U.S. Ambassador to UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield: I’m 48 percent Nigerian

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations sat down with Atlantic Council Africa Center Director Ambassador Rama Yade on Africa Day on May 25, 2021. She talked about her first encounter with Africa when she was just 26 years old, President Biden and Africa, her experience as a diplomat for more than three decades, and revealed that she is 48 percent Nigerian.

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“I went to Africa for the very first time when I was 26 years old, and I went to Liberia to study, and I fell in love with the continent at that point. I fell in love with Liberia, so clearly Liberia is going to be listed as the country that is my favorite country on the continent,” she said. “But I actually fell in love with the continent, and I fell in love with the continent because it’s so clear when you look at me, that is where I’m from. That’s my – that is where my roots are from. I’m an African. And had my ancestors not been brought here as slaves, I would have grown up likely as a Nigerian, because my ancestry.com told me that I’m about 48 percent Nigerian.”

  

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Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield greets Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a working lunch for the President and his delegation at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2015.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield greets Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a working lunch for the President and his delegation at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2015.

Read her full remarks below

AMBASSADOR YADE: Dear Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, welcome to the Africa Center for this special day, Africa Day, for my first interview as the Director of the Africa Center, and with you as a special guest – and what a guest. Thank you for the honor; thank you for the time and for your commitment. 

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Since I have a foot on three continents, welcome to our African, French, European, and American attendants.  

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, I think you – maybe, do you remember last time we met, in front of ASG (inaudible)? You told me about your wish to step down and to look after your grandchild, be involved in Biden’s campaign, Biden who was not seen as the next winner at that moment, and now he’s the President and you are here, U.S. Ambassador to the UN. Just what happened?  

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s an easy question to answer, but let me start first by congratulating you for taking on this amazing position at the Atlantic Council and to wish you the best of luck as you work on issues that we both are very, very passionate about across the continent of Africa.  

So, the simple answer to your question, what happened? What happened is the American people spoke and elected President Biden, and he surprised me and asked for me to be his Ambassador to the United Nations. So that caught me completely off guard, but I think I – he found a place that is very much in my comfort zone. 

AMBASSADOR YADE: Yeah, that’s right. And as you can see, it is the start, it is a conversation, maybe like a fireside chat through this cold spree, more than an interview. But I have a few questions about – first about your career maybe. Undoubtedly, a solid career – a diplomat 35 years, U.S. (inaudible) office, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, ambassador to Liberia, postings everywhere in Africa, lead – Africa (inaudible) lead, (inaudible), distinguished fellow in African studies at Georgetown University. No one can doubt of your African commitment. And as an African woman, I noticed African nations were the first to welcome you, to welcome your awesome achievements. 

My first question is very simple. What explains your African commitment? Yeah, which African countries have most impressed you? As ambassador, will you do what Africans are not familiar with these last years – prioritize Africa in your mission? 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s a wonderful question, Ambassador. I went to Africa for the very first time when I was 26 years old, and I went to Liberia to study, and I fell in love with the continent at that point. I fell in love with Liberia, so clearly Liberia is going to be listed as the country that is my favorite country on the continent. But I actually fell in love with the continent, and I fell in love with the continent because it’s so clear when you look at me, that is where I’m from. That’s my – that is where my roots are from. I’m an African. And had my ancestors not been brought here as slaves, I would have grown up likely as a Nigerian, because my ancestry.com told me that I’m about 48 percent Nigerian.  

So, I realized very, very quickly when I went to the continent that there was an emotional attachment there. The fact that I eventually ended up studying Africa and making Africa as a continent my professional focus is very much related to that personal connection that I have to the continent. And there are countries all over the continent that have tremendous potential, but I always like to point out Liberia. And the reason is Liberia went through such a horrific experience of civil war where children saw their parents killed and parents saw their children killed, and Liberia eventually came out of that war electing the first woman ever to be elected a president on the continent of Africa, and even before we’ve elected a woman in the United States. And she came with a firm commitment to helping Liberia become normal again and helping children find a future that was not marred by the sound of gunfire. 

