A week ago, the Air Force Research Institute (AFRI) in conjunction with the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) held an all-day symposium on security in Africa.  The symposium was notable on several accounts.  First, it brought together academia as well as government and military officials, unusual for the usually academic only fora of African studies.  Second, the speakers brought not only lifetime interests and expertise in Africa but also firsthand knowledge and experiences.  For example, Dr. Gerard Prunier of the French National Center for Scientific Research (known by its French acronym CNRS, or Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) has lived in Africa for almost forty years, researching and writing about two of the most important countries on the continent, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) and Sudan.  Another speaker was Dr. Robert Lloyd of Pepperdine University, who worked for a nongovernmental organization for ten years, the first half in Southern Africa and eventually working with the United Nations in New York.

The main lesson learned from the symposium, though seemingly self-evident, is that the African continent occupies a large space geographically and comprises a multitude of countries with diverse and difficult histories.  Therefore, Africa requires patient and dedicated long-term study if it is to be understood cogently.  Tragically, this fact hit the symposium head-on when Dr. Prunier announced the death of Ms. Alison Des Forges in the February 12th plane crash outside Buffalo, New York.  Ms. Des Forges was a senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch and team leader for the Great Lakes region.  Dr. Prunier expressed his sadness like this: She was good, damn good; this is a loss for the African studies community worldwide, especially you guys; you don’t have many to lose.

So as Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi gets settled in to the chairmanship of the African Union, the United States–U.S. policymakers, in particular–must be reminded of the complex and varied past of Africa.  Sure, Gaddafi agreed to voluntarily end his clandestine nuclear weapons program in exchange for business deals and official U.S. diplomatic recognition in 2003.  Meanwhile, the Gaddafi regime, long a state supporter of terrorism, continues its anti-American rhetoric and courting of anti-Western states, including Russia.  The topic of the AFRI-ASMEA symposium last week, “Africa: Security Challenges and Strategic Perspectives,” comes at no better time for the United States.