Congressman Donald Payne’s African legacy

Filed under OPINION

It’s been more than a month since the passing of Congressman Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) and everyone is scrambling to see if anyone can fill his large shoes.

Payne was affectionately known as “Mr. Africa,” and for good reason. The 12-term congressman from Newark was without a doubt the undisputable champion on Capitol Hill on all matters pertaining to Africa.

Congressman Payne gave special attention to the Sudan, where a civil war has raged for years. The result has been the loss of millions of lives and millions more suffering the consequences of drought, famine and man-made disaster. He lived long enough to finally see the South Sudan cede from the North and form the newest nation on the continent last July.

No heir
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 CBC relied on Payne to serve as point person on Africa.  Consequently, there is no CBC member who acts as his natural heir. No one has Payne’s passion, knowledge, connections or interest in taking on Africa’s agenda.

The non-governmental organizations and Africa advocacy groups likewise overly relied on Congressman Payne rather than to build effective coalitions and to establish working relationships among us. Rather than to call on sister organizations to partner with to achieve objectives, everyone simply fell back on the reliable  “Mr. Africa.” Not surprisingly, the Africa constituency in the United States remains fragmented, isolated and largely ineffective.

Traveled with Payne
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 that claimed over one million people. The mission was proposed to the White House by me and my organization, the Constituency for Africa, as an effort to involve the U.S. 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 U.S. troops 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 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) signed into law by then-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 development to the region.

Melvin P. Foote is the founder, president and CEO of the Constituency for Africa, an education and advocacy organization supporting Africa’s development.

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