B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
Former ambassador to head new African research center
By Hope Green
To judge by headlines alone, Africa's modern history would appear as an ongoing parade of horrors: famine, civil wars, racial strife, and an AIDS epidemic that has claimed millions of lives.
But as U.S. ambassador to Tanzania for the past two years, Charles Stith saw a much more complex and hopeful picture emerging in Africa. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital, where gleaming new office towers turned the heads of foreign investors Stith chaperoned around the city.
"There were about 30 developments in and around Dar es Salaam and lots of buildings going up along the skyline," says Stith. "That's a picture that's worth a thousand words, because it says that here's a town that's on the move. Here's a town where people are investing money. Here's a town where people see that the best years are yet ahead of them."
Another sign of Tanzania's economic boom was a historic 1999 four-city tour of the United States by President Benjamin Mkapa. With him was the largest delegation of Tanzanian businesspeople ever to accompany an African head of state on a visit to a Western country. "They impressed everyone at every stop," says Stith, who coordinated the trip.
With varying degrees of success, other African republics have in the past decade moved closer to Western models of government and commerce. Their progress toward that end will be the focus of the Boston University African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC), a new academic enterprise Stith was recently hired to launch and direct.
The timing of the center's opening is opportune, he says, for not since the late 1950s and early 1960s, when African nation-states were making the transition from colonialism to independence, has there been such an era of profound change in sub-Saharan Africa.
"A hundred years from now, if people want to understand the shape of things in the subcontinent -- why some countries flourished and others floundered -- I'm absolutely convinced that it's this point in history that they will have to reference," says Stith, who joined BU in March as a special assistant to President Jon Westling. "For Boston University to be potentially the epicenter of study for this particularly significant period in history is very exciting."
As its name suggests, the center will serve as a repository for the documents of democratically elected African leaders. Stith will be in charge of a Public Papers/Private Conversations Project, traveling to Africa at least twice a year to collect the public documents of elected officials and other important figures and interview them on current affairs in their countries.
Other components of APARC will be an African Presidents in Residence Program and an annual African Leaders State of Africa Report. In the residence program, former leaders of African democracies will live and work at BU for periods of up to two years. The annual report, says Stith, will provide a much-needed commentary on the state of affairs in Africa by people who are actually helping to shape events there.
The center's first public gathering will be a fall 2001 symposium entitled Democratization and Free Market Reform in Africa: After the African Growth and Opportunity Act, What's Next? The act, which President Clinton signed into law last May, gives African countries incentives to establish a market-based economy and implement a democratic form of government.
Future plans for APARC call for a lecture series, academic conferences, and a visiting professors program.
Eventually the center, now housed at 147 Bay State Road, will move to a new facility and house its archives in a presidential library open to scholars and the public. "In a city like Boston," Stith says, "with hundreds of thousands of students, and with millions of visitors a year, to have something like this would be a huge boon to helping people understand contemporary Africa."
But the benefits go beyond education. The center, Stith writes in a draft mission statement, "can help bridge the knowledge gap so critical to increased cooperation and expanded engagement between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa." Such cooperation, he says, will reduce the threat of terrorism and help leaders more effectively address such issues as HIV, energy, the environment, technology, and trade.
Prior to his diplomatic post, Stith was minister of the Union United Methodist Church in Boston and founding president of the Organization for a New Equality, a group that played a seminal role in giving African-American families access to mortgages in the Boston area.
"President Clinton said my skills in community investment and urban economic empowerment were what led him to ask me to go to Tanzania," Stith explains, "because those were issues he wanted to focus on continentwide as part of his African Growth and Opportunity Act."
Four years earlier, in April 1994, Stith had served as a member of Clinton's official delegation monitoring the South African election.
Events in Africa during the summer Stith was confirmed as ambassador might have frightened off some prospective diplomats. On August 7, 1998, terrorist bombs went off within five minutes of each another in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 200 people and wounding nearly 5,000. Stith, who had been confirmed in July, was concluding a family vacation when he heard the news.
"Clearly, when you get a call that says, 'Mr. Ambassador, your embassy has just blown up,' it has a way of making you stop and reflect," he says. "After offering prayers for the victims, my family and I sat and talked about what had happened and what it might mean. We understood there would be increased security measures in place that would affect our lifestyle, but my wife and two kids agreed that more than ever, it was important we were going. We felt my years of pastoral experience would be a plus, because here was a community that was in pain physically and emotionally. We felt that more than before, my skills would be valuable."
Tanzania is a good laboratory for learning about Africa's new economics, he says, because it is the only African country belonging to two international trade alliances, the East African Community and the South African Development Community. At Stith's urging, Tanzania signed the first-ever open-skies agreement between an African nation and the United States, a pact that removed restrictions on airline service between the two countries, and he also assisted the Tanzanian government in applying for debt relief from the World Bank.
Stith refers to a number of countries as anchor states in the move toward democratic reform, among them Tanzania, South Africa, Zambia, Ghana, Senegal, Botswana, and Nigeria.
It is remarkable to note the strides some African countries have made toward democracy, says Stith, although many are less than 50 years old and not long ago, the United States and the Soviet Union were using them as ideological battlegrounds in the Cold War. During that era, he says, "we certainly did nothing to enhance their progress.
"If we get beyond the stereotypes and the news coverage, which tend to focus on 'Africa the problem,'" he says, "we can start to appreciate not only the enormous promise and potential of these countries, but also the significant progress a lot of them have made."