I recently sat down for an engaging conversation with Pierre Tantchou and Sa’eed Husaini, summer interns for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).* Both have African connections – Sa’eed, a Nigerian national, recently graduated from Hope College, while Pierre, who completed his undergraduate degree at GMU, was born and raised in Cameroon. Both are extremely dynamic and served to only strengthen my already high opinion of CSIS’ Africa Program. I instantly felt at ease when I learned from Sa’eed that although he grew up attending the same church in Jos as Ice Prince Zamani, he had also not been aware that Ice Prince recently performed in the DMV.
It became apparent early on that as each has relatively different sectoral interests, my mind was going to be stimulated in a variety of directions. Sa’eed’s forte is democracy and governance while Pierre brought an international trade and investment perspective to the conversation. Sa’eed has previous experience in DC during a semester away from campus with the Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy of CSIS while Pierre comes to CSIS from the Corporate Council on Africa, where he landed after receiving his MA in International Affairs from Penn State. As summer interns, they play a particularly prominent role as the Program’s full-time staff vigorusly travel across the continent.
Having recently attended a CSIS event on Obama’s Power Africa Initiative, I began the conversation on this topic. Being more suited to his interests, Pierre took the lead in responding. He quickly articulated a question that has been on my mind as well, wondering ‘where all that money [it’s in the billions] is coming from, is [it] recycled money?’ I fully agree with this assessment, Power Africa addresses a great need, but it has the odor of a political gimmick.
From here, I shifted the conversation to Chinese engagement in Africa, a theme that is quite popular and which has several well-known practitioners in DC. Speaking from a realpolitik perspective, Sa’eed articulated his belief that the US government does have an interest in countering Chinese influence on the continent. Speaking from a personal perspective, he expressed ambivalence regarding the impact of China’s engagement. He noted that it is ‘no secret that Africa is the [worldwide] engine of economic growth going into the middle of the century’ (a sentiment that I also agree with). Sa’eed added that the Africa rising discourse ‘is better for the rest of the world than it is for Africa.
Our dialogue shifted to a discussion of more concrete current events (and after dwelling on Pierre’s primary interests, I wanted to tilt the field back toward Sa’eed’s specialty). I have commented rather frequently on these pages about DC’s lack of interest in the Zimbabwe elections. I have been remiss about not saying anything on Mali’s elections, scheduled for this Sunday. The lack of commentary on Mali is even more glaring given the state of paralysis that DC Africanists found themselves in the spring, unable to discuss much of anything besides terrorism in the Sahel and political criminals in Kenya.
Sa’eed commented that there are elements of a ‘charade’ in regards to both elections. In Mali, the international community (the West) is looking for ‘something quantifiable to point to as an accomplishment’ while in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is rushing to ‘win the election while there is chaos.’
From there we briefly touched on the Nigerian decision to significantly reduce its contributions to the UN Peacekeeping force in Mali, MINUSMA. Pierre noted that Nigeria has developed an ‘aura of international importance’ largely as a result of its peacekeeping efforts; consequently, the decision of the west African power to withdraw troops ‘makes you question how effective will MINUSMA be’.
Both appeared to be strong advocates of regional integration and cooperation in the African context (one of them mentioned that ‘African development will not happen if it is not African driven’). A personal interest of mine in that regard are Nigerian – South African relations, so I asked them for their thoughts. Both spoke of challenges in that relationship, alluding to the increasing economic status of Nigeria vis-à-vis South Africa. In light of Mandela’s recent birthday celebrations, Sa’eed commented on the importance of Mandela for Nigerians while Pierre stayed true to his economics background by arguing that ‘it is important for South Africa to venture out…and find economic opportunities in Africa (although this seems to have backfired in the Central African Republic).
We concluded the policy portion of the conversation with a discussion of US policy in Africa. Sa’eed remarked that he feels favorably about Obama’s partnership model for African development and emphasis on youth leaders. However, he cautioned about working in partnership with governments that do not have the interests of their people at heart. Pierre articulated his view that while the US has ‘many agencies that work in Africa…there has to be [greater] interagency cooperation.’
Our conversation was very enjoyable and both interns shared many interesting personal tidbits with me. Pierre spoke about watching the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to improve his English after he moved to the US while Sa’eed mentioned the personal influence of Michael Jordan. They also touched on more ‘academic’ influences; Pierre is strongly inspired by Confucianism and East Asian philosophy while Sa’eed draws on the pan-African figures of the liberation struggle era, citing Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara as promising figures who did not have enough time to translate their ideas to action.
Their internships are slated to conclude in September, I suspect they will quickly make waves wherever they end up after that date. You can follow Pierre and Sa’eed on Twitter at @RobesDePierre and @SaeeduH
* Both spoke in their personal capacity and not on behalf of CSIS