And so, I was very much a part of that rebuilding that President Sirleaf led as the U.S. ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012, and I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish there. 

AMBASSADOR YADE: Yeah, absolutely. Lucky Nigerians to have you. (Laughter.)  

You stressed the changes on the continent. You have had the time during your career to see tremendous changes on the African continent, as I’m used to say, the oldest continent, the youngest population, the largest population soon in the world, home to the – to many of the fastest-growing economies in the world, the biggest digital revolution of these two decades. And beyond COVID, terrorism, and poverty, do you think that Washington under this new Biden presidency can look at Africa in a different way, more in line with the realities on the ground, as a land of opportunities and not only a land of risks? 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Absolutely, and that is a question that was made for me. Because I do feel and I know that the Biden administration understands that Africa offers tremendous opportunities and that there are success stories in the making on this continent, and there are resources on this continent that are yet to be tapped and used for the population. 

So, while I am not going to ignore the challenges – we know what those challenges are – we know that we need to focus on the opportunities. We need to look at the fact that before COVID, Africa had the largest number of the fastest-growing countries in the world. Six or seven or eight countries were among those fastest-growing countries in the world. We know that in order for those countries to come back that they need to diversify their economies, they need to rebuild their capacity, and they need to harness the extraordinary opportunity that their youth provide for them – being the youngest continent in terms of the median age on the continent being around 19 years old. 

So, there are opportunities in terms of promoting and encouraging and mentoring that young population. And as we move into this next decade on the continent of Africa, those resources that we see on the continent can be used to build this continent into a place that we can all be proud of being a part of. 

AMBASSADOR YADE: Yes, yes. Of course. And what strikes me most these last days, years, Ambassador, is I often have the feeling that Western countries regard Africa as an interesting land through Chinese eyes, but as you just told us, Africa is interesting – its strategy – Chinese or no Chinese. But yes, we cannot ignore the challenges, and among those challenges there is the matter of democracy. An Afro-barometer survey across 34 countries found that 68 percent of Africans think democracy is the best system of government. But moving democracy from paper to a practice is a challenge. What should the U.S. be doing to support that majority of Africans who wish to see democracy take hold? And this question that is asked by many Africans, after the insurrection at the Capitol, how can the U.S. credibly raise this challenge to Africans, but also for the rest of the world?  

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, we strongly believe – and Africans have affirmed that – that democracy is the best way forward for the continent of Africa. It allows people to go to the polls and express their views and vote for the person that they think can lead them into a life of prosperity. And Africans know that. What is lacking sometimes, to be very frank with you, is leadership – leadership that is committed to the people. And that’s something that’s a work in progress across the continent. 

As for the events that took place on January 6th, it was heartbreaking for all of us to see that attack on our Capitol, that attack on our democracy and on our values, but what we also saw that very same day, we saw our institutions stand strong; we saw our Congress come back into the chambers and finish the work that they’d started on the same day that they started that work. And so it shows that strong institutions can stand against any attack, and our institutions stood strong on that day, and that’s what Africans need to take from the experience that happened in the United States. 

What happened shows that our country is not perfect. We showed our imperfections for the entire world to see. But we also showed our strength to the entire world, and we showed our ability, our resilience to stand up against those kinds of attacks. 

AMBASSADOR YADE: Yeah. Democracy is not only the leaders but the institutions as well, and everything held. That’s the lesson, yeah. 

There is one country that is – it’s heartbreaking for me to mention that country because it’s not – it’s not simple. It’s Ethiopia. Tigray. A country where democracy is being challenged right now. And there has been a strong U.S. rhetoric on Tigray. My question is, what about the policy? Can you tell us about your understanding of the situation on the ground as well as the allegations of atrocities and continuing denial of humanitarian access? 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re truly, truly saddened and horrified by the situation in Ethiopia as we speak. Ethiopia was seen as a country that was on the rise. It was a country that many countries were trying to emulate. It was among those fastest-growing countries on the continent of Africa and the new president who – the new prime minister was seen as one of those new generation of leaders that would help the country move forward. So the situation in Tigray was extraordinarily disappointing to have that situation happen in Ethiopia at this time. 

