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July 4th: Celebrating Freedom and Diversity | By Mary Beth Leonard, U.S Ambassador to Nigeria

Op-Ed by Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard

As the United States celebrates 246 years of independence this year, we take time to recognize the key pillars of democracy. Our thoughts turn to freedom of expression and respect for human rights, the rule of law, and the role of all citizens in determining the country’s future. For Americans, celebrating Independence Day usually means reminiscing about our past and reflecting on what unites us – our principles, our history, and our shared humanity. After nearly three years as the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, I am struck by how similar Nigeria and the United States are, as nations that seek to embrace diversity, build unity, and recommit to strengthening democracy. That shared commitment produces a bond between our countries that goes beyond governments. It is equally anchored in cultural and commercial relationships, as well as in people- to-people partnerships.

This week as we observe the treasured U.S. Independence Day holiday, we also welcome the Morehouse College Glee Club to Nigeria to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its performance in this country in 1972. The Glee Club will perform Nigerian and American music, and reach out to Nigerian youth and musicians. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Morehouse College have a long history of educating African American teachers and professionals as well as international students. These institutions have helped shape leaders in the United States, and across the world. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated from Morehouse College in 1948. Notably, Nigeria’s first president Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe graduated from Lincoln University in 1930, and encouraged Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, to study there as well. Influenced by the American civil rights movement, President Azikiwe, President Nkrumah, and other African leaders played critical roles in Africa’s independence movement.

HBCUs are a pillar of strength that was born from our painful struggles for equality. The United States continues to strive to strengthen our own imperfect union. We also seek to support Nigeria on its path toward a more equitable future for all its citizens. We partner with Nigeria to strengthen health services, support educational institutions, boost agricultural production, provide security training
and military equipment, and encourage entrepreneurship and private sector engagement – to name a few! And in the coming year, the world will be focused on Africa’s largest democracy as Nigerians go to the polls. In the lead up to the election season, we are reminded of the importance of robust debate, freedom of expression, and space for the many diverse voices in Nigeria to be heard. Your voice and your actions matter. Reject vote buying and violence. Ask candidates questions about the issues you care about. Vote!

As we lift up our voices and sing with the Morehouse College Glee Club this week, we celebrate a vision for our future defined by diversity, equality, partnership, and hope.

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