So when we opened the office here we continued to push forward the agenda, saying: we are stronger if we speak in one voice as Africa. When we talk about continent issues, instead of talking about the individual countries we talk about “we Africans.” It has really made a big difference in terms of the relationship between us and the US.

APJ: I want to talk to you about the recent 24th AU Summit at the end of January. It closed with a strong push towards prioritizing women’s empowerment in Africa this year. So, what concrete steps can or is your office taking to ensure that equalizing opportunities for women in Africa is a primary objective of your stakeholders here in America, and that this reflects in their activities?

AA: The decision of the African Union Commission to have the theme for 2015 reflect the need of empowering women and developing women’s issues is something that, first of all, we’re very proud of. For the first time within AU the theme is geared towards empowering the majority of people in Africa, which is our gender, we are around 51 per cent. In that respect, the theme is trying to push our governments to re-commit in all the areas that we committed to before for promoting women’s issues. There were a number of decisions, but now we want commitment from our countries so that they implement those decisions that were already taken. For instance, when you talk about empowering women by giving them more opportunities to be in decision-making bodies, that decision was taken long ago. If you look at the regional institutions like SADC, it is 30 per cent female, the African Union said by 2000 there needed to be 50 per cent representation in all those decision-making bodies.  The theme is now saying that we are going to push towards that implementation. So that means the African Union will oversee that within this year we put more women in decision positions in parliaments, in political parties, and in other decision-making organizations.

In some other areas, for instance we talk about economic empowerment, the laws need to be passed – we have to domesticate all those decisions and all those declarations. Some countries, have gone one step in domesticating the resolutions and decisions and declarations. Some other countries have not done so. So the decision to take the theme of women’s empowerment and development, calls upon government to domesticate the decisions that were taken before and to create laws. For instance when we talk about violence against women, those who are violating women have to be punished, but if you don’t have the law that recognizes that to violate women is an offense you cannot really punish those who are committing that offense. When you talk about enabling women to have fiscal space, to be financially included – because they are not included – you also need to change the regulation of financial systems so that women can be a part of it, so they can go for loans and receive incentives in terms of tender and in terms of procurement. So those are the reasons why the theme of women’s empowerment was chosen, to refocus and re-commit our government in implementing the decisions that they have taken.

For my office, this is a very good decision. In reality even Americans have not done much about women’s empowerment. Up until now you see the difference between men and women, you see that even if you are secretary of state you don’t get equal pay. Even in terms of opportunities like maternal leave, only recently did Obama give an executive order to enable women to be paid when they take such leave. So the decision to have that theme [women’s empowerment] gives us the opportunity to go another mile with our people here in the Diaspora, to move towards achieving our initiative in order to free the capacity that women have towards development, not only for Africa.

APJ: When you’re engaging here with the Diaspora, with the administrators and the government, what are some of your major challenges to engaging successfully, to implementing your programs?

AA: Actually, in most cases we find challenges, but not challenges that block us from moving forward. The difficulty comes in terms of when we want to bring all the Diaspora together and we want them to speak with one voice, we want them to have one voice. We tried to bring the recent Diaspora and the old Diaspora together, and we found that there are still some challenges. We asked them to come together, organize themselves, and create a representative body so that when we want people to talk about Africa we know where to go, and we know who would be the spokespeople for Africa. Because, you know, other Diaspora groups are well organized, they have a structure, they have a mechanism for addressing each issue, and they know who will represent them if the government wants to talk to the groups.  The Latino, the Chinese, the Indians and others, they have a mechanism. For the African Diaspora that sort of mechanism is still not in place, but I believe we will continue to talk to our people here so that they will come back and form a strong committed organization that will put our agenda forward.

APJ: Finally, what are some of the greatest lessons you have learned over the course of the nearly 8 years you’ve been in your current position, and what advice can you offer to future policymakers who what to be involved in strengthening regional cooperation in Africa?

AA: The lesson that I’ve learned, number one, American people are really good people. They have kindness in their hearts, and I’ve noticed that once they understand the situation they are really people who are willing to give for the benefit of others. Now for us in Africa, what we need is to prepare ourselves and to articulate our position to the Administration to enable us to negotiate on equal footing.  We have our requirements and our needs, and they also have their needs – it’s not that they don’t benefit from Africa. So when we negotiate with America we should negotiate from the position of strength.  We have to put forward our policies, we have to put forward our demands, we have to explain what we want, so that we can discuss with them in an open-minded fashion and we all enjoy the benefits together. When we talk about the partnership, the partnership should be on the basis of equality and openness so that we all benefit.

APJ: Well said. It looks like our time is up. Thank you very much Madame Ambassador, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today, and I hope that you enjoy the rest of the evening here at Harvard.

AA: Thank you very much.