interview:Donald Payne Talks About Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Health, Agriculture and Global Warming

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Donald M. Payne, who has represented New Jersey’s 10th District in the United States House of Representatives since 1989, chairs the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health.

He is widely viewed as the leading expert on African affairs in the Congress. He has traveled throughout the continent, including two recent trips to east and southern Africa. In a series of recent interchanges with AllAfrica, he discussed those trips and outlined his views on many of the most pressing African issues. Excerpts:

What direction do you think U.S. relations towards Sudan should take at this moment? Specifically, how should the administration respond to the criminal indictment of President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal court, while trying to bring peace to Darfur and support full implementation of the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 between north and south Sudan]?

The Sudanese regime has been in total defiance of the world. Since the indictment, al-Bashir has been even more defiant, saying, in effect, ‘let me show you what I think.’ He has visited several African countries and countries in the Middle East to show that the indictment means nothing.

There are some who argue that the indictment should be withheld for a year. Under some circumstances that may make sense. However,  al-Bashir, who knew that a special prosecutor had been investigating him, had several years to change the evil that he was doing. But he didn’t and  so there is no justification for a reprieve.

You believe the current sanctions should remain in force?

I would hope that President Obama’s administration is not thinking about relaxing sanctions or making any kind of concessions to the government of Sudan. I would hope that we are not going to allow Bashir to continue to reign terror on the people of Darfur and also not really comply with the CPA.

In the same region, there is the continuing problem of Somalia, best known now around the world for the piracy taking place off its shores – but also a country that has been without a functioning central government for almost two decades. Why did you decide to go to the capital, Mogadishu, in May, when others have not gone and security experts warned you against making the trip?

Somalia has been isolated – actually abandoned – by most of the world. It is amazing that Somalia continues to exist as a country. There is no real investment, no true economy, no viable system, but the Somali people continue to live, to move forward, to have hope.

Since it has been about 12 to 15 years since any U.S. official has gone to Mogadishu, I thought it was time for a visit. Ted Dagne [Africa Specialist at the Congressional Research Service] and I planned a trip. We worked with the African Union, the Ugandan general in charge, the government of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed [the current president of the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia], the Djibouti president and his security people. We were fairly sure we would have a safe and good trip, and, in fact, that is what occurred.

We met with Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, with the prime minister and the entire cabinet. We went around the city. We saw children out in the street, we saw men and women on their way to various places. We saw buses, many in need of repair, many bombed-out buildings. The scene was quite normal – no weapons around. We did not even see that many African Union troops.

We need to support the Transitional Federal Government headed by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and his cabinet, and I believe we can help make the government work.

They feel they can make progress against the piracy and hijackings – and do it on the ground. You can’t deal with this problem at sea; the sea is too large. The government believes they can deal with it on the ground if they have a defense force that can go out and weed out the hijackers.

These criminal cartels hire young people to do the damage and bring the booty back to the warlords. The cartels have money from the hijackings. Al-Shabaab probably gets money from extremist groups that fund organizations around the world. The government is the only entity of three that has no funds, no resources. They need support.

As you departed the airport, missiles were fired at your plane, I understand.

We didn’t know it until we were met by security advisers when we got on the ground in Nairobi. The missiles missed us, but we have reports that five people were killed and 17 or 18 injured as a result of the attack. We have expressed our sincere condolences to the families of the victims. And we encourage the Somali people to continue to forge forward.

You have been critical of the previous U.S. administration’s approach to Somalia.

There was a period of time when the Islamic Courts Union [ICU] took over governance of Mogadishu. The warlords were repelled. Schools were re-opened, the seaport was open, airport was open. The warlords attempted to expel the ICU and they were thwarted. There were stories circulated that this [the ICU] was a Taliban-type group. [There was an effort] to make the ICU seem evil and extremist. It is hard to tell where the spin came from but it ended up being in the media.

So the U.S. government funded this group of outlaws [warlords] – the same people who killed the U.S. Rangers [in 1993] – to fight against the ICU. And the ICU defeated them. The U.S. government also asked Ethiopia to go into Somalia as ‘peacekeepers’ and that made no sense because there have been hostilities [between Ethiopia and Somalia] for the last 100 years. After a while the Ethiopians were wise enough to realize that this was not working and they withdrew their force last December.

[In December 2006, U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops entered Somalia’s capital, alongside forces of a Somali transitional government, which grew out of a parliament-in-exile formed in Kenya. The ICU, the broad based group that had pushed out the warlords and established order, was itself forced out, ushering in a new period of chaos and banditry under the weak Transitional Federal Government.]

Do you expect to see a different approach to Somalia and Ethiopia from this administration?

I don’t think the Obama team has decided what their policy should be toward Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a very important country. It has had long ties with the United States. One of the first countries I visited back in the early [19]70s was Ethiopia, when Emperor Haile Selassie was there. Ethiopia has a long history, a rich history.

