Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the Young African Leaders Initiative

Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
New York, NY
July 30, 2014


So, I am the last person standing between you and a night on the town. Trouble.

You have made it, you have made it. You had made it; you actually had made it and then you made it again.

Uh—you have completed an extraordinary program of intensive learning and engagement across our vast and diverse country.

You’ve honed a new range of skills, I gather, in the classroom—how to spur inclusive development, how to build more engaged constituencies. I know you also watched the World Cup out there in the American heartland, and I’m told that in the second round you found yourself cheering for team USA. But I’m not going to tell—your secret is totally safe here in the United States, that’s not going to travel with you back home.

You came here as leaders six weeks ago, already. You’ve been told that your whole lives, I’m sure. You’ll leave even better prepared to empower your communities, your countries, and all of Africa—to shape the bright future that is your shared destiny.

At this Washington summit over the last four days, you’ve heard from a lot of people how ready you are to lead. But again, you know that. You know that just by learning about one another. You know about the schools and hospitals and the websites that your peers here have built; you’ve seen one of your fellows initial blueprint for a rural biogas engine and a bunch of other green initiatives from others and you’ve maybe heard, again, one of the fellow’s hip-hop raps denouncing corruption—I’ve heard that one too.

Um-- after an especially dark couple weeks for me in my day job – one of contentious debates with Russia over the downing of the Malaysian airlines flight— the horrific downing of that flight—and grueling Security Council sessions on the heart-wrenching violence in Israel and Gaza—being here with you this evening on your last night is a true honor and it’s a bright light and has been on my calendar for some time.

So, I’m told you’re a room full of problem solvers. And if I project my own experience onto you, I know that problem solvers at a certain point get impatient with compliments and are interested in challenges. So today, I want to discuss, very briefly, two challenges that await you, which you will be way more familiar with than I am.

The first challenge is to grow African democracy—to grow it wider, to grow it deeper. From a bird’s eye view, the arrows all seem to be trending and pointing in the right direction. In 1990, there were only four electoral democracies in Sub-Saharan Africa; today there are 19.


During that same period, the share of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa deemed “free” or at least “partly free” has nearly doubled, according to Freedom House. Nearly two-thirds of Africans live in these countries today.

Now democracy, as you all know, is about way more than just holding an occasional election. Democracy means government that respects the will and the rights of its people—like the right to speak one’s mind without fear; or the right to gather with others to share ideas. Democracy means building the capable, independent institutions that can help defend human rights when they are threatened—such as impartial courts, accountable police forces, and strong parliaments.

By these standards, Africa on the whole has been moving in the right direction. And looking at the last few decades—both in Africa and beyond—we can say without a doubt that the countries that have walked the path of real democracy are more prosperous and more stable than those that have strayed from it. They have also been less likely to go to war or to suffer the profound costs of corruption. And Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has demonstrated that no genuine democracy has ever experienced a famine.

This democratic growth has been achieved in large part because civil society has worked with governments to create new spaces for dialogue, to expand fundamental freedoms, and to build the independent institutions to defend those freedoms. Many of you would not be here if not for these efforts. And many of you are working to promote these rights and strengthen these institutions today, I know.

To demonstrate all of the ways that you are a part of building democracy and growing democracy deep and wide, I’m going to ask for your help. I’d like to ask some of you to stand.

Would the individuals here among us who work for the media—TV, radio, newspaper journalists, bloggers—would you please stand.


Alright! Stay standing, don’t go anywhere—stay standing. A free and vibrant press plays a critical role in cultivating an educated and informed public. So, it’s all circular—stay standing.

Would the people who identify with a political movement or work for a political party please stand, joining your colleagues. I see a few back there, a few back there. Now, having lots of political parties and movements is one of the most important checks on the dangerous concentration of powers. Pluralism. That’s what these individuals help represent.

Would the human rights defenders among us please stand.


Alright, alright!

The fundamental freedoms and institutions that these activists champion are, as we know, the building blocks of a healthy democracy.

Would the government officials please stand. Alright! Look at you all! See what it takes to make a democracy! From passing more rights-respecting laws to developing the institutions that make those laws a reality, your efforts are critically important to continuing the march toward greater and toward deeper democracy.

