African Countries Are Failing to Make a Dent in Washington’s Diplomatic Scene

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African Countries Are Failing to Make a Dent in Washington’s Diplomatic Scene
African Countries Are Failing to Make a Dent in Washington’s Diplomatic Scene

Africa-Press – Mauritius. The Washington calendar is filled with get-togethers for the diplomatic set, from embassy parties to book launches to private dinners with policymakers. Each gathering is a chance to network, sometimes with very powerful people, or at least glean gossip from their underlings.

But in a city teeming with people determined to garner attention for their causes or constituencies, one group is largely absent from such conversations: African diplomats.

It’s a phenomenon plenty of U.S. policymakers, foreign officials and even some African diplomats privately acknowledge. Many of them also argue it must change if African countries want the U.S. attention so many say they crave — not to mention more respect.

A sign of the status quo: Even though Kenyan President William Ruto is being honored with a state visit to Washington next week, House Speaker Mike Johnson rejected requests that he be allowed to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress.

“D.C. is a playing field. You’ve got to be on the field playing the game. I don’t see too many African diplomats on the field,” one European diplomat told me.African diplomats say they’d like to be more prominent in the U.S. capital, but that, above all, they lack the resources.

Many of their embassies have just a handful of diplomats. Those diplomats often are underpaid; some take side jobs in Washington such as Uber or delivery drivers, or even at gas stations, according to a current and a former State Department official familiar with the issue.

The limited resources affect an embassy’s ability to function, including whether it can have a decent website, host events to draw in influential people or have a public affairs officer. (I reached out to nearly every African embassy and the African Union mission for this column. Just seven responded in any fashion. A few emails bounced.)

“Some embassies go months without getting their allowances because there’s no funding from back home,” one African diplomat said, noting that while some of the embassies host events, they do so “rarely.”

We’re talking about a continent of 54 countries — more than a fourth of the world’s nations. In theory, there should be strength in such a number, but in reality there’s not much unity.

Each African country has unique interests, and many are rivals. Northern African countries such as Egypt also tend to align more with the Middle East and Arab countries, putting them in a separate orbit than sub-Saharan African countries.

Some of the countries have had recent coups or are otherwise not in great standing in D.C. Those diplomats can, however, be found attending a party at the Russian ambassador’s house. (The food was great, the conversations surreal.)

Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya were mentioned by Africa watchers as among the more robust diplomatic performers. But the majority of the embassies tend to stay under the radar.

Elsie Kanza, Tanzania’s ambassador since 2021, is considered one of the more dynamic African envoys in Washington, but she said funding, staffing and time can constrain her. There are fewer than 10 diplomats in her embassy, she told me, and she delegates when she can.

She also said some African ambassadors prefer keeping their work behind the scenes. “I have colleagues who have no interest in attending any events, but they’re very impactful in terms of what it is they’re delivering for their countries,” she said.

At the same time, according to some current and former U.S. officials I spoke to, many African embassies stick so closely to diplomatic protocol that they hurt their interests in Washington. (Most of the people interviewed for this column were granted anonymity to be candid about a sensitive issue.)

African diplomats may believe that the best way to reach the undersecretary of State is to contact the State Department’s desk officer for their country. In reality, it’s probably better to ask a think tanker you met at a party for the undersecretary’s WhatsApp number.

“When you play the game by the rules, you’re not really playing the game,” said Cameron Hudson, a former National Security Council official who dealt with Africa.

He and others who’ve held similar roles noted that they often were the ones reaching out to African embassies instead of the other way around. “Honestly, I heard from my counterparts in Western European embassies with 10 times the frequency that I heard from counterparts in African embassies,” Hudson said.

And while the African Union has a mission in Washington, it is far less prominent than, say, the European Union’s delegation, and policymakers say it has little ability to rally the dozens of countries under its umbrella.

There are embassies representing countries from other parts of the world, such as Latin America or parts of Asia, that also keep a low profile. (Has anyone seen the Turkmen ambassador lately?) But because the U.S. has stronger trade and military ties in countries in those regions, it’s more likely to engage them in a variety of ways than African countries.

Some African diplomats are severely restricted by orders from their bosses back home. Those bosses also can further disempower their diplomats by spending — often scarce — resources on expensive Washington lobbyists instead of strengthening their embassies.

Sometimes the lobbyists are hired to carry out some of the shadier work — trying to place op-ed pieces whitewashing a dictator’s crimes, or talking to lawmakers about lifting sanctions on that dictator. But often, they rake in dollars to do the basic work of diplomacy, such as arranging facetime with American officials.

“Save your money,” one former U.S. diplomat who focused on Africa said. “You’re signing contracts with people who you do not need in order to get meetings with us.”

There’s also a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma in all of this.

Despite Africa’s potential — its demographics alone make it worth watching — it’s just not high on Washington’s priority list. President Joe Biden may not visit the continent during this term, although several of his top aides and Vice President Kamala Harris have made trips. Few members of Congress care about African issues. And that’s even with U.S. concern about China and Russia’s influence on the continent.

Johnson’s office assured me the decision on the Ruto speech was about scheduling restraints and stressed that the Kenyan president would get lots of facetime with lawmakers. But when I asked a senior African diplomat if he was upset that Ruto wouldn’t get to speak to Congress, he said, glumly, that he never expected it would happen in the first place.

At the moment in Africa, there is a vicious war in Sudan, with human rights activists warning of famine and genocide. But it’s not getting nearly the attention from Washington as the Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East.

As a result, African diplomats often wonder if it’s worth the effort to get more attention from lawmakers or others beyond the core few they already know. I sometimes get the sense that they worry that if they host a gathering in Washington, no one will show up.

At the same time, many feel shut out by Washington’s elite.

“You think D.C. is big? Actually, D.C. is very small. For you to actually make an impact your presence has to be known by all sectors,” the senior African diplomat said. But African diplomats are “not included in the inner circles. They’re not invited to critical meetings. They’re sidelined at best.”

Sometimes the State Department engages directly with an African country’s capital without looping in the embassy in Washington, the diplomat complained.

Such lamentation is understandable, but to break through this cycle of low expectations will require more African diplomatic firepower in Washington.

That could mean some entrepreneurial African diplomats need to start cold-calling a few Washington socialites about getting on their invite lists, persuading think-tankers to share their Rolodexes or building a tradition of hosting gatherings at their embassies.

If there’s anything in shortage in Washington, it’s attention, a former Asian diplomat said.

“You have to get out and get that attention,” he said. “It takes hustle.”

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