"Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan", Part IX, Exclusive Q & A With Melvin P. Foote, Chief Executive Officer, Constituency For Africa
Some fifteen years ago the Constituency For Africa (CFA) began when a group of concerned Africanists, interested citizens and Africa-focused organizations developed a strategy to build organized support for Africa in the United States. CFA was charged with educating the U.S. public about Africa and U.S. policy on Africa; mobilizing an activist constituency for Africa; and fostering cooperation among a broad-based coalition of American, African and international organizations, and individuals committed to the progress and empowerment of Africa and African people. CFA is chaired by the Honorable Ronald V. Dellums, former Member of Congress and CFA's President and CEO, Melvin P. Foote, is a long time Africanist.
CFA founded and sponsors the annual Ronald H. Brown African Affairs Series, held in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Legislative Weekend each September. The primary purposes of the Ronald H. Brown African Affairs Series are to: 1) educate, inform and engage the American public about critical challenges, issues and concerns facing Africa; 2) help link Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and their staffs to understand and become more aware of Africa's critical challenges, issues, and concerns; and (c) promote a U.S.-Africa partnership agenda throughout Government, Academia and Business.
Notably, from January 5th to January 13th, 2001, Mr. Melvin P. Foote, CEO, Constituency for Africa (CFA) led a fact-finding mission to the Republic of Sudan and to Nairobi, Kenya and released a report on the trip to the Government of Sudan, the Government of the United States, and all interested parties.
Recently, Melvin Foote granted BlackElectorate.com publisher Cedric Muhammad an exclusive interview regarding his view of the situation in Darfur and Sudan, as part of the website's in-depth investigative series, "Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan".
Cedric Muhammad: My first question is just in a general and broad sense Ė as broad as you would like to answer it Ė in your opinion, what is the Darfur controversy really all about? Whatís at the root of what is going on? What is your view of how it it is being characterized in the media?
Mel Foote: Well I think it is very complex. I think Sudan itself is very complex. And I have been involved in Sudan really intensively for about three or four years, but I go back on it ten or fifteen years. But in the last three or four years I have been really working intensively on the peace process and what I found in Sudan was a lot of conflicting forces that are at play, and there is a lot of outside lobbying that goes on in Sudan. And the lobbying ranges from everything - from churches that are pushing (the issue of) slavery and a continuation of the war. There are people out there who are making money off of food. There are people out there who are making money off of weapons. There are neighboring countries who have political interests in the Sudan. There are countries in the Middle East that seem to have an agenda for the Sudan. There are people in the United States and Britain who have an agenda. You donít see a whole lot of discussion from civil society in Sudan Ė North or South. It is always these (external lobbying) forces that are actually inter-playing.
I think the Darfur situation can be linked to the peace process. There was heavy lobbying going on, for and against the peace process and whatís going on in Kenya. Now that we are at the point where we are close to getting a signed agreement between the SPLA and the factions and the government of the Sudan, now all of a sudden we have got Darfur to worry about. And so I ask myself sometimes whether or not this is another front (in the war). It seems to me there is always an opportunity in the Sudan to exploit it and to get one group of forces going against another group of forces. There are plenty of opportunities. And so the forces that did not win on the comprehensive peace agreement are now leading the effort to punish Sudan on Darfur.
Cedric Muhammad: So, now, just more in terms of the root of the conflict in Darfur, then I want to deal with what you said about these external lobbyists versus indigenous interests. When you see the problem in Darfur, what does it essentially add up to?
Mel Foote: Well I think it adds up to a competition for scarce resources. It adds up to competition for grazing land, agricultural land Ė and who gets access to what resources. You will see this all over Africa. I spent three years in Somalia doing rural development with Africare, and one of the problems that they had there was the way the colonial powers drew the boundaries. In the old days prior to the Europeans coming, the land was desert and semi-desert and so what the nomadic tribes would do, is move in a circle. And the circle would coincide with climate. And when the grass would get too short they would move on, allowing the land to regenerate itself. But with the advent of borders and security, you get to the border and you have to turn back around. So what has happened is that when you are not permitted to complete (the nomadic farming and grazing) cycle you end up going back over land you have already been over, which created more desert, and tremendous sand migration. And one of the reasons Somalia is so barren today is because of the way the migration patterns have been interrupted because of the European-drawn borders...
Cedric Muhammad: ...as is the case with Sudan and Chad border where Darfur is...
Mell Foote: Yes, Sudan and Chad. Youíve got those borders, and all of a sudden people who in prior years were able to move freely, back and forth, roaming and what not Ė with grazers moving on, while the farmers stayed put Ė nowadays you have got this clash over land rights which have a lot to do with how the land has been politically divided.