Would the people who work for development NGOs please stand. Alright, alright! These organizations have helped tackle some of society’s greatest challenges, from reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS to improving the quality of schools.

And, don’t be shy, would the business leaders and entrepreneurs please stand. Yeah, you’re part of this too! You didn’t think you were getting off so easy? Offering people greater opportunities to earn a dignified living—not just a living, but a living with dignity—has been one of the most powerful forces in lifting millions of people, millions of Africans, out of poverty.

So, you’re it! You’re the future. You’re the checks and balances. You’re the institutions that are going to deepen and broaden democracy across the continent. Give yourselves a round of applause, please!

Thank you so much.

Now, that’s all the good news, what’s unfortunate is in spite of these dedicated efforts and all the challenges that you face every day in your efforts—not only in Africa but all around the world—we are witnessing an alarming crackdown on civil society and fundamental freedoms. In some of the newer democracies around the world, progress has slowed or setbacks have occurred. In countries where citizens have asserted the right to choose their own leaders, democratic transitions have coincided with political instability and a dramatic increase in ethnic and religious conflict. You’ve all seen it. You’ve seen it around you, and you’ve seen it in the newspaper, and on TV and what’s going on around the world. Meanwhile, regimes with a track record of quashing dissent are doubling down on their abusive tactics. And again this is a global phenomenon.

Earlier this month, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading human rights lawyers, Waleed Abu al-Khair, was sentenced to fifteen years in jail. Last week, Russia branded five of the country’s most outspoken NGOs as “foreign agents,” and imposed draconian restrictions on their ability to raise support for their work. And Russia is just one of more than 50 countries—including Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan—that have introduced measures restricting civil society since January 2012. Fifty countries since January 2012!

This crackdown around the world is endangering the hard-fought democratic progress achieved by leaders like you. And if this crackdown spreads, it could threaten the principles and institutions that are critical to lasting stability and prosperity in the region.

There can sometimes be a tendency among those in civil society—journalists, human rights defenders, political activists—to see governments as adversaries in the effort to deepen democracy and expand fundamental freedoms. Of course, sometimes governments can be an obstacle and individuals in governments can pose obstacles. But a lot of times—and I say this to you as someone who used to be both a journalist and a human rights activist and I now sit in government and I’m privileged to serve in President Obama’s cabinet—but most of your counterparts inside government went into service for the same reason you did. They—we—wanted to change the world. That was what it was about! They could have done other things; they could have, you know, gone anywhere, done anything many of them: graduated from college, they had opportunities, but they thought that there was something—many of them—thought that there was something that they could do in government to make their communities better.

People in government can be committed and effective allies to making change. So, to the members of civil society here and—and the journalists here, I say: Don’t make the mistake of dismissing your government colleagues of not here, which I know, I assume isn’t happening, but also when you get back home, who are working for change from the inside. Seek them out. Engage them. Partner with them. Try. You need them and they need you.

And to those of you who serve in government or aspire to—you also have a critically important role to play. You too must reach out and engage, working from the inside to build those partnerships out. You must be proactive about expanding the spaces where democracy thrives, and guard those spaces zealously when they are under assault as is happening increasingly. And you must try at least to persuade others in government not to fall into the trap of seeing civil society as its adversary, or its objectives as undermining your country’s interests. There’s a way forward.

And to all of you, I say: you are citizens. Together, you have a shared stake in building stronger, more accountable, and more responsive and responsible governments. You will all benefit from the continued expansion and deepening of democracy. As one of our greatest presidents, John F. Kennedy, said, “We need nations of citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as a basic purpose of their daily life and who are willing to consciously work and sacrifice for that freedom.”

“The cause of liberty,” he said, “cannot succeed with any lesser effort.” And there’s really something to that.

This brings me to my second challenge: improving Africa’s stability and its security.

As you all know, poverty is one of the greatest sources of instability around the world. And Africa has made tremendous strides toward reducing poverty and chronic underdevelopment, particularly among children. You know all of the impressive statistics: since 1990 malaria mortality has been cut in half, as has maternal mortality; nearly 80 percent of African children now go to primary school—way up from just even a decade ago. I could go on and on. You know the statistics.

