NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — U.S. first lady Jill Biden said Friday that she feels a kinship with Africans during her sixth visit to the continent, telling The Associated Press in an exclusive interview that she wants to support nations fighting for democracy — “just like I feel we’re doing in the United States.”
“We cannot take things for granted, because it’s such a precious system of government,” she said. “We can’t be complacent. We have to keep fighting for it.”
The first lady opened her trip earlier this week in Namibia, a young democracy, where on Friday she delivered a rousing speech to more than 1,000 students. She told them the democracy their parents and grandparents fought for is now theirs to defend and protect.
In the interview, Biden said that when first lady Monica Geingos invited her to visit, “I thought there’s no better place to go than to go to Namibia” to “encourage the youth to get involved, stay involved, fight for their democracy, just like I feel we’re doing in the United States.”
Africa’s 54 countries are a mix of sometimes fragile democracies in places like Nigeria, which has an election this weekend; and more troubled nations like Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Chad and Sudan that have seen coups in recent years; or Uganda, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, where presidents have been clinging to power for decades. Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990.
American democracy was severely tested after President Joe Biden’s election in 2020 when the incumbent, Donald Trump, repeatedly told lies about the election being stolen from him. Hundreds of his supporters who believed his conspiracy theories rioted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a violent attempt to block Congress from certifying Biden as the new president in an unprecedented effort to thwart the customary peaceful transfer of power.
In her speech, Biden said women’s and girls voices need to be more prominent in the debate about democracy.
“As the first generation to be born into a free Namibia, the legacy that your parents and grandparents created is now yours — yours to defend and protect,” Biden told a largely student audience at Namibia University of Science and Technology.
“Yours to grow. And as we look forward, we must remember that the fight for democracy has no end.”
Biden later Friday moved on to Kenya, the second and final stop on her trip.
She highlighted the plight of women and girls on her earlier stops in Namibia. In Kenya, she plans to use her stature to draw attention to a devastating drought across the Horn of Africa that is leaving people hungry and jeopardizing millions of lives. She had visited in 2011 during a severe famine.
“I’m hoping that, you know, that people do pay attention,” Biden said in the AP interview. “To see the drought and what I saw before with, just, children who have no food and they can’t have livestock, they can’t grow crops and to be starving, and so I’m trying to really create awareness and, and just see how far things have come in the 10 years, really, that I’ve been gone.”
The first lady, who has spent time in more than a half dozen of Africa’s countries, said she feels “really comfortable” on the continent.
“One thing I’ve learned is that each country is so different — the people are different, the culture is different, the religion is different, the language,” she said. “But, you know, we all share so many of the same values.
“And I think that’s important, that we’re looking for stability, a stable government. We’re looking for, you know, representation of the people. We’re looking for leaders who have character and integrity, and that’s what I think we want to foster. And they do, too.”
She said the Biden administration is not “isolationist like we were becoming in the last administration,” a reference to Trump and his America-first posture.
“We are reaching out and saying, ’Hey, we’re a global society. Take our hands. Let’s do this together,” she said of the current administration.
Biden has worked with young people throughout a 30-year-long teaching career and said in her address to the students that they must exercise their rights to disagree and to dissent, to speak up when they see injustice and support leaders who listen to their concerns.
She noted that, in the United States, “we are still defending and strengthening our democracy, almost 250 years after our founding.”
“It’s not easy. Democracy isn’t easy. It takes work,” she said during the rousing, rally-style speech. “But it’s worth it, because democracy delivers.”
Afterward, she worked her way around the courtyard in a way that she rarely do to shake hands and pose for selfies with scores of excited students. They cheered at one point when she danced briefly to a drum-heavy African beat.
Associated Press writer Evelyne Musambi in Nairobi contributed to this report.