Washington — Sierra Leone, Senegal, Malawi and Cape Verde are four African countries that have made remarkable progress in the last few years in establishing peace, building democracy, and laying the groundwork for economic prosperity.
Their leaders - President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, President Macky Sall of Senegal, President Joyce Banda of Malawi and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves of Cape Verde - were in Washington March 28-29 to meet with President Obama and other high-level U.S. officials, to be honored for their successes and to discuss plans for partnerships to sustain their countries' gains.
At a public event sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, the African leaders discussed how they are consolidating democratic gains and promoting economic prosperity in their countries.
Building strong, independent, democratic institutions, nurturing civil society and entrepreneurship, promoting human rights and women's rights, involving youth in leadership roles, and creating investor confidence were the common themes that ran through their discussions.
"We consider the youth factor so important," said Sierra Leone President Koroma, "[that] I have committed my second term to developing youths, ensuring that ... they are empowered with what it take[s] for them to realize the benefits of the new opportunities that are imagined in the country."
Koroma won his second term for the presidency last year in fair and credible elections in which 90 percent of the registered voters participated peacefully, but the country is still healing from its decadelong civil war that ended in 2002.
"We take pride in the fact that we have committed ourselves to moving forward," Koroma said of Sierra Leone's efforts to build a lasting peace within its borders.
He credited the work of Sierra Leone's truth and reconciliation commission, which brought to justice those with the highest responsibility for crimes during the civil war.
Because Sierra Leone's youth were so seriously affected by the war, Koroma said, his government has established a national youth commission charged with coordinating activities having to do with the young people of his country.
"In addition," Koroma said, "I have youths serving as full-time ministers in my government." This, he said, "has given them opportunities to be exposed to leadership. So, it's not about 'leaders of tomorrow.' They are already involved in the leadership process of today."
Education, according to Senegal President Sall, remains "the cross-cutting issue" for his county.
"There's a proverb," he said via interpreter, "that says that if you train a man, you train a citizen. If you train a woman, you train a society because a trained and educated woman has her entire family ... benefit from her status." This means, Sall said, "everybody in society will be educated and trained."
Although Senegal has seven universities within its borders, not everyone can - or should - be a doctor, lawyer or engineer, Sall said. "We need manual workers, we need bakers, we need masons, we need everybody - in need of everything to create a society," he said.
"We must provide vocational training for jobs, for skills, which means that people who do manual labor should be just as respected as people who conduct intellectual work."
Although Senegal's economy is expected to grow by nearly 5 percent this year, Sall said placing more value on nonprofessional employment will generate more job possibilities for youth. "And a modernized agriculture," he added, "should be able to occupy most of our workforce."
Implementing "a very, very unpopular reform program" has not deterred Malawi President Banda, who will face another run for election next year. "I am committed to stay the course because it's the right thing to do," she said.
"We also have implemented social programs with the help of the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to make sure that we cushioned the shock of the devaluation of 49 percent that we were forced to implement last year in order to bring our economy back on track," Banda said. "It also meant introducing austerity measures, including selling the presidential jet and reducing my own salary by 30 percent."
"Poverty eradication is a top on my agenda," Banda said, "and we believe that we will only begin to change the situation of Malawians when we begin to help Malawians create jobs and create wealth. So we are talking about a private-sector-led economy."
"I also insist that women and youth must get support," she said. "Having worked at grass roots for 30 years, what has become very clear to me is that the situation of women and children in Africa is only going to change if we address issues of income at household level."
"Malawi is a success story because in the past year," Banda said, "with all the efforts that we have made, we are expected to grow by 5 percent our economy. We have reduced maternal mortality from 675 to 470. We have 7,000 adult classes going on at the moment."
"Africa is the continent of the future," proclaimed Cape Verde Prime Minister Neves. It can make that claim, he said speaking through an interpreter, only because of its rich past and enormous current pool of talented and capable citizens and abundant natural resources.
But he added that there cannot be economic development without stability, democracy, and political and social plurality. "I think the most important thing we can do for Africa is to build capable governments," he said.
Johnnie Carson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who moderated the panel discussion, said Cape Verde "has risen from the bottom of many development indicators" and that the country's "vibrant two-party political system, its strong rule of law and low corruption also have contributed to Cape Verde having one of Africa's highest literacy rates, best in foreign investment environments and consistently high economic growth."
Governments, Neves said, "become legitimate day-by-day" to the degree that they are able to provide answers to social needs. He emphasized the importance of building public consensus on principal national issues.
"In order to build consensus, you have to have a prior strong political dialogue, bring together the principal political parties, the principal political actors, as well as strengthen the social dialogue with the different social actors - the unions, management, businesses," he said. That also leads to "the creation of an environment that is seen as favorable by all for foreign investment."