Africa is also in the midst of phenomenal economic growth, tremendous growth—the kind that is the envy of many Western countries. Over the next five years—and you all know this—the IMF predicts that 12 of the 20 fastest-growing economies on planet Earth will be African. That’s just awesome.

You also know that more needs to be done to ensure that growth and development reaches the people who need it most—the poorest of the poor—and to ensure that all groups have equal access to the expanding opportunities that growth offers. I know the First Lady passionately argued today on behalf of young girls and education.

One major impediment to inclusive growth is conflict. Countries like the Central African Republic—which our fantastic as Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield mentioned—countries like Central African Republic are witnessing horrific inter-ethnic strife. Others, like Burundi, seem poised on the brink, with many of the ingredients that have led to explosive violence elsewhere, potentially setting back so much of the progress that country has made. And groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab are terrorizing civilians across the region.

To address this problem, Africa needs better trained, better equipped, and more professional military and police forces.

I make this argument as a long-time human rights advocate. And I know that some of you might be saying, “Why you would empower security forces that have too often been associated with abuse and corruption, or indeed, too often have toppled democratically-elected leaders?” And I bet some of you have had the experience of being subjected to harassment—or worse—by the police or by the security forces in your own country.

But let me be clear: I am not advocating for empowering security forces that commit abuses. Nor am I arguing that even the most competent, professional militaries or police alone can bring stability to the region, or to address what are incredibly complex security challenges. However, it is hard to imagine lasting peace without rights-respecting, professional security and police forces becoming or being part of the solution.

Right now African troops and police are playing a crucial role in peacekeeping efforts, in Africa and well beyond. In the last 18 months, African peacekeepers have deployed to stop the bloodshed in Mali, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, joining tens of thousands of other African troops serving in UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Darfur and in Cote d’Ivoire, among others.

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, these missions reflect a resolute consensus on your continent. That consensus holds we must not delay intervening to stop mass violence. In fact, this responsibility is enshrined in the AU charter, which requires non-indifference in the face of atrocities. Think about this for a second. The compact enshrining your union on the continent—enshrining the African Union—makes an extraordinary pledge: We, Africans, promise not to ignore our people’s suffering. That’s the promise enshrined in the charter.

Now plenty of commitments in the letter are never borne out in practice. But many African leaders and many African people are trying to make these commitments real. When Muslim and Christian militias began to kill innocent civilians in the Central African Republic, driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, it was the Economic Community of Central African States, together with France, that put the first boots on the ground—subsequently supplanted by the African Union.

As I told AU troops who I visited with in April in Bangui, African peacekeepers who risk their lives far from home—often their families aren’t even sure what they’re going off to do. They’re far from home, risking their lives to protect somebody else’s family—somebody else’s civilians, and they don’t get big parades when they come home. They don’t get a hero’s welcome. And yet, they put their lives on the line every day, not only in the Central African Republic, but in a number of countries across Africa and beyond in order to try to keep civilians safe. And people around the world are indebted to them for their service, even if it never gets adequately articulated.

So when I talk about ensuring that African militaries are better trained and better equipped, I do so with missions in mind like that. The effectiveness of these troops in saving lives depends not just on volunteering for dangerous and complex missions, but also on how they serve. Because when these troops step up, they can actually change the calculus of warlords and militants. On the flipside, the failure to uphold the commitment to protect civilians in one mission can undermine the legitimacy of all the others.

So this is an endeavor that we need to turn our attention to—it’s something we need to invest in over time. Africa also needs better trained, better equipped, and more professional military and police forces to confront the growing threat posed by sophisticated terrorist groups. And I don’t have to tell you all that. Just a week ago today, Boko Haram set off bombs in Kaduna, Nigeria, killing 42 people.

Failing to confront these threats head-on not only endangers the countries where they occur, but entire regions. Just last weekend, Boko Haram kidnapped the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister of Cameroon in her own country, together with a local religious leader.

To some of you, these groups may seem like a distant or non-existent threat. But here is why they are not:

They’re not just attacking soldiers in fatigues, but also schoolgirls in uniform—girls like many of you growing up who wanted nothing more than an education and an opportunity to end up someplace like here.

