Why Africa Matters to Albuquerque

Only a slice of the U.S. public considers the impact of the U.S. election outcome on foreign affairs. An even smaller fraction thinks about how it will affect U.S.-Africa relations. Indeed, according to a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in January 2020, only 1 percent of respondents believed Africa was the most important region for U.S. national security. In Albuquerque, however, Africa and the African diaspora are far from irrelevant and unimportant. The city’s defense and technology industries, as well as its political representatives, are engaged in African issues. These national security interests, underpinned by Albuquerque’s official, academic, and personal ties, demonstrate why Africa matters to Albuquerque.

From Sandia National Laboratories to the New Mexico National Guard, Albuquerqueans are advancing U.S. interests and contributing to peace and security in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 60 Sandia employees worked to mitigate the effects of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Sandia National Laboratories staff have trained South African and Congolese officials on best practices for nuclear safety and protection, as well as worked with African counterparts on solar energy projects. Similarly, several technology and defense companies that have a presence in Albuquerque are active in Africa. Intel Corporation sources tantalum, gold, tin, and tungsten from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda for its computer chips. It has established a regional hub in Kenya, and has committed to train 150,000 Nigerian teachers to advance digital inclusion and grow the African market. In 2017, Honeywell International signed an agreement to “provide full avionics and mechanical spares support and retrofit, modification and upgrade solutions” for Boeing and Airbus aircraft in Africa. In addition, the New Mexico National Guard deployed 400 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 200th Infantry to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa late last year.

It is perhaps no surprise then that Albuquerque’s mayor, governor, and senators have strong personal and professional ties to the continent. Mayor Keller’s director of planning David Campbell is a former diplomat who served in Mauritius, and the mayor’s wife Elizabeth Kistin Keller conducted her doctoral work in southern Africa, studying water resource management. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose nephew is deployed to Djibouti, added her voice to several African issues during her time in Congress, including on Sudan and on Boko Haram in Nigeria. The state’s current senators, Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, have also weighed in on a variety of important topics. I had the honor of delivering expert testimony at a hearing on China’s role in Africa before Senator Heinrich. Senator Udall has raised the importance of conservation and climate change in Kenya and Botswana.

Albuquerque’s national security interests are matched by the city’s people-to-people engagement. Albuquerque has sister city relations with Lusaka, and ABQ BioPark has collaborated with the Zoo National d’Abidjan in Cote’d’Ivoire. Albuquerqueans are doing significant work in public health, from the University of New Mexico’s research activities in Kenya to the African diaspora’s prominent roles in the city’s hospitals and treatment facilities. Ted Parnall, a former dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law, served as resident legal adviser in Liberia, Senegal, Ethiopia, and Madagascar, among other countries. In addition, many of the city’s churches and faith-based institutions have longstanding partnerships in countries such as Malawi.

With Vice President Biden’s election, there is an opportunity to learn from and build on Albuquerque’s ties to sub-Saharan Africa. The measure of Africa’s importance to the United States should come from a community’s political, professional, and personal connections to the region. In the case of Albuquerque, it is evident that Africa matters.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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Judd Devermont