We should attempt to have good relations with them. However, I would hope the current administration would tell Prime Minister Meles [Zenawi] that for good relations [with the United States] you have to stop the dictatorial policies. You can’t arrest people without cause. You can’t have the corruption that goes on. You can’t have courts that are unjust. And you have to stop military attacks on the unarmed civilians of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. You need to have discussions with them so that there can be autonomy.

As for Somalia, I held a hearing in the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health with representatives from south-central Somalia, Puntland, the AU, and the UN and the consensus was that more support is needed for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in defeating el Shabaab and the foreign fighters from the Middle East that have gone to Somalia to engage in the terrorist violence. I believe the Obama administration also sees the need for this and hope to work with Assistant Secretary [Johnnie] Carson to prevent a takeover by the extremists in Somalia.

What is your view of current developments in Nigeria, specifically with regard to the conflict-torn and oil-producing Delta region.

We are disappointed that the new government of President [Umaru] Yar’Adua has not focused more on the Delta region. We visited with the new president in Nigeria right after his election. We said that we had concerns about the fact that the election appeared not to be transparent, did not appear to be fair and free. It was not an election to be proud of. He agreed that the election was less than perfect and appointed a commission to look at how to strengthen the electoral process.

In the Delta, the amount of oil misappropriated is up to about 20 percent [of production]… this is  flagrant. It’s not like diamonds which you can stick in your pocket. If you’re stealing crude, you have got to have a big pump and a big ship. It is in the water, and everyone has to got to see it. So that means a lot of people are either looking the other way or involved in this skimming.

Nigeria has a lot of work to do. It is a country that has so much potential, so many bright people. Here in the United States, you have tens of thousands of Nigerian doctors. It is a country where it is a part of their heritage to get an education, become a professional, work hard. So there is no need for that country to have the abject poverty it has and the opulence on the other hand. It is too much of a disparity. We certainly need to focus on Nigeria.

You often point to the positive developments that are taking place – but often overlooked in Africa. What would you point to in that regard right now?

Start with Ghana and their recent election. The ruling party thought they had it in the bag, but they lost. President [John] Kufuor invited the newly-elected president to come to the palace. They walked around, had a chat, and he turned over the keys. It was fantastic.

Also, look at the number of girls who are going to elementary schools in Africa. Practically every country has the girl-child involved. In the past, as you know, there were very few. Everybody wants education. We visited a refugee camp for Somalis in Kenya. The only request that these boys made was that they would like to be able to go to high school.

Liberia is a success. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – she’s a magician! She can make everyone say ‘yes.’ She was able to get their foreign debt down – paying three cents on the dollar, and the three cents did not even come from Liberia. She will pick your pocket and you don’t even know it – she is so fantastic.

They opened up a new hotel recently, built by Bob Johnson, an American entrepreneur. The rubber company, Firestone, upgraded the schools that are on the property and redid the homes for workers – again because of the president’s insistence.

In general, Africa is on the right track.

What about Zimbabwe, which you visited last month?

There is a tendency to focus on Zimbabwe and other problem areas, but even Zimbabwe is on the brink of change. In Harare, I met with several members of the coalition or national unity government, including Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and President [Robert] Mugabe. I am convinced that, while there are very serious reforms that need to take place, including [ending] the continued intimidation and harassment of human rights activists and others, Zimbabwe has the potential for change.

I held a hearing recently on the way forward for U.S. policy in Zimbabwe and all the witnesses agreed with me that by providing targeted support to the people of Zimbabwe, we can help end the suffering that they have endured and actually help reform-minded individuals in the coalition government to restore democracy.  I’m calling for critical support in the areas of education, health, agriculture, and to get the economy going again so people can buy food and other things they need.

Part of the mandate of the subcommittee you chair is global health. What do you want to focus on in that arena?

We want to support the strengthening of health systems in Africa… Much of what we are trying to do would be done better if African countries had a stronger health system.

For example, with the swine flu epidemic going on, we have numbers of cases from Canada, Europe, Mexico, South America. We don’t have swine flu numbers from Africa. Now tell me that there is not a single case of swine flu in Africa! Most countries there have no way to detect it.

We want to focus on the fact that there’s no excuse for people in Africa to be hungry. And they are. One meal a day, sometimes none. That’s disgraceful – it does not have to be. There is absolutely no reason why Africa has to import food. Sudan at one time was a breadbasket – almost supplying enough food for the entire continent. Nigeria has not done any significant farming since they discovered oil.

There is so much potential for agriculture in Africa, not only to feed Africa but to supply the world. They need help with fertilizer. They need help with new kinds of seeds. They need help with training and irrigation and purifying water. For Africa’s agriculture to reach its potential, U.S. food subsidies [paid to American farmers] have to end. It’s ridiculous and there is no need for it. Commodity prices have been at all-time high[s]. We need to continue to fight the agriculture interests that keep these subsidies going.

We also need to examine how global warming will have a bigger impact on Africa, a place that contributes the least to global warming. This is not fair. We have to slow down global warming and come up with a plan that will prevent global warming from being such a negative for Africa.



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