As far as U.S. policy is concerned, I think I can clearly say and hopefully lead this audience’s understanding that what we have been doing in Ethiopia is not just rhetoric. We have been engaged diplomatically, and aggressively diplomatically. The President sent his own emissary to meet with the prime minister. Senator Coons went out there, met with the prime minister, passed strong messages, got commitments from the prime minister. And we saw that some of those commitments were honored; others were not, including the one in which we understood that the Eritrean troops who we – who have been reported to have committed many of the atrocities that we have seen committed there, that those troops would leave. And they are still there. 

The Secretary of State has appointed a special envoy for the Horn whose primary focus is to work on the situation in Ethiopia. He just left the region. He met with the prime minister. He visited Eritrea. He met with the president there for hours. And he is actively engaged with the situation on the ground. 

And then let me just bring it back home, right here to New York, where we have engaged intensively on issues related to Ethiopia. We have brought the issue to the Council. I regret that the Council has not yet had an open meeting on Ethiopia. But we have engaged on the issue and we were able to get out a statement on the situation so that at least, without an open meeting, a statement let the people of Ethiopia who are the victims of the horrific human rights violations know that the international community had not forgotten them. 

AMBASSADOR YADE: Thank you, Ambassador. When President Biden said that American is back in the world, it is a challenging world.

About policy. About policy. It’s not a waste of time. Let’s take the example of peacekeeping operations, UN peacekeeping operations. Let’s take the example of the DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the MONUSCO. Not a single day, Ambassador, without Congolese populations of the eastern DRC protesting, asking that the MONUSCO peacekeepers leave their country. People continue to be killed. Why this part of the country, of this important country, of the DRC, has been suffering so much – 30 years – despite the 20-year presence of the most important U.S. peacekeeping crew, and even despite Dr. Mukwege’s Nobel Prize? 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s interesting you raised DRC. I was just discussing that internally with my staff today to say we need to focus as the U.S. perm rep more attention on what is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it is my intention to focus some of my effort and my voice on the situation there. We need to have a better understanding of what is happening as it relates to the peacekeeping operation there, and how we can ensure that that operation is more effective in addressing the needs of the people, particularly as it relates to providing protection to the population there. And we need to have more discussions with leadership in the country to impress upon them the importance of how they should address the needs of the people of the DRC. 

DRC is an extraordinarily wealthy country, and you rarely hear people use the word “wealthy” when we describe DRC. But it is extraordinarily wealthy. It has an abundance of natural resources. Those natural resources are actually fueling the conflict because they’re not being harnessed for the needs of the people, for building the country. Every time I see the movie Wakanda, I think this is DRC. And I know it was an imaginary story, but imagine a DRC where the resources that are available there are being used to build the country, are being used to educate the people, are being used to provide healthcare and services for the people of DRC, and we would have a Wakanda in the making. And there’s no reason DRC can’t achieve that. They have to make sure those resources that are there are being used for the people of DRC and not being used by those who want to fuel war. 

AMBASSADOR YADE: Exactly, exactly. Ambassador, we have just five minutes left, but before coming to the African American diaspora and its link with the African continent – what is very important to me and to you, I’m sure – I’d just like to ask you a last question about the international affairs, and particularly the question of the democratization of multilateral institutions. You were talking about the African leadership. Maybe the solution of African problems could be African solutions. African nations are 30 percent of UN voices and no permanent seat at the Security Council. They will be, you said that, they will be the largest population soon. What do you think of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for an African country? Which African country should occupy it, Nigeria? South Africa? Maybe Senegal – why not, a French speaking country, do you think this classification of African countries by language bears relevance? But it’s up to you.  

