Representative Donald Payne, Democrat of New Jersey, died March 6 of colon cancer, according to the press. He was 77 years of age. He was a college graduate (Seton Hall University) and by profession a teacher. His district was heavily African-American and centered on New Jersey’s largest city, Newark. President Obama carried the district in 2008 with 87 percent of the vote – an exceptionally high percentage in the United States, if not in many African elections. Many Americans think of him as a civil rights pioneer – he was New Jersey’s first African American congressman. In an obituary published today, the New York Times notes the mark he made on American social and educational issues, such as promoting steps to make college more affordable.
I want to highlight here Rep. Payne’s consistent involvement with African issues, ranging from the struggle against apartheid (when I first met him) to the war in Darfur. He served on, and chaired when the Democrats were in the majority, the Africa subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where he worked for U.S. assistance in the fight against diseases in Africa ranging from HIV/AID to malaria. He traveled frequently to Africa, visiting refugee camps, medical facilities and establishing a personal relationship with African leaders. I can attest that his trips were no boondoggles.
Payne’s consistent focus on Africa was shared by only a few of his congressional colleagues in the House and the Senate; Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis) while he was in office and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) now also come to mind. (Sen. Coons chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs.) But, in general, interest in Africa in the Congress is not high. Congressional concern tends to spike in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as famine in the Horn, human rights atrocities, such as in Darfur or epidemics of rape in the Eastern Congo, or wars, such as the fighting between Sudan and South Sudan and the civil war in the Ivory Coast or the struggle against the Lord’s Resistance Army. Then it dissipates. There is also some interest if African developments may have a link to international terrorism. At present, for example, there is some congressional concern about alleged links between Boko Haram, a radical Islamic movement in Northern Nigeria, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But most members of congress are wrapped up in U.S. domestic issues or international matters that impinge directly on the security of the United States. Even the congressional Black Caucus, of which Payne was a member and had served as chairman, had a more salient domestic agenda than an international one. In Congress, as among the American people, concern about Iran and Israel appears to be widespread, but not Darfur.
Readers of this blog will recall that I argue that Africa is of much greater strategic and other importance to the United States than we often realize. Hence the value of the contribution of congressional figures like Donald Payne who worked to keep Africa on the U.S. agenda.