Donald Payne: A Farewell to a Human Rights Champion
By Alemayehu G Mariam:
How does one say farewell to a great friend of Ethiopia and Africa? Representative Donald Payne, the dean of New Jersey’s House delegation and the first black congressman elected to represent New Jersey, died at age 77 from colon cancer on Tuesday. He was elected to 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and served on various committees including Education and Workforce and Foreign Affairs committees. He chaired the Subcommittee on Africa for a number of years. His passing marks a great loss for the cause of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia and Africa.
Rep. Payne’s commitment to Africa was legendary. In 2008 he played a central role in the Congressional authorization of up to $48 billion over 5 years to fight HIV/AIDS, a substantial portion of it going to Africa. In 2005, he successfully led the effort to enact the Darfur Genocide Accountability Act aimed at imposing sanctions against perpetrators of crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, Sudan. In 2002, he played a key role in the passage of the Sudan Peace Act, which helped to end the war in Sudan and peacefully transition South Sudan into nationhood. Rep. Payne was one of champions of the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (2000) which promotes African economic development and trade with the US. He has sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills to help African countries get debt relief, increased peacekeeping support, expanded agriculture programs and better access to safe drinking water and educational opportunities for millions of children.
Rep. Payne travelled to the most conflict–ridden parts of Africa to visit refugees, victims of genocide and terrorism at some risk to his personal safety. In April 2009, Rep. Payne’s plane was attacked at Mogadishu airport as he prepared to leave the country. The extremist group al-Shabaab took responsibility. Republican and democratic presidents have tapped his expertise in international affairs. President George W. Bush appointed Rep. Payne as one of two congressional delegates to the United Nations in 2003 and 2005. Rep. Payne led a delegation to Rwanda to help resolve some of the critical political and humanitarian crises facing that country. President Bill Clinton invited Rep. Payne as one of five members of Congress to accompany him on his historic six-nation tour of Africa.
Rep. Payne was a pain in the neck of many of Africa’s dictators. According to Wikileaks, in June 2009, at a meeting in Harare, Rep. Payne challenged Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe on a variety of human rights issues and pointedly charged that Mugabe’s “government now allows police to beat black women who dare protest.” According to the report, “As Payne confronted him, Mugabe sank into the couch and appeared expressionless and somewhat stunned.” But Rep. Payne did not relent: “Payne continued by commenting that citizens have a right to agitate and governments have a duty to protect them. He noted that Mugabe started as a civil agitator and spent 11 years in prison for it. ‘I was a civil agitator, too. I wouldn’t be in congress if I hadn’t been a civil agitator.’”
In December 2011, Payne expressed outrage over a decision by the U.S. Treasury Department to issue a license to a DC lobbyist to represent the Republic of Sudan in legal matters. He fumed:
It is absolutely unacceptable that the U.S. has allowed a murderer like Omar Hassan Bashir to hire a Washington emissary to do his bidding. Bashir is an internationally indicted war criminal for the atrocities he perpetrated in Darfur. In the months following South Sudan’s independence this July, Bashir and his thugs have attacked the border regions of Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Abyei… Bashir has blocked humanitarian organizations from accessing the region to provide lifesaving food and health services to his victims… The $20,000 per month that Bashir is spending on a Washington lobbyist could be better spent on providing humanitarian support to the people of Darfur, Abyei, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile, and on promoting democracy and human rights throughout Sudan.
When Laurent Gbagbo plunged his country into anarchy last year following his loss in the elections, and the African Union twiddled its thumbs, Rep. Payne demanded action:
Gbagbo and his regime and its supporters are waging a continuing campaign of terror against large numbers of Ivoirians… Gbagbo is clearly willing to push his country and its neighbors into a state of political anarchy and economic disarray in order to maintain his grasp on political power… Ivoirians are fighting—and dying, just as citizens in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya—to protect these rights. The world must not turn a blind eye to their struggles or wait until the country plunges into civil war to respond to this crisis.