I think another factor in Darfur is oil. I am not an expert on the energy resources in the region but people tell me that there is a lot of oil at stake here. There are a lot of resources at stake here. And so it doesnít surprise me that there are people who want people off land; there are people who may be sponsoring people to help push people off land. There are surrogates. But I think it boils down to scarce resources in the way of water, grazing land and environment. And then there is this question of oil Ė who is going to control that mineral resource in this region.
Cedric Muhammad: What do you make of this Arab vs. Black African dichotomy?
Mel Foote: Well I think that is an easy one to exploit. It is easy to exploit, and when you talk, for instance, about slavery, it gets our dander up over here (in America). And certainly when I was there, during my visit, I did not see anything like what we saw over here (the slave experience of Blacks in America). Now are there human rights abuses? Tremendous ones. Loss of life? Suffering? Tremendous. There are very, very dire circumstances that people have to live under. But I think there are forces out there looking to advocate so they put up these words. They put up ďgenocideĒ. They put up ďslaveryĒ. They put up things that will get (the attention of) people all over the world. And then when you put a label on it, the next thing you know, people who donít have any knowledge of what is going on in Sudan, will take a side or exploit the situation. So I just think it is the kind of situation where, even during the time when they were making good progress with the peace accord, I always felt that something else was going to come up. Nobody was talking about Darfur then. But now all of a sudden, Darfur is the rage. I talked to other Africans in Africa and they say, Ďwhat about Northern Uganda, what about Liberia, what happened to Sierra Leone...?í We come up with the flavor of the month thing. So you have to ask yourself as a serious student about Africa, whether what you get in the media, by-and-large is really how we ought to be focusing our energy.
Cedric Muhammad: So, I like the way you jumped into this discussion about Darfur in the context of this larger peace agreement that was about to be signed in Sudan, between the North and South. Do you think that the Sudanese government made a mistake in not including the West or Darfur in those discussions; or do you think they needed to do what they had to, in order to take care of the conflict with the South?
Mel Foote: I think they felt that had to do what they did with the South first. You will find the same thing in Ethiopia. You will find the same thing in Somalia. No one government controls all of the elements of (the country). And so you try to get something down and then you go and pick up something else. I am not totally sure what their strategy has been. But I do know that it was not possible for them to solve all of these wars, simultaneously. It is not possible.
Cedric Muhammad: So now, what do you think? People are now calling Darfur a humanitarian disaster. People are recognizing the economic problems and of course there is a political dispute, where you have the government of Sudan and two political opposition groups Ė the JEM and the SLA. Whatís the way to kind of peel these layers back? Do you do everything at once Ė do you take care of the humanitarian crisis, and some people have even advocated for (military) intervention? What is the way to solve Darfurís layers and the larger Sudanese problems?
Mel Foote: Well, I would like to think that the U.N. will play a constructive role. I think the world has changed and there are dramatically more dynamics than was the case just a year ago or two years ago. So I would hope the U.N. can play a monitoring, evaluation and coordination role. Certainly humanitarian assistance would be at the top of my agenda. That needs to be dealt with. I think the peace accord and agreement that is being negotiated should move forward. I absolutely think that the first step in Sudan is to end the war. While people are fighting you are not going to get the (national) sense of dialogue. I can say that the people of the Sudan want to end this war, and have felt that in the North and the South. But it is these outside elements that are keeping people pitted against each other. So I think the first element is to end this war, we have to end this war. We need to feed the people so I am all for an expanded relief operation. I am all for the U.N. playing a stronger role, monitoring and evaluating and making sure that people are doing what they say they are going to do and follow-through.
I doubt if the Sudan government has that much influence in Darfur. When you move around the Sudan you really realize this. When you go out to Kordofan, when you go to Darfur and some of the other areas, you see that the central government does not have that much control. It is not like in America where Washington D.C. controls Ohio. You donít get that same sense in Sudan. There are areas where you have problems with warlords. You have (local) people who control their own environment. Weapons are flowing, and everybody is armed in Darfur. But where do the arms come from? You know, there are a lot of questions out there.
So I am hoping that the U.N. will play a greater role. Certainly the humanitarian relief has to be at the top of the agenda. But I donít think that the Sudanese people should let go of the peace process (because of Darfur).
Cedric Muhammad: What about the African Union? What role would you like to see them play?