They are not just attacking military barracks, but shopping malls.

They are not just killing police on patrol, but people who are just sitting and watching the World Cup.

The innocent schoolgirls, shoppers, and spectators were not the only victims of these attacks. The victims are also their families and communities, and every person who feels fear when he or she walks into a classroom, a store, or a public square.

So, I’ve laid out two significant challenges. I didn’t want to leave you all happy-happy. You know, these are things that are awaiting you when you get back to your home. And I know President Obama has laid out the challenges, and the First Lady, and Secretary Kerry, and Ambassador Rice. And the professors and the experts you have studied with over the past six weeks. Your communities. Your families. By now, it probably feels like everybody is expecting the world from you. The highest of expectations. Now that’s a good thing—by and large—it’s a vote of confidence.

But it’s also a lot of pressure. You feeling the pressure at all? Yeah, seriously, that’s a lot of pressure. After being told time and time and time again that you have the tools to fix problems on the scale that I’ve described and that my colleagues have described; that you’re the ones to do it; and that the moment is now—you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t just hear a little voice in your head asking: What if I don’t have quite what it takes? What if I let all these people down? What if that happens? What if it’s all the other ones who can figure it out, but I’m just, maybe, I don’t quite have it? Well, I have what I hope is welcome news for you.

Every leader who has come before you, and I know them all personally, have heard that voice. Every one of them. [Applause] Every one of them has asked themselves that question, has felt the weight of those expectations. I’ll tell just a personal aside: I call my head a batcave. Do you remember from Batman—where the bats come out? The bats: can you do it, can you do it, can you do it? Everybody has got a batcave and they’ve got a voice in their head.

I’ll give you one better example than me: Gandhi. Long before Gandhi led India to independence, the young Gandhi went to South Africa to serve as a barrister. The year was 1893, and he was on a train to Pretoria, sitting in a first-class sleeper car. A train attendant passed through and, seeing Gandhi, told him he had to move to a lower class car. When Gandhi refused, he was kicked off.

Now, the story of Gandhi’s expulsion is often described as his first act of civil disobedience. What is less often told is what happened immediately after Gandhi was thrown off the train. It was the middle of the night. As he would later write, “It was winter, and winter in the higher regions of South Africa is severely cold. Maritzburg being at a high altitude, the cold was extremely bitter. My overcoat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it, lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered.”

There he was: Gandhi, cold and alone, in a dark room, in an empty railway station, in a foreign land. And sitting there, Gandhi began to doubt himself. He wondered whether he should abandon his trip and return to India, or just get back on the train and sit in the sections reserved for non-whites. Even a man of his tremendous character and legendary fortitude doubted whether he could hack it and he considered giving up.

Of course, we know now that he endured that night, and the following morning he boarded another train. The next time a train attendant tried to remove him from a seat, he not only refused but he wrapped his arms around a brass railing in the train car and wouldn’t let go. He was insulted. He was beaten. But he held firm until the cries of other passengers persuaded the attendant to let up. And Gandhi kept his seat.

When other Indians in South Africa heard what Gandhi had done, they began to come to rail stations to meet him, and told him of similar indignities that they had suffered. Inspired by his example, they too began to resist oppression. Eventually, no one could pull them off.

Now, again, you look like a very confident bunch, but if you are like me, you have found yourself in one of those cold, dark rooms—clouded by doubts, more than once, probably. And let me assure you: you will again. Everyone in this room will. And no matter how well prepared you are; no matter how many workshops you’ve attended and inspiring speeches you’ve heard; no matter how wide and how deep your support network is—you will have to face these moments of doubt alone. And you will need to draw upon something deeper inside of you.

This is what Nelson Mandela meant when he said, "The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

What distinguishes great leaders, like Nelson Mandela, is how they emerge from those cold, dark rooms. History hinges on the women and men who faced down their deepest doubts in those lonely places, and walked out of them more determined than ever. Who have climbed back on that train, taken their rightful seats and refused to give those seats up no matter what.

That is how change is made. You are going to go out there and make it, and I thank you so much for having me be part of this. Thank you.


Thank you.


PRN: 2014/168