Saturday, December 09, 2006

Congressman Donald Payne, the Darfur Interview

I had the opportunity to interview New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne, who's next in line to chair the subcommittee on Africa and Human Rights in the new Democratic Congress.

For the millions of people in the Darfur region of Sudan, Congressman Payne's chairmanship can't come soon enough. As you know, all hell is broken loose in Darfur. It's a full-blown genocide, a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Donald Payne promises to make the genocide in Darfur a top priority. He has some bold ideas to end the dying as well as the smarts (and the foreign policy chops) to address the Darfur issue head on. And pretty soon, he'll (hopefully) have the clout as well. So check out the interview and see for yourself why Congressman Payne is out last best hope to break the current cycle of genocide.

Jay Lassiter:
Thank you for you hospitality Congressman Payne. It's nice to be in Newark again. I actually had a really nice walk over to your office to the train station. The city really is looking great. So maybe to start you could tell us a little about your city and your district, and maybe for those out there who do not know you, maybe a little background on yourself?
Donald Payne:
Well first of all the 10th Congressional District encompasses about twenty or so towns or parts of towns. I am in three counties, the largest being in Essex County. I have a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious district. Quite a bit of my district is also in Union County and in Hudson County I have parts of Jersey City and Bayonne. So that makes up my district. It's a lot of blue collar workers, a lot of minority black and Hispanic persons, some of upper income communities as well.

Anyhow, I was elected in 1988, going into my tenth term in the 110th Congress. It's really a pleasure to serve the district. Prior to being elected to Congress, I served as a member of the Essex Co. board of Freeholders for a couple of terms.

Twenty years in Congress. Wow and congratulations....
Eighteen going on nineteen and it'll be twenty when I finish this term.
You've been proactive in African issues your entire career. Could you give us a little back ground on your perspective?
I became keenly interested in Africa during my college years. I was active in the Civil Rights movement in the United States but parallel to that, there was a lot of movement for independence (from the colonial powers) in Africa. In 1957 Ghana got its independence and that was a big thing...I was teaching at Malcolm X Shabazz High School at the time and we had a celebration at what was going on because there was so little attention given to Africa in this country.

I watched the parallel between the Civil Rights movement in the US and the pro-independence movement in Africa. I don't know if one fed onto the other, but they just happed to occur simultaneously. In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to the inaugural program in Ghana that year.

As a matter of fact, the 50th anniversary celebration of the independence on Ghana is being celebrated next year in 'o7 and we look forward to participating in that celebration next year. So my interest came at that time and I think the big issue that happened in that era was the Patrice Lumumba case. Lumumba, who was the president of Congo allegedly was murdered by the Belgians with the tacit approval of the Americans, leaving control to (strongman) Joseph Mubutu. (The aversion of Western powers towards communism influenced their decision to finance Mobutu's quest to maintain "order" in the new state by neutralizing --and later murdering -- Lumumba in a proxy coup.)

I became president of the YMCA of America -- actually the first black person to ever be elected to that post -- in 1970. I got to Africa for the first time in 1972 (in the capacity of the YMCA leader.) It was a great opportunity because I became a member of the world YMCA board and later became a member of the Y's world refugee committee.

So not only was the interest in Africa there, but I also had the opportunity -- at a pretty young age --to be in a really responsible position as related to Africa and what was happening there.
Given the breadth of you experience dealing with African affairs it seems like you're uniquely qualified to give us a little primer about the unfortunate situation that's going on in Darfur right now.
Darfur is a real tragedy. You would think that genocide couldn't possibly happen again. But it's happening again. In 1916 there was a genocide in Armenia, the Turks tried to exterminate a whole group of people and no one did anything. I realize that was a long time ago, but to think that such problems persist. If we had applied what we learned in Armenia, perhaps the Holocaust might have been prevented? Then we've seen the others: in Rwanda and Cambodia and we thought there was a resolve for "never again."

Secondly, when we did get a Darfur genocide resolution passed it was the first time in Congress that a genocide was declared while it was going on. I was encouraged -- just elated -- that the vote was 422- to 0 and went through the day before we adjourned for last summer's recess. Then we went to the Senate and they took on the resolution and without any dissent, they passed it too. So we really thought this was going to mean progress in Sudan. But now I am totally disappointed that there has been 100,000 dead since we declared genocide. So I have a real empty feeling that I have let these people down because we were all so elated. When I drew the (Darfur) resolution up people said the bill was a long shot. So when it went through, there was elation that we finally had a tool to move forward and have the whole world acknowledge the genocide and then stomp it out. As you know, genocide is an attempt to eliminate a race by various means such as violence and we've been frustrated that there has not really been a proper response.

Jan Egeland's term at the UN is expiring at the end of the month and once again the Sudanese government resented Egeland’s honesty and has made it clear that they do not want him reappointed, so he'll be gone soon. It's really a sad state of affairs.