Mel Foote: Honestly, I donít think that the African Union is ready for a major initiative like this. They are just getting their feet on the ground in terms of formation...they have a symbolic presence there and maybe you have them there with the U.N. But in terms of a troop presence and physical presence that is going to cost a lot of money and so forth? I donít think the AU is ready for it, at this stage. And I donít think we ought to embarrass them by forcing them to be ready. Their bigger agenda is to get organized.
Cedric Muhammad: So they donít have the capacity right now, so the U.N. should take the lead?
Mel Foote: Yeah, absolutely.
Cedric Muhammad: What do you think of the specific efforts of those seeking to get the U.N. and Kofi Annan to declare what is happening in Darfur as genocide, and what that would lead to?
Mel Foote: I am against name-calling. I was against sanctions generally, not only in Sudan. Sanctions are a way for lazy members of Congress to punish somebody without doing their due diligence. I met with Colin Powell on this a few years ago and he agreed with me. He felt that a lot of this sanctions business was just a way of people (acting like) - ĎI donít like you, and I am going to get my government to sanction you and punish your peopleí. Rarely do the sanctions punish the leaders, if thatís who you are targeting. They punish the women, children and everyday people. It keeps food and bread off of the table, and who does that punish? It doesnít punish the leaders they have ways of getting their milk and bread. But it punishes the people, and Sudan is just coming off of some major sanctions. So if you put this on them I think you break the spirit of the people. Now what I felt in Sudan was people are fed up with war, this stigmatism, they are tired of it.
And so, some are looking for a sledgehammer to continue punishing the Sudan. I think that is not the way to go. Pressure? Yes. Engagement? Yes. Leaning on them? Yes. But to come out and claim this is Rwanda (happening all over again) I donít get it. I donít see this as the same level. It is tragic nevertheless, but I donít see this as being another Rwanda.
Cedric Muhammad: So now letís talk about those external lobbying groups. One of the most influential is Human Rights Watch (HRW). And Amnesty International. Both organizations have put forth what they have on Darfur. You have Christian Solidarity International working with Joe Madison and the Sudan Campaign. And then of course, you have the corporations...
Mel Foote: And you have the group working out of London, John Prendergastís group (International Crisis Group - ICG)...
Cedric Muhammad:...so of all of these groups, how do they work, and work together - if they work together?
Mel Foote: Well, I think that all of the groups we have mentioned here have major flaws. I think all of them are part of the problem as opposed to the solution. They are not fair. They are not balanced. They seem to have a vendetta. They clearly seem to have a position that they are advocating. And they are influencing people in the church. They are influencing people in the public sector, rallying. They are well-financed, well-resourced. And I think they are very dangerous. Not only in the Sudan. I find the same thing in Zimbabwe. I find the same thing elsewhere in Africa. As far as I am concerned these groups need to be checked because they are more part of the problem than they are any kind of solution. When things are going well, you donít hear about them. You donít hear about them encouraging people on. But you hear about them coming out and banging (some country). I was with President Musevini (of Uganda) recently and the woman representing Human Rights Watch Africa stood up and he basically called her a liar to her face, and she tried to justify etc...I think these groups need to be checked or else they need to be counterbalanced, because most people around America donít know much about Africa, and donít know much about Sudan, so when they hear these things come down in these official-looking reports (written by these groups)...you believe what you hear in the news right? So if it comes in the news it must be true (in the minds of people). But anybody who has seriously studied the news understands that the news by-and-large is propaganda. Even among the best, they are advocating various positions, and various perspectives. It boils down to who is paying the bill. So I think these groups are not helpful to the process and in fact are very much hurtful.
They are not about helping Africa. I donít see much that they are doing in the way of encouragement of governance or positive resolution to problems. I see them as stirring the pot and advocating and encouraging people to seek war and retribution as the way forward.
Cedric Muhammad: How do you think we can overcome this lack of knowledge Ė this information gap and awareness gap between Blacks in America and Blacks on the continent. Because to me that is one of the things that is obviously being manipulated right now?
Mel Foote: Well my organization, The Constituency For Africa (CFA), has as its core mandate, to educate the public about Africa. And we have been doing it as aggressively as we can for the last fifteen years. And we are making a lot of progress and at the same time we have a long way to go, to be fair. We have taken the message to the people in cities, during town hall meetings, we have organized around our Ronald H. Brown African Affairs series which we do every year at the Black Caucus. And then we are just constantly sending out information and building up a network of people around the country who do know, who are informed, who are plugged in to information sources. So I have seen over the years a much improved level of understanding among African Americans among Africa. Certainly the efforts of the late Rev. Leon Sullivan, the efforts of TransAfrica, the efforts of Africare and all of these groups that advocate for Africa, by and large, have created an environment among African Americans where we do know more about what is going on in Africa. We do pay more attention. But we need to step up the gas, we need to be much more vocal, and much more visible, and much more aggressive in terms of countering the negative information coming on Africa, and certainly the first line of information, should be from the African American community. It should be from Africa, of course, but in the United States it should be from the African-American community. We should be the first to know and the best informed and we shouldnít be informed about Africa by the New York Times and the Washington Post and other papers.