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: UN reform is a very interesting topic here in New York because everybody talks about it but everybody has a different definition of what UN reform entails. And the question of whether there should be an African country on the UN Security Council, my feeling is that’s going to be a decision that – and who that country should be is going to be a decision that Africans themselves should make, and I will sit back and watch the discussion. I’m not going to choose my ancestral country of Nigeria and – 

AMBASSADOR YADE: Why not? Why not? (Laughter.) 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The blood flowing through my veins. And I know that Nigeria would say very quickly that, of course, “We’re the most populous country on the continent of Africa; we are to be the representative of Africa on the Security Council.” Ethiopia might even make that argument as the second most populous country on the continent of Africa. South Africa, a huge player on the continent, clearly believe that they should play that role. And why not Senegal as a French-speaking country, or Cote d’Ivoire? That’s going to be a question that will be extraordinarily difficult to answer.  

But the broader question of UN reform, we all support having discussions that look at how we make the UN more effective and more responsive and more efficient as an organization to address the requirements that we all look to the UN to do. And that’s a conversation that takes place, I think, on almost a daily basis here in New York. 

AMBASSADOR YADE: Yeah, thank you. I think about Senegal that President Macky Sall may have hear you – may hear you on this. (Laughter.) But this conversation is really fascinating, Ambassador, and we could take – talk for a very long time. But there is something, a last question, something I don’t want to miss. It’s about the link between the African American diaspora and Africa. This link must be one of the most tragic and fascinating stories in human history, and yet so little is said about this singular link. You said you are an African woman. That’s a lot for an African woman like me. And from Nkrumah to Malcolm X, from Senghor to W. E. B. Du Bois, from Aimé Césaire to Marcus Garvey, pan-Africanist leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have dreamt of a convergence of the two trajectories. What’s left of that old dream? What do you expect from the African Union, for example, or from Africa in general about the African American community? We had a discussion about George Floyd’s death a few months ago and you told me very interesting things about this. 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re celebrating or commemorating that in a few days, and I have to tell you that the George Floyd death was traumatizing to our entire community. Because we had all experienced that throughout our lives from the Jim Crow era, from slavery through Jim Crow through the Civil Rights Movement, where black men were violently slaughtered. But we’d never seen it like we saw what happened to George Floyd. And I think a couple of things happened there. For the first time, I actually heard Africans, African countries and African leaders actually issue statements on that. 

Now, George Floyd was not the first, and sometimes I would be wondering where were the voices of Africans when events taking place in the United States were affecting their descendants in this country. And we rarely heard those voices. But we did hear those voices after George Floyd.  

I think we have missed an opportunity between the African American, African diaspora community, and the continent of Africa to really harness those relationships to empower each other, and I think we need to look for more opportunities to empower African Americans who really feel a very close and emotional connection to the continent of Africa. But we also don’t always feel that Africa feels that emotional connection to African Americans.  

Our bloodlines are linked and they go back the 400 years, and what we as African Americans are missing is who our bloodlines are. And so this DNA technology that has happened over the past 20 years has allowed some of us to at least tap into, in a very broad way, where we might have come from. And that is very meaningful to all of us. It is very emotional for all of us. And I think the next step in that process is for the African continent to fully embrace their relatives in the United States. 

AMBASSADOR YADE: You’re absolutely right. As a French citizen as well and member of the French diaspora, African diaspora there, we grew up with all these names, not only George Floyd. But every year we did not ignore anything about the African American diaspora, and we know everything about your heroes, your survivors, your struggles 400 – it’s so long, so tiring. But it is interesting to hear that the connection is being built between the continent and its diasporas everywhere in the world, including the American diaspora. 

Ambassador, I have to stop there now because you have a heavy agenda. And I would like to thank you for your generous time today. It has been a privilege to have you and to hear you – to hear your views on Africa and how the continent fits into the Biden administration’s plan. With you representing the United States at the UN, there is much reason to be optimistic. Allow me to also thank our audience for joining us for this Africa Day celebration and for your special – our special team and partners at the Africa Center, which you have been introduced today. As the center embarks on its new chapter, we hope – we really hope you continue to follow us, to follow for events and programming to come, including those high-level conversations. And until next time, thank you. Thank you, Ambassador.  

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much and congratulations on Africa Day. 

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