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Security director Cindy Courville has her eye on Africa

Cindy Courville

"Good governance and peace and security is a universal priority -- it's a global responsibility," says Cindy Courville (MA '80, PhD '88), former U.S. ambassador to the African Union. Photo: Stephen Voss

Where others see a strife-torn, problem-plagued continent, Cindy Courville, MA ’80, PhD ’88, sees a cradle of potential.

As a director at the National Security Council’s African Affairs office, Courville has her lens trained on Africa. And what she observes—a host of countries working hard on their problems—makes her optimistic about Africa’s future. “Africa is making strides in moving away from conflict,” she says, pointing to stable Botswana, a progressing peace initiative in the Sudan and a smooth transition of government in Kenya.

That said, Africa’s challenges—everything from HIV/AIDS to the rise of Islamic radicals in faltering states—are Courville’s daily preoccupations. After all, the United States’ Africa policy must be responsive to any event that threatens to destabilize a country or any trend that signals opportunity for economic engagement.

Courville’s primary task is to “formulate, coordinate and implement” the four pillars of the administration’s Africa policy: health care, conflict resolution, peacekeeping and economic engagement.

A big part of the job involves assessing unfolding developments in Africa. And that requires that she stay abreast of events worldwide. “When you deal with Africa, you have to be global because the players are from Europe, from China, from Russia, from the Middle East,” she says. That means it’s difficult to anticipate all the ramifications of any event or issue.

Courville comes by her interest in Africa through a circuitous route. A native of Opelousas, La., she attended segregated schools until the 8th grade and was among the first wave of African-American students to integrate the state’s public classrooms. Her experiences stoked an interest in state and local politics. “I always felt like I grew up in the Third World because it was such an eclectic culture,” she recalls, noting that the Louisiana of that era was characterized by a brand of power politics—and a resulting emancipation movement—often seen in the developing world.

After earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Courville enrolled at DU’s Graduate School of International Studies, where her interest was piqued by the liberation struggle that transformed Rhodesia into Zimbabwe. In 1984, she traveled to Zimbabwe on a fellowship, an opportunity that allowed her to get to know government ministers, white landowners and black laborers. The diversity of her contacts, she says, provided a sense of balance that has characterized her approach to research and analysis.

Courville landed in Washington during the last years of the Clinton administration after a 10-year teaching career that culminated at California’s Occidental College. There, she met a guest speaker from the Army War College, who encouraged her international relations students to consider a career with the Defense Department. Courville was intrigued. “I said, ‘Well, what about me?’”

That question was answered 18 months later when she went to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) as a political/military analyst. At the start of the Bush administration in 2001, she moved to the National Security Council as a director responsible for southern and central Africa. In 2003, she organized President Bush’s trip to Africa, accompanying him on its many legs. She then briefly returned to DIA as a team chief responsible for providing a daily compilation of African “all-source” intelligence. The information she collected and synthesized was used on the ground by military attaches and U.S. troops. Occasionally, she even instructed special operations forces on U.S. foreign policy.

Her work today not only puts her at the center of unfolding events, it also gives her a chance to foster engagement with and understanding of a continent that fascinates her. “Africa has been our partner; it’s been a good working partner,” she emphasizes. As such, she adds, it deserves our best efforts.


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