Cedric Muhammad: That leads me to my last two questions. One is regarding the Washington D.C. African lobby Ė this industry of experts, many of them not Black or African, on Africa. Even some of the African nations are hiring non-Blacks to be their lobbyists. What is that about? What is your opinion on that?
Mel Foote: Well, it is a challenge. And I have taken the Africans up on this. They have been mis-educated about us. They have been mis-educated about America. There has been mis-education on both sides, and some of it intentional. If you are a White guy doing business in Africa, you donít want Black folks to know what is going on. You donít want to have transparency. You donít want to have democracy. You want to keep the thing as confused and chaotic as possible because that is how you can get your diamonds. That is how you can get your oil deal. There are forces out here who donít want an educated constituency for Africa. There are forces that donít want Africans and African-Americans to be linked.
I have been in meetings where all Whites are talking about Africa. I am sitting there and you have a whole row of White people up there telling you what the economic policy ought to be in Africa, or what the energy policy should be Ė an all White panel. And they will sit there with no compunction that this is wrong. If this was Israel do you think you would have some Black people up there talking about Israeli policy? Or if this was Poland or Great Britain? But Africa, (they will say), Ďoh race doesnít matterí. And a lot of Blacks are so weak in this discussion because most of us are struggling financially. I would say all of us. Because again, the resources that should be flowing to us, are flowing to White lobbyists. But yet when it comes time for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA); we passed that bill. When it came time to get the Bush administration to commit $15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, he didnít wake up one morning and got a revelation, Ďlet me help these Black peopleí. That was about pressure. We got it across to him that that was a way to go and that it was a way for him to win some votes.
So, we are getting closer. We are talking directly with the African Union now. We are dealing directly with NEPAD, the meetings are clear, we are talking daily. We are e-mailing daily. So I think a new day is just ahead. The dawn of a new day is with us. And I am confident that over the next five to ten years you are going to see a very vibrant and dynamic constituency for Africa emerge in the United States.
Cedric Muhammad: So lastly, how does that relate to the Congressional Black Caucusí position on Africa? Everybody knows that among Black Caucus members there exists a deferential attitude toward Congressman Donald Payne, on the subject of Africa.
Mel Foote: (laughter) you have got that right.
Cedric Muhammad: There are a few lobbyists, and you have got very influential individuals like Ted Gange, and Malik Chaka. There are a handful of names that seem to have a lot of influence with Members of Congress and the Congressional Black Caucus, shaping their thinking on Africa. What do you make of that in light of what you just gave me as your answer to my last question?
Mel Foote: Yeah, when I came to Washington, D.C. in 1984 there was only one member of the Black Caucus who could even find Africa on the map and that was Don Payne. Rep. Payne, is in fact very informed on a lot of things going on in Africa and we agree on most things. We donít agree on Sudan. We donít agree on maybe one or two other things. But by-and-large, I really appreciate his commitment and what he has done to be the stalwart. But I have seen over the years that many of the other members have now gotten on board. They are not monolithic by any stretch of the imagination. They have got different views and different postures depending upon whether you are talking about trade or conflict or HIV/AIDS. But I can say that most of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, now, do have an African perspective, and African profile. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Diane Watson, Congressman William Jefferson is very strong on Africa, Congressman Gregory Meeks is very strong. Of course Maxine Waters has always been there. Donna Christenson, Barbara Lee are very much involved on the HIV/AIDS front. Charlie Rangel is leading the effort on the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. So it goes up and down the list. I would say that every member of the Congressional Black Caucus today Ė and a lot of it is due to our work and the work of other groups Ė now see Africa as part of their portfolio. Now we see recognizable staff people...There is a whole cadre of African-Americans who are staffers on the Hill who werenít there some years ago. And they are informed. They go to Africa now...And so I think that the number of people who are advocating are there.
