Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs under U.S. President Barack Obama’s first administration, spoke about his extensive experience in Africa on March 11 to a group of roughly 50 students at Pomona College. The talk was a part of the college’s Africa Initiative, which brings guest speakers to Pomona to help educate the student body about Africa and will host five visiting scholars over the next five years.
Carson was an ambassador to Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, and he spent four
years as assistant secretary of state. Carson was also a Peace Corps volunteer in
“My goal is to help provide insights on how the U.S. foreign policy in Africa is being
implemented,” Carson said. “If [learning about Africa] only makes people wiser, smarter, and
better-informed about Africa and what is happening there, it is a benefit to them and a benefit to
our society. I think that we as a country are better off when our citizens are knowledgeable in broad and in-depth ways about many things.”
Pierre Englebert, an international relations professor and the chair of the international relations department at Pomona, arranged for Carson to come to the college.
“I hope the Africa Initiative will eventually
turn into a permanent focus on Africa at Pomona in curricular and programmatic terms,” he wrote in an email to TSL. “We cannot call ourselves a top college training future elites if we cannot
offer our students some degree of depth in the coverage of African development and politics. The
Africa Initiative is an important step in this direction.”
In his talk, Carson first reinforced the fact that Africa is no longer the wild, dangerous, and
backward place that the media sometimes paints it to be. Instead, he emphasized the democratization of the continent, as well as its expanding cell phone market, the multiple woman leaders in power, and the sharp
decline in violence.
He also identified five challenges the African community will face in the coming decades:
a population explosion, climate change, terrorism, drug trafficking, and corruption.
In the years to come, Carson said, “climate change will affect all Africans in a multiplicity of ways.”
He referred to the many African capital cities located on the coast, pointing out
how rising ocean levels could have disastrous effects. Changing rain patterns and fishing locations also have the possibility of wreaking havoc on Africa’s food supply, which is already stretched
Claire Pershan PO ’15, who spent last semester in Dakar, Senegal’s capital and largest city, said she appreciated Carson’s speech. She said that while living in Dakar, however, she observed many other concerns in addition to rising oceans.
“There are so many other elements to climate change and other environmental issues like pollution and waste,” she said.
Pershan said that Carson’s speech accurately reflected her time in Dakar.
“I was in a really big city, which has a growing population, like we talked about,” she said.
An element he did not mention, she said, “was a huge rural exodus which is happening into the big cities.”
Carson offered the following advice to students looking to educate themselves about Africa: “Read widely, and dig beyond the headlines … and don’t be captured by them, and don’t allow your knowledge base to be limited to them.”
He emphasized that terrorism in Africa continues to be a problem, and that terrorist threats have not
decreased on the continent, unlike the nation-to-nation conflicts that used to be the norm.
Thousands of African deaths have been due to terrorist actions.
He said that corruption in Africa, like terrorism, has gotten worse instead of better in recent years, costing the continent
billions of dollars. Countries relying on oil exports for their profits, such as Nigeria and Angola, are
the most corrupt, Carson said.
Englebert wrote in his email that he hopes to expand the Africa Initiative beyond individual guest
speakers. Hosting panel-style events featuring several speakers who discuss topics such as democracy promotion is one idea he is considering.