Sierra Leone and Senegal Heads of State Visit Yale

Africa, as home to some of the youngest nation-states globally, a rapidly growing[1] and urbanising[2] population, is a continent home to a diverse array of challenges and opportunities. Recognising the emergence of the African continent as a locus for global economic and cultural influence, Yale President Peter Salovey founded the Africa Initiative in 2013 to encourage stronger ties between the university and the continent. Amongst its objectives is to bring African leaders to New Haven to share their ideas and objectives regarding the past, present, and visionary future of the continent. This week, two West African Heads of State made such visits: Presidents Julius Maada Bio and Macky Sall, of Sierra Leone and Senegal, respectively. Both addressed common challenges faced by African nations, including underdevelopment of industry and infrastructure, inequities in global trade and representation, and environmental concerns related to climate change; yet ultimately, both stressed the potential of the African continent to “leapfrog” these development challenges and emerge as a global leader in innovation and socio-economic development.

The economic challenge of the African continent is a multi-temporal one: as President Bio noted, in the past Africa was essentially “left behind” in previous industrial revolutions, and President Sall added that inequitable global trade continues to exacerbate Africa’s economic trials. For President Bio, then, the solution lies in technological innovation and investment in human capital: African nations must take advantage of their growing labour force and “prepare” their citizens to make use of the latest technological innovations such that the African continent may lead the upcoming fourth technological revolution instead of being left behind once again. His focus is on using technologies such as digitised databases and drones to make agriculture, healthcare and education systems more efficient, in alignment with his objective to invest in education, food security and healthcare as core tenets of human capital development. President Sall takes a more market-based approach to the challenge, arguing that African nations must seek to reconstruct their relations with their ex-colonists, which until now have typically been characterised by paternalism, into partnerships from which both sides can equally benefit. He further stressed that the UN should be reconfigured such that African nations are given equal representation on the scale of international cooperation efforts.

Another key concern for both presidents is the impact of climate change on their nations, with both noting that the desertification of the Sahel region is impacting livelihoods of their citizens. President Bio, once again, hopes to use technology as a tool to combat this challenge, using drone footage to observe deforestation patterns; while President Sall remarks that global environmental injustice requires that nations responsible for contributing the vast majority of global carbon dioxide emissions should be willing to provide financial assistance for those nations who suffer the effects of climate change but do not significantly contribute to the problem (Africa contributes only about 3% of global emissions).

Despite these pressing challenges faced by the African continent, both presidents emphasised that we must seek to shift the narrative around Africa from one of tragedy and oppression and acknowledge the immense potential in the continent and its people, as espoused in President Sall’s plan “Le Sénégal Emergent” (“Senegal Rising”). President Bio looks to the potential of development of human capital as a means toward meaningful socio-economic development; President Sall particularly cited the African Union’s plan to create an African common market as an opportunity for the continent to cooperate as never before to the end of more equitable trade relations. When asked about their attitude toward the return of members of the African diaspora, both presidents eagerly stated their nation’s willingness to welcome diaspora Africans to return; and their commitment to provide resources for returnees.

These short presentations left much opportunity for further reflection on current African policy priorities: how should the continent navigate the reformation of their relations with colonising nations? How do African states provide the capacity for members of the diaspora to return, and support themselves and their individual objectives on the continent? What can be done to encourage nations around the globe to take greater action on climate change, and to ensure greater environmental justice? However, whatever questions remain, one message from these Heads of State is clear: we must all, in the words of President Sall, engender Afro-Optimism.


[1] United Nations, “Population,” United Nations Organisation (2019).

[2] Jamal Saghir, “Urbanisation in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 2018.

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