It’s a rare occasion when leaders of nations come together and speak about their corners of the world. But that’s exactly what happened at last week’s Africa-America Institute (AAI) Anniversary gala in New York City. Held annually during the opening week of the United Nations General Assembly, this year’s celebration saw distinguished African leaders and top diplomats gather to commemorate AAI’s enduring efforts to strengthen human capacity for African development and to link Africa and the diaspora.
AAI dedicated the evening to celebrating the historic anniversaries of both its organization and that of the African Union (AU).
“We have worked alongside the AU since its inception 50 years ago,” said Amini Kajunju, president and CEO of AAI. “Together, we supported the liberation of African countries and fostered development, peace and security in Africa. Today we celebrate the shared experience of bringing a new continent to life.”
AAI did its best to realize that purpose over the course of the evening, as the prime minister of Ethiopia, the president of Namibia and foreign affairs ministers from Ghana and Tanzania gathered to have a “conversation on Africa’s past, present and future” during a generally tame, occasionally buoyant, but always unfettered discussion of the continent.
Panelists issued a call for Africa’s visionary leaders that can give credence to what’s quickly becoming the cliché of “Africa Rising.”
“Ghana is on the move,” says its foreign affairs and regional integration minister, Hannah Tetteh. “Ghana is filled with the energy and vibrancy of youth and is moving slowly, inexorably toward democracy. People will see that there’s a lot of promise in Africa, and they’ll flock to us in the same way that they’re running to China… only it’ll be a nicer place,” she says.
ABC News’s Byron Pitts steered the dinner and awards ceremony. Held at the Hilton Hotel in New York City, awards were distributed for Institutional Legacy, Leadership in Business and Philanthropy, Distinguished Alumnus, and Corporate Excellence to African Union Chair Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Nigerian business titan Tony Elumelu, Sierra Leonean AAI alumni Dr. Kandeh Yumkella and Chevron, respectively.
AAI has a long history supporting Africa. The organization was initially formed to help African students pursue higher education in the U.S.—as visas for highly motivated African students became increasingly available—with support from U.S. government funding. The goal then was to build African leadership and assist Africans in attaining a world-class education and skills that could be applied in post-colonial Africa.
Its leaders call the alumni network AAI’s proudest achievement, and Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Dr. Kandeh Yumkella’s acceptance speech illustrated why.
“Thirty years ago I landed in this country, a young African, 23 years old, full of dreams, but no cash,” said Dr. Yumkella, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All Initiative. “But one guarantee I had was that I had a scholarship to go to one of the best institutions in this country. I availed of that opportunity, and thanks to that, I am where I am today, 30 years later.”
From that AAI-sponsored scholarship, which sent him to pursue a master’s degree from Cornell University, Dr. Yumkella went on to serve as Sierra Leone’s minister for trade, special adviser to two directors-general, representative and eventually director general of UNIDO.
All things considered, the gala served to encourage the American public in general, and African-Americans in particular, to see the vision that Africa’s leaders have for the continent and to buy in.
“You should be part of [it] and say, ‘We want to be there,’ because others are coming [to Africa],” said Dr. Yumkella. “We could be the last frontier to feed the world, so I see a good link with the Black, agricultural universities… Let’s begin the cultural exchanges.”
Bolanle Omisore is a freelance journalist who covers business, energy and environment news from the African continent. Follow her on Twitter @venerableladyB.