11 April 2012

Africa: Under the Baobab Tree - Africa Loses a Giant in the U.S. Congress

Photo: Constituency for Africa
Congressman Donald Payne and friends in DRC

guest column

On March 6th, Africa and the Africa-focused community was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of Congressman Donald M. Payne (D-NJ), following a battle with colon cancer.

Known affectionately by friends, colleagues and detractors alike as "Mr. Africa", the twelve-term Congressman from Newark, was without a doubt the undisputable champion on Capital Hill on all matters Africa!   Congressman Payne was especially zeroed in on the situation in Sudan, where a civil war had raged for over 40 years resulting in millions of lives lost and millions more suffering the consequences of drought, famine and man-made disaster.   Gracefully, Congressman Payne did live long enough to finally see the South Sudan cede from the North and form the newest nation on the continent on July 9, 2012.   July 9th was clearly one of Mr. Payne's happiest days!

The passing of Congressman Payne has left a "very huge vacuum" for Africa in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and in the U.S. Congress overall.   Rather than building a broad-base of leadership in Congress for addressing the myriad of issues concerning Africa – trade, HIV/AIDS, conflict resolution, corruption – and U.S. – Africa policy, the Black Caucus relegated "all things Africa" into the basket of Congressman Payne!   That being the case, with his sudden demise, we are now left with a situation where there is no obvious choices amongst surviving CBC Members with the passion, the knowledge, the connections and interest to take on an Africa agenda anywhere near the level that Mr. Payne did!

The Non-governmental Organizations and Africa Advocacy groups likewise came to rely on direct relations with Congressman Payne rather than to build effective coalitions and to establish working relationships among ourselves.   Rather than to call on sister organizations to partner with to achieve objectives, everyone simply called on "Mr. Africa" -- Congressman Payne!    Not surprisingly, the state of the Africa constituency today in the United States remains fragmented, isolated and somewhat ineffective for the noble task.

Over the years I had the honor of traveling to Africa with Congressman Payne on a number of missions.   One of those trips was in 1994 to Rwanda and the central African region, as part of a White House sponsored mission to assess the aftermath of the genocide which claimed over one million people!

The mission was proposed to the White House by the Constituency for Africa, as an effort to engage the US civil society in seeking solutions to a truly horrific crisis.

I also traveled with him to war-torn Somalia in 1992, just prior to the landing of US troops which were being sent by President George H. Bush, to address an unmerciful drought and famine that had gripped the country resulting in a tremendous loss of life!

In 1998, I went out on a mission with Congressman Payne and several other Members of Congress and other experts on Africa trade, on a five-country tour to promote the new African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton.

Without a doubt, Congressman Payne's death will be deeply felt by Africans from the Cape to Cairo!   His quiet diplomacy is indeed a loud beacon call for all who care about Africa to scale-up their efforts and to work to bring peace, security, trade and economic develop to the region.

Melvin P. Foote is the Founder, President and CEO of the Constituency for Africa (CFA), a Washington, DC based education and advocacy organization in support of Africa's development.   Mr. Foote has more than 35 years continuous high level engagement on Africa and African Diaspora development issues in the United States and in Africa.

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