Few people realize this, but Hilda Suka-Mafudze speaks for more people than any other foreign ambassador in Washington.
As the African Union’s chief envoy to the United States, this diplomat from Zimbabwe represents the continent’s 1.5 billion inhabitants. That’s almost twice the population of the US and the 27-member European Union combined. It even exceeds that of India, which surpassed China last month to become the world’s most populous country, with 1.43 billion citizens.
On May 25, delegates from across Africa gathered in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the alliance that would later become the AU.
Originally established to fight colonialism and apartheid, the AU today exists “to reaffirm the importance of consolidating democracy and good governance across Africa,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Yet critics say the 55-member club lacks clout and has become increasingly irrelevant—accusations that sound remarkably similar to those leveled against another regional body, the Washington-based Organization of American States.
Last month, Suka-Mafudze spoke with the Washington Diplomat from her art-filled office fronting Wisconsin Avenue in the heart of Georgetown. The AU has had its mission here since 2014, seven years after inaugurating its embassy at a different location on Pennsylvania Avenue.
At the top of her list of concerns: famines and droughts sparked by climate change, and Africa’s desperate need for infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the world’s 10 poorest countries—as ranked by the World Bank by annual per-capita GDP—are all African.
“From time immemorial, Africa had always fed itself. Now, Africa is suffering the consequences of climate change. I’ve seen this personally in Darfur,” she said. “And the challenges of infrastructure come from all corners: rail, airports, energy and roads. How can we integrate African continental free trade without those basics?”
AU cannot stop Sudan’s latest civil war
A career diplomat whose two decades of experience spans the African continent, Suka-Mafudze has long been known as a “quiet champion of democracy.” Suka-Mafudze has traveled to 32 of the 55 countries she now represents as AU’s ambassador in Washington.
Among other achievements, she was Zimbabwe’s ambassador to both Sudan and South Sudan, and more recently, Malawi.
While in Malawi, Suka-Mafudze chaired the group of 16 regional ambassadors representing the South African Development Community, settling contested national elections, among other responsibilities. From 2000 to 2005, Suka-Mafudze served as one of the few women in Zimbabwe’s parliament, where she was an influential voice on behalf of poor people, women, youth, children and other marginalized groups.
The ambassador has a BS in sociology and gender development from Women’s University of Africa, located in Marondera, Zimbabwe, and an MA in international relations from England’s University of Leicester. Besides her native English, Suka-Mafudze—who is married with four children—speaks French and several southern African languages including Shona and Ndebele.
“I was ambassador in Sudan from 2009 to 2019, and before that, I was a member of parliament representing a rural constituency in my country. Most of my work there was to build consensus. That’s where I cut my teeth,” she explained. “I was one of only five ambassadors from the opposition, and there wasn’t any meaningful opposition at the time [to longtime dictator Robert Mugabe, who died in 2019 at the age of 95]. I worked hard and became one of Mugabe’s few professional ambassadors.”
While stationed in Khartoum, Suka-Mafudze helped open Zimbabwe’s embassy in Juba after South Sudan won its independence in 2011. But the civil war now engulfing Sudan has quickly spiraled into Africa’s most urgent foreign policy crisis. The fighting that began April 15 between forces loyal to two rival generals has left hundreds dead and thousands injured.
In addition, dozens of countries including the United States have evacuated their diplomats and closed their embassies in Khartoum, which has been devastated; previous civil wars largely spared the Sudanese capital from violence.
“Sudan is such a beautiful country, so rich in history, and it was my home for 10 years,” Suka-Mafudze recalled. “It makes me sad that all this is being destroyed.”
Suka-Mafudze: Africa is not ‘backsliding’ on democracy
The AU has been powerless to stop the fighting, as has the United States and Saudi Arabia, which have been mediating talks between the two warring factions in Jeddah.
Despite that war—and despite recent military coups and attempted coups in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Niger—Suka-Mafudze disputes the idea that Africa has been backsliding on democracy.
“Africa is taking the democracy route. It may be a long way, but I don’t mind,” the ambassador said, adding that she remains hopeful—even in the case of her native Zimbabwe, whose people are still suffering from the brutality of the decades-long Mugabe dictatorship.
“The AU is working to shape itself as a sort of EU. It’s different, of course, but in some ways the same. A common currency is feasible,” she told us. “We have already come up with a single air transport system, and we need FDI [foreign direct investment] around that issue. In order to grow, we must take advantage of economies of scale.”
The ambassador said that 60% of Africa’s people are under 30, and that the continent’s population is expected to hit 2.4 billion by 2050.
“We really pride ourselves on our young people. We are vibrant, raring to go, and coming up with innovations to make a difference in the world we’re living in,” she said. “If you’re not investing in Africa, you’re not actually looking at the future—because the young people we’re talking about are not only going to save Africa. These people are going to drive industrialization even in other places.”
To that end, Suka-Mafudze praised the upcoming US-Africa Business Summit, set for July 11-14 in Botswana. Themes to be discussed at this year’s gathering including infrastructure, telecom, healthcare, energy, mining and manufacturing. More than 1,000 business leaders are expected to attend, along with the heads of state of Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Ambassador resists US pressure on anti-gay legislation
Despite the warm words, African governments don’t see eye-to-eye with Washington on many issues, beginning with China. Aside from aggressive Chinese military actions toward Taiwan and elsewhere, some Africans have spoken out against the disregard for environmental standards and local labor laws shown by China, which now ranks as the continent’s top trading partner.
Yet Beijing’s growing involvement in Africa, the ambassador said, “doesn’t concern me at all, because they’re coming to invest in our development. Africa is so vast that all of us fit in there. With our own needs in so many areas, I would think the doors are open to embrace everyone.”
Before wrapping up, we asked the AU envoy about a particularly sensitive subject: gay rights. Same-sex relations are already illegal in nearly African country, and in late May, Uganda passed one of the world’s harshest anti-gay laws. Among other things, it calls for life in prison for anyone convicted of homosexuality and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”—which is defined as same-sex relations involving children, those who are HIV-positive or any other vulnerable people.
In response, President Biden called the new law “shameful” and a “tragic violation of universal human rights,” suggesting it could hurt US-Uganda business ties, including possible sanctions and Uganda’s continued eligibility under the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
Yet Suka-Mafudze pointed out that Colorado enacted the first US anti-discrimination law based on sexual preferences in 1974—barely half a century ago—and that only in the past few years has the United States permitted same-sex marriage at the national level, signaling widespread acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.
“Africa is made up of 55 diverse countries with deep cultural traditions. You can’t expect it to change in a few years when it took the US decades to get where it is,” she said. “As we work to develop thriving democracies, Africa’s people will decide how to handle this issue in due time.”