Resolution 1706 was passed by the United Nations stating the need for 17,300 peacekeeper troops in Darfur, Sudan. In Addis Abiba, Ethiopia last week, there was a call for an even larger force, about 27,000 UN and African Union troops, and then the day after the so called agreement, the government of Sudan changes their tune and said "we didn't agree to that. We are not going to let the UN in."

Since that time several more villages have been attacked by the Sudanese government. The Janjaweed in Darfur, they attacked another town....brand new incursions, Janjaweed came into town killed several families, stole their cattle, and burned down the village.
This morning I heard something on public radio and the Sudanese president Omar al Bashir is firm. He indicated that he regarded the presence of UN peacekeepers on Sudanese soil as a return to colonialism. Does his government in Khartoum actually support the genocide? Is that crazy to suggest?
It's not crazy at all. It is a matter of fact that Khartoum not only supports it, but they are the perpetrators of it. And they are using this neo-colonialism as a way to try to get African countries to say "we should not have foreigners return to Africa."

That's hogwash! That's ridiculous. But Al Bashir has been able to continually have people intimidated by these outlandish statements of colonialization. Al Bashir knows that the governments of Africa are timid about entangling themselves with the government of Sudan. And so we do not see the will of the African countries imposing themselves strongly on the Sudanese government. Sudan is one of the stronger African countries, now they have oil wealth and they are just continuing to intimidate the African Union.
Nicolas Kristoph suggests in today's New York Times that the Janjaweed's attacks are beginning to spread into neighboring countries such as Chad and the Central African Republic. (see map) Umm, that's kind of similar to what happened with the Uganda crisis some years back, it was almost, um sort of
a proxy war between these militias. What on earth can we do?
It's terrible; you had finally at one point almost a mini-world war in Africa with the Ugandans and the Rwandans going into the Congo. And Zimbabwe and Angola and others get pulled in as well. Now the Janjaweed is trying to destabilize the government of Chad and I know because I have spoken to the president of Chad on several occasions. Also the water tables in northern Chad have always been historically low and they are almost being depleted and so it created tensions between the (Sudanese refugees) and the people living in Chad already. The Central African Republic has a weak government in the first place, and one another government falls you have even more refugees. It's going to become almost impossible to reach people, to feed people.

The fact that so many people are in flight is why it's so difficult to get an accurate number of deaths in this conflict. On the low end, there are estimates of 200,000 victims of the Darfur genocide, other estimates go as high at 450,000. They die from a lot of different reasons -- malnutrition -- the physical killing is about 50% of the total death toll. It's the malnutrition and disease (associated with war and refugee crises) which push the number so high.
This is depressing. I was kind of hoping you'd tell me that I am overly pessimistic about this stuff. But looking at the reality, it's hard to not get down. Is there a glimmer of hope for Darfur with the recent Democratic victories in the Congress? Is there a hint of a possibility that there will be a change?
We still have to get the Bush Administration to act.

You know, we find ourselves in this unfortunate situation. If this crisis was pre-Iraq, really I think we would have been able to really I think organize the world community and send some of our troops in -- we would only need a limited number -- to do support and so forth. But because of the Iraq situation, and following Somalia, there has been some timidity about Africa anyway. But I think the proportions to which is has risen it would have been some affirmative action by now had it now been for the debacle in Iraq. Many of us can support Afghanistan, that is where Osama bin Laden was. We should have committed ourselves to go after him, but as you know we went to Iraq instead. So it's been very difficult to get anyone in the administration to talk about any kind of real action on the part of our military.

I still believe that a UN force should be gathered, that we should have the UN and NATO prepare to assist, that we should provide armored vehicles, which we do not have in Darfur now, and that the biggest weapon, that would be the drones. I say we should have a no fly zone. And you can make your messages known very clearly without putting one single American troop in harm's way. I am not a military guy, so I don't know exactly how they work, but I know that unmanned drones are able to detect and destroy. And if this (genocide) continues, I think we have an obligation to do something to stop it.

I think the first step should actually be the deploying of some reconnaissance-type planes to get a lay of the land, deploy some drone to identify aggressive troops from the government of Sudan who are perusing innocent people and we should destroy them with the technology we have at our disposal. I think if a couple of those (drone missions) were to occur, you might see a change of opinion of the part of the government of Sudan. Umm, it seems kind of far-reaching, but someone has to stop this genocide and we have to do something to show them enough is enough. At some point, enough will have to be enough.

I strongly support taking on....We could destroy some of those (janjaweed) battalions which could be done simply by pushing a button. It's just that simple.
With the Democratic takeover of Congress and the Senate I am keeping my fingers crossed that Darfur will become a bigger priority. Do you think it's possible that perhaps you might assume a leadership position as one of your committee assignments?
Yes it's quite possible. None of us can say for certