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Exclusive Q & A With Rep. William Jefferson On Africa - Trade, AIDS, and the Bush Administration

Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana, without question, is one of the most influential opinion leaders inside of the US Congress, particularly when the subjects are Africa, trade and economic development. Any one who doubts that should consider the sudden decision, made by President Bush, to host an African trade summit. That decision was made in the last 72 hours, in no small part, due to the influence of Rep. Jefferson, other members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Rep. J.C. Watts. This week, fresh from an African trade conference held in his home district in New Orleans, Rep. Jefferson granted an exclusive interview regarding his recent activities and the latest developments in Africa, as well as his expectations for the new Bush administration's policy toward Africa.

Cedric Muhammad: What is the status of the trade agreement between Africa and the United States?

Rep. Jefferson: Well, as you know the trade bill was passed last year and signed into law by the President and now it has to be implemented. We are disappointed in some of the interpretations that are being placed on the bill with respect to the customs authorities and some of the people in the Commerce and Treasury Departments all seem to take a pretty narrow view of what the bill authorizes. If it doesn't say it by detail and letter they will simply read it the other way and prevent the importation of certain products and things that ought to be entering the country, so first, we have a problem with the bill being narrowly read instead of broadly read, which would capture the whole spirit of bringing Africa into trading with the United States and opening up markets in Africa. Despite the limitations, the bill is doing a lot of good. There is investment in Lesotho, in Mauritius, in Kenya now and in some places in Nigeria in the apparel area that did not exist before. 10,000 jobs in Kenya are projected, more than that in Lesotho and around that number in Mauritius. Ethiopia is a place that is being looked it. It has a large population and low wages and a lot of folks looking for work and a place that depends upon agriculture where these fabrics can be woven and sent out. It has been the pattern of this country to open up our markets to developing countries in textiles and apparel. This is how we have enriched them and given them money to go back and invest in other things and to move from sending us textiles to a situation like South Korea, who now excel at building computer boards. So, the hope is that we will open up the same sort of opportunity in Africa. But we need to go back and work on the bill some more. We have too many caps and limitations. We are looking to having an annual forum at the White House. We do have the folks in place at the Export and Import Bank and USTR, positive people that we have never had, who focus directly on Africa. We have had some setbacks with the funds but one is in place, and the other one is coming on line. And we are looking to seeing that sort of thing being done. We want to make sure that we stay engaged with the African leadership as we implement these things as well as we did when we tried to put it together, as legislation, so that we can have a continuing partnership with them as to how we can have a continuing partnership with them over how we can move forward in Africa. There is a lot of work to be done on the implementation side. And we are looking forward to an AGOA 2 (African Growth And Opportunity Act) that can straighten out some things that we think are narrow interpretations that can break free from these textile and apparel limitations and that will put textiles back in the bill. President Bush says that he is for that and I want him to really get behind that and push it for us.

Cedric Muhammad: What is your opinion of President Bush's announcement last week about the US contribution to an international AIDS fund where he promised $200 million for the fund?

Rep. Jefferson: I think we expected more and we are looking for more from him in this regard. I understand that he has a strategy that involves his putting some money on the table, and then his looking for our allies to put money on the table, and at some point, working our number up, once others have made their contributions. I am assured by his people, and by him, that that is what they are working towards. So, we will have to see how it comes out. If this is simply an ante and they are looking for the other side to ante up and then you raise the stakes and hope that others will follow and raise the stakes, perhaps maybe it is a strategy that will work, I can't second-guess it. But if it is a last statement about what our country is going to do then it is far short of where we should be.

Cedric Muhammad: Did you take any sides or have any opinion of what was going on in South Africa where the government wanted to give out licenses to some of the local companies to generically produce AIDS drugs? As you know, some countries like South Africa and Brazil have argued that since the prices of AIDS drugs are so high, that they, in effect, can take matters into their own hands and produce the drugs, and in some cases, this is in conflict with patent agreements that these countries have signed. Do you have an opinion on that issue?

Rep. Jefferson: Well, I think that we have to worry about the protection of intellectual property in our country, you can't just dismiss and disregard it and you have to make provisions that respect it. At the same time, you can't watch people die where there are drugs that can prevent their dying and suffering, if we were to find a way to pay for them. The drugs that are out there are way, way over priced from what they cost to produce. In fact, many of the drugs that are being used are drugs that were developed from research and development paid for by the government and the taxpayers. Either they were paid for by government labs directly or they were paid for by all of the taxpayers through research and development tax credits that permitted the extensive research that has gone on to develop these drugs. So there is a public stake in all of this. Then, these companies manufacture these drugs and drive the price way up and we have to be sure that when we talk about life saving drugs, that we make them available to the world community. And so, if it means that rich countries have to supplement the prices to protect intellectual property, fine, I don't think we ought to disregard intellectual property issues. But I do believe that we have to find ways, in the context of that, with all of us who have invested in this - all of the rich countries - they have to make it available to people who are out there. Otherwise, the whole system of laws on intellectual property is going to breakdown because people are not going to sit around and watch their neighbors and friends and countrymen die because they do not have the capacity to pay for these drugs.

Cedric Muhammad: Last year in our interview, you talked a bit about your displeasure with the IMF's maneuvering in regards to Equatorial Guinea. What is the latest on that, has the IMF lightened up a bit, and allowed the country to use their oil revenues as they see fit?

Rep. Jefferson: They have lightened up some, because they have gotten criticized all over. You cannot have a one size fits all sort of policy, like the IMF utilizes. You have some countries that are fledgling democracies that need to show some results to their people. Otherwise the people think that the government is stealing all of the money and they (the government) very well might be doing the right thing. But unless they (the people) see that a road is fixed or a school is built or a hospital is built, they say. 'Where is all of the wealth going?' All of this oil wealth out here but where is the money going? Not only that, but there are immediate needs other than what the people see, that need to be addressed. Young girls and young boys need to be educated and that is a need that can't wait until that country's external debt is paid down. Now, some things possibly can await that but not education and not healthcare. So we have seen some loosening up and I think it has been because what people like you have done to talk about these issues and what other folks in the media have been done and what some of us have been able to do to put pressure on the situation. But it is a real problem. And even beyond that, when some countries have suffered all of the way through it, the West has to make a better response. Uganda went through all of the restructuring, complied with the IMF and all of that, and suffered through it and then they look around and there is no investment. And so, they wonder, where are the US and Western investors? And so the IMF does all of this advising with a promise. They say you have to get your fiscal house in order to get investment, and then, it doesn't come. So, if the IMF is going to make a promise to people, they have to be sure that they are right about it, because countries are not agreeing to these conditions because they want to please the IMF, they do it because they believe that after their compliance with the conditions, they will receive and be eligible and will receive investments in the private sector. But it is not happening nearly the way they had expected it to. The IMF can't keep making these promises. They should give people some support in managing their economies, help them in getting their debt down, but don't stifle them in the things that they want to do and then, in the end, the countries' don't have the result that they were bargaining for and looking forward to.

Cedric Muhammad: Three of the biggest problem spots in Africa are in Sierra Leone/ Liberia, the Sudan and the Congo - there are civil wars in all three areas. What is your opinion of these three problems and what is your approach to resolving these conflicts, and finally, what impact are these conflicts having on the entire continent?

Rep. Jefferson: These problems give the appearance of overall instability to Africa, which of course creates a terrible investment climate. Because, Western business people already see Africa as a distant and unfamiliar place, they seem to think that if there is a conflict in one place, that there is a conflict everywhere. Of course, we all know that this isn't true but try to explain that to someone who does not understand anything about Africa. They just consider the whole place a powder keg. What is largely true about Africa is that most places are largely stable and peaceful but you do have some real flashpoints. There are problems. So, the first thing that I would tell US business folks is to really get schooled on Africa and take a good look and you will see wonderful opportunities up and down the West coast of Africa, throughout the SADC region and even in eastern Africa, now. Now, each of the places you mentioned has different problems. The Liberia and Sierra Leone problems are more internal issues that are going on there. The issue in the Congo, is that many of the neighboring countries of the Congo have caused as much problems as Congo has caused for itself - everyone in the region is trying to get a piece of it. Now the Sudan, of course, now, is in a class by itself. It is not only a menace to its own people but also to its neighboring states. Rather than it being a state that is preyed on, it is actually preying on other states that are in its environment. It is probably the worst example of human rights violations right now on the African continent, on a continuing basis. I think that with all of these cases, the United States can't take the position that these are African conflicts being handled by Africans all by themselves. We don't take that view in other parts of the world. We have to bring to bear our diplomatic apparatus to help resolve conflicts in Africa, as we do in Bosnia, or in Latin America or in Israel. No matter how deep or long standing those problems are we find a way to engage ourselves to try to resolve them. And there aren't any deeper problems in Africa today than there are or were in Bosnia or then there are in the Middle East or in any other region in the world. But we don't get in there and use our diplomatic authority to work on these issues, and if we did, because of the respect that Africans have for this country, you would find a great deal of cooperation from the warring factions, if we really got involved and said that Africa is important to the United States so let's find a way to help resolve these conflicts. The other thing that we have to do is that those nations who are bearing the responsibility over there - we need to shore them up. Nigeria is spending a lot of money and a lot of manpower and womanpower in peacekeeping and resolving conflicts and that can't afford it. We tell them that they are doing a great job and we pat them on the back but we don't help them as we should.

Cedric Muhammad: With Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in their respective positions in the Bush administration, do you have any extra expectations for a heightened sensitivity toward Africa that there has not been in previous administrations or is their presence, when it relates to Africa, mere window dressing and not even relevant.

Rep. Jefferson: I think Colin Powell is interested in Africa. I worked with him in South Africa when President Mandela was sworn in. I was involved with him on Nigerian issues before the military there was removed and I know that he is deeply interested in Africa. I don't know Condoleezza Rice that well so I can't speak for how she has been involved in Africa. But I hear that she is very interested in seeing this administration work on these issues. I think however, that the President himself, must show a real commitment to AGOA, to conflict resolution, to poverty alleviation, to debt relief and he must articulate these issues and not in a passing way but in a way that gives it the high place that he gives other regions in the world, when he takes time to explain these issues in a way that demonstrates his understanding of them. I was glad that he met with Nigerian President Obasanjo the other day and had him walk him around Africa, so to speak, and talk to him about Africa. He (President Obasanjo) is a very important president and his point of view is largely correct. But the meetings aren't a substitute for a policy that is articulated by the President of the United States because it sets the tone for the business community, for the rest of the political community, for all of it. And even if the people below him are interested, he has to permit this whole engagement. Only he can permit his cabinet and staff to get involved.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you have any opinion on what the Organization For African Unity (OAU) is doing to establish a Pan-African Union, the United States Of Africa?

Rep. Jefferson: I think at this point in the history of Africa you are really talking about some sort of a federation of African states, you are not really talking about a united Africa as in one nation with all of the rest of the governments becoming nation states - there is no such thing as that. It is unfortunate, I wish we could, as we see China, this big country with all of these people. If Africa were one nation it would be a much more powerful place but history has always prevented that from happening in a way where you actually realize one national government for the continent of Africa. Certainly if you talk about the whole continent of Africa - northern Africa and southern Africa - even if you just talk about sub-Sahara Africa it is difficult, but if you try and put the whole continent together, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Libya…it is impossible to even hope for that to happen. But I do believe that Africa can be involved with economic ties and sub regions with political cooperation and even military cooperation, even perhaps with diplomatic representation. In regional transportation, in airlines and roads, there ought to be ways for African nations to work together, almost as one economic unit. The last thing that I want to say is that when I was in China, about 4 years ago, I talked to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the big companies over there - Caterpillar, John Deere etc…They all complained about how tough it was to make a deal in China, how tough it was to enforce a deal, the rules of law weren't there and the banking system was a mess. And I asked them, "If it is this bad then why are you still here?" And they said "well, it is too big to ignore". If Africa puts itself into sub regions that are 400 million people here, 300 million people there, then they will then be, as markets, too big too ignore by anybody out there. And I am hoping that one of the features of this new African trade bill will actually stress to Africans, that if there are to be the creation of more attractive trading blocs on the continent, that they be big. And if they are big they can't be ignored.

Cedric Muhammad: Thank You

Rep. Jefferson: You are welcome.

Thursday, May 17, 2001

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