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Jimmy Carter: the American president whose commitment to Africa went beyond his term

Mar 15, 2023 10:00AM ● By The Conversation via Reuters Connect

Image: Jimmy Carter, Wikimedia Commons

The office of former US president Jimmy Carter (98), who has been frail for some time, has announced that he will no longer seek hospital treatment for his ailments. He has instead opted for hospice care at his modest home in the rural farming village of Plains, Georgia, close to where he was born.

His opposition to racism and his support for human rights are legendary, made more compelling by his life-long commitment to live among rural Georgians where segregation was severe and discrimination remains prevalent today. This enduring commitment to non-racialism and human rights at home also shaped his interest and engagement in Africa.

We discussed African affairs often during the nine years (2006-2015) when I directed the Carter Centre Peace Programmes. My most frequent trips to Africa for the centre were to lead election observation missions, in which he was keenly interested.

His views on Africa can be assessed from three angles:

Africa policies pursued during his presidency, 1977-1981

Programmes in Africa with the Carter Centre while he was its leader, 1982-2015

His moral determination to reckon with racism.

In her book Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War Nancy Mitchell, a professor of history at North Carolina State University, analyses in 900 pages how Carter’s leadership and core values, discussed in the third section, influenced his approach to southern African. But Michell reminds us that in the 1970s Africa was the hottest theatre of the Cold War.

The book’s subtitle, however, highlights a significant shift of emphasis skilfully effected by Carter and key to his success in helping liberate Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) by treating all sides, even “Communists”, with respect. Carter’s behind-the-scenes role in supporting the 1979 Lancaster House agreement, which led to Zimbabwean independence, was among his greatest diplomatic achievements.

Many years later, I was told by a close advisor to longtime Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe that, had Carter won a second term, he said he would work to raise US funds to facilitate a key element of the peace accord, land reform based on ‘willing seller, willing buyer’.

Portrait of Jimmy Carter during his presidential term 

The election of Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980, however, resulted in a very different US policy of “constructive engagement” in southern Africa. It was widely perceived among anti-aparthed groups in the US and presumably in Africa as helping to ease the pressure of the Carter era against White minority rule.

Southern Africa remained Carter’s top priority, as Mitchell notes:

Given their druthers, the Africa specialists in the Carter administration would have devoted their full attention to resolving the problems of Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa. (p. 253)

Carter told me several times that he spent more time pursuing peace in southern Africa than he did on the Middle East, and having read now declassifed files in the Centre library, I agree.

Africa has claimed the lion’s share of resources and energy since President and Mrs Rosalynn Carter founded their centre in partnership with Emory University 41 years ago, to work in poor nations, where colonialism and racism, had curtailed growth, opportunity and the sense of shared humanity. In 2015, their grandson Jason Carter, who lived in South Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and speaks one of the country’s 11 official languages, isiZulu, was elected chair of the centre.

Africa remains the region of the Carter Centre’s biggest and most enduring commitments, under its motivating slogan “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope”. According to the 2021 financial report, the centre’s annual fundraising campaign raises about US$300 million annually. It now operates with a core staff in Atlanta of about 230 and field staff, mostly in Africa, of some 3,100. The centre also has an endowment fund in excess of US$1 billion.

The Carter Centre’s most significant contributions to development have been in the field of African public health, to end, mitigate and prevent six diseases, among them malaria and river blindness.

Democracy is the biggest of the peace programmes; election observation and support claim the greatest amount of resources and personnel.

Jimmy Carter in 2019

Motivations for Carter’s interest in Africa are deeply personal. A brief address at a staff celebration of his 90th birthday revealed his own reckoning with race at home. This, I believe, may have driven his long involvement in Africa.

Having grown up in tightly segregated rural Georgia, he recalled that his family was:

completely surrounded by African-American children, with whom I played and worked in the fields and hunted and fished in the woods. And I got to know, eventually and slowly, the difference between a privileged group and the ones around us who were not permitted to vote, or to serve on a jury, or to go to a decent school.

He added:

I think this, more than anything else, has shaped my life — partially because of the guilt I still feel in not having recognised that disparity between us early on. I took it for granted that if the Supreme Court and the Congress and the American Bar Association and the universities and the churches said it was OK for white people to be superior, that was OK with God. And I think that that experience has been the most overwhelming factor in shaping my life …

Carter, as I discovered, can be a hard man to work for. He holds himself and those around him to extremely high moral and ethical standards. As president, he kept the peace, told the truth, and obeyed the law. Carter also promised never to profit from the presidency – a pledge, from my observation, that he has scrupulously honoured.

His record should remind all democrats, including those in Africa, to hold leaders accountable to similar standards. For as he declared during his 2002 Nobel Peace lecture:

The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices. God gives us the capacity for choice.

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