Donald Payne and Ethiopia
dp2Rep. Payne was a very special friend of Ethiopia. He strove for years to help improve the human rights situation in that poor country. He was the chief architect of H.R. 2003: Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007. The Congressional Research Service, the non-partisan research arm of the U.S. Congress summarized H.R. 2003’s five policy objectives in Ethiopia as follows: (1) support the advancement of human rights, democracy, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, peacekeeping capacity building, and economic development; (2) the unconditional release of all political prisoners in Ethiopia; foster stability, democracy, and economic development in the Horn region; (4) support humanitarian assistance efforts, especially in the Ogaden region; (5) promote U.S.-Ethiopia collaboration in the Global War on Terror; and (6) generally strengthen Ethio-America relations.
In October 2007, days following the passage of H.R. 2003 in the House, former Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Vicki Huddleston, in an article title, “Ethiopia: Voting for HR 2003 was Wrong”, backhandedly lambasted Rep. Payne for his leadership on HR 2003 while ferociously defending Zenawi’s regime:
The Ethiopian government will reject H.R. 2003 as a naive and unhelpful interference in its internal affairs. They will rightly complain that it fails to recognize the considerable progress they have made in growing political space and opening the economy. They will correctly point out that H.R. 2003 is not evenhanded because it sides with leaders of Ethiopia’s opposition, whom the government recently pardoned and released from prison at the behest of the international community. Worse, H.R. 2003 will be used by Ethiopia’s enemies to fan intolerance in this nation of 77 million Christians and Muslims who until recently lived together peacefully.
But two weeks prior to House passage of the that bill, Rep. Payne had offered an olive branch to Zenawi’s regime and demonstrated his good will to work with them in improving human rights:
We are urging the [Ethiopian] government to release political prisoners… We are hoping that this legislation [HR 2003] will assist in as many things as are positive for Ethiopia in health care, democracy building, judicial reform… and we would like for them [Zenawi’s regime] to be our allies but we can’t have people who disregard human rights… So I think it is a good day for America and a good day for Ethiopia [to get the bill enacted].
In September 2008, Zenawi’s regime accused Rep. Payne of “tarnish[ing] Ethiopia’s image and damag[ing] the good relations between Ethiopia and the United States.” The regime claimed that by focusing on Ethiopia and ignoring other neighboring countries with poor human rights record, Rep. Payne showed that he is driven less by “any concern for human rights than by his own personal anti-Ethiopian agenda.” Rep. Payne avoided personal attacks and always focused on the critical issues of human rights and democracy and finding a middle ground. In 2009, Rep. Payne struck a conciliatory tone with Zenawi’s regime while insisting on basic principles:
Ethiopia is a very important country. 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 Meles Zenawi should stop military attacks on the unarmed civilians of the Ogaden region.”
Rep. Payne was able to impact African policy so effectively because he had the support of many knowledgeable staffers and experts. One Africa expert who has been at Rep. Payne’s side over the years providing valuable technical assistance is Teodros “Ted” Dagne, an Ethiopian. Ted played a critical role in the formulation and ultimate passage of HR 2003 in the House.
Rep. Payne was a reasonable man. He was dignified man with steely resolve about human rights and helping Africa’s poor. He was quiet force of accountability, reconciliation and progress in Africa. He promoted open dialogue and peaceful change. He communicated a clear message to Africa’s dictators that the U.S. is looking for engagement and cooperation to help Africa become more democratic, respectful of human rights and achieve sustained economic development. He hoped for a “new day and for more dialogue” in Africa to resolve the range of challenging issues facing the continent.
Let Us Celebrate Donald Payne!
The passing of Donald Payne marks a bad day for America, a bad day for Ethiopia and a bad day for Africa! To lose a champion of Africa’s poor and starving masses is unbearable. We mourn a great loss to the cause of democracy and human rights in Africa, but we shall seek to overcome that loss with a celebration of a great life of accomplishment, compassion and caring. In celebrating Donald Payne’s accomplishments, President Obama said, “He made it his mission to fight for working families, increase the minimum wage, ensure worker safety, guarantee affordable health care and improve the educational system. He was a leader in U.S.-Africa policy, making enormous contributions towards helping restore democracy and human rights across the continent. Don will be missed, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends during this difficult time.” All Ethiopians and Africans who have been inspired by Donald Payne shall miss him dearly. We shall keep his memory alive by defending and spreading his legacy of human rights and democracy in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.