But the Caucus still has a ways to go. For one thing, there has never been a formal meeting between the Congressional Black Caucus and the African diplomatic corps. They have never, ever met! The two most powerful Africa focus groups in Washington have never, ever had a sit-down meeting to agree on an agenda! Why is that? Some of it does get to the question of lobbying. The Black Caucus is fed up with White lobbyists who come to them with an African president, introducing them. Címon what is this? And so the Africans have been slow to respond to that. But I think that we are going to have some movement this fall in that direction and...get the Black Caucus and the African Diplomatic Corps and the African Union meeting and really strategizing. The Congressional Black Caucus Ė say what you want to say Ė is the most powerful Black political organization in the world. You wonít find anything like this in Brazil. You wonít find anything like this in Africa, in terms of economic and political muscle. The Congressional Black Caucus is at the top of the heap. And so we need to get them transformed and get an African American agenda.
We donít move, until the Black Caucus moves on Africa. I donít think we have had as much leadership coming from the CBC as we need. Certainly we have been pushing Congressman Elijah Cummings to do more, but we get a lot of talk, and a rap, but not the action we need. I am not sure it is going to come anytime soon, but I do know it is coming. I think that day is coming, probably within the next twelve months we are going to see some things on the African-African American agenda that we have never seen before, I would predict.
Cedric Muhammad: Yes, and all of this you are speaking about pertains to reparations. I just recently spoke to Joe Madison...
Mel Foote: ...Tell Joe to stop messing with Sudan. (laughter) Joe is my friend. I love him.
Cedric Muhammad:...I told Joe it was interesting because I see the Jewish members of the coalition standing with him on Darfur and Sudan Ė Rabbi David Sapperstein, the ADL, and Zionists, in the background and foreground. The Holocaust Museum for the first time has lend its name to something it wishes to officially call ďgenocideĒ. So the question I posed to Joe was if genocide can be identified in the current context, it should be identified retroactively, and shouldnít these coalition partners who are with you fighting today, shouldnít they support the reparations movement that wants to deal with the effect of genocide yesterday? And he answered that.
Mel Foote: I am for reparations.
Cedric Muhammad: So I just wanted to ask you your view about the reparations movement in terms of this issue of Sudan and Darfur and more broadly what is your view of the issue and how we might go about getting it?
Mel Foote: If you notice, over the last few months you havenít heard much about reparations. There has almost been a tapping down of it. The woman who led the movement in New York, Ms. Deadria Farmer-Paellmann called me one day and she came down to see me. She is a young Sister and I was very impressed with her arguments. She is focused like a laser beam. And the fact that she would get on a train and come down and see me, I was impressed with that too. But I think that African Americans are so weak in terms of our own unity that we canít even see things in our own interests, for the most part. And you have got a lot of influential African Americans who would argue that we donít need reparations. We donít deserve reparations.
And when you look at every element of the Black community it all goes back to slavery. If you go back to read Willie Lynch and (the Jim Crow) laws and see where we are today, and see the impact those laws have had on our quality of life today Ė healthcare, education, jobs, nutrition, name it, all of it is tied to our period of slavery. And to think that the field is level now is absolutely absurd. Now there should be some debate over how those reparations will be paid. I am all for scholarships, I am all for free education, free healthcare. I am for all kinds of things. It is not necessarily cash or a check that I am going to get - but make some benefits to improve the quality of life of African Americans and at least put us where we need to be, in terms of a level playing field. I think that day is going to come. But it may come ten or fifteen years from today. There are some forces out there who will try to stall it out. You can do it by knocking off some of the leadership and misinforming people, but I think that as we move forward there is always going to be an issue with it, no matter how we look at it. It is something that I am all for. We need to work out a strategy and it would behoove us, as African people here, to start thinking about what it means and what we as a community want. Because if you talk to different people you get totally different perspectives on it.
Cedric Muhammad: Thank You, Mr. Foote
Mel Foote: Thank You.
Part I: Exclusive Q & A With Professor Sean O'Fahey
Part II : Exclusive Q & A With Joe Madison, President, Sudan Campaign
Part III: Exclusive Q & A With Karen Kwiatkowski, Lt. Col. United States Air Force (ret.)
Part IV: Exclusive Q & A With Salih Booker, Executive Director, Africa Action
Part V : Exclusive Q & A With Dr. Kwame Akonor, Founder, African Development Institute
Part VI: Exclusive Q & A With Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow, Africa Division, Human Rights Watch
Part VII: Part VII, Exclusive Q & A With Bill Fletcher, Jr., President, TransAfrica
Part VIII: Exclusive Q & A With Adotei Akwei, Senior Advocacy Director For Africa, Amnesty International
Thursday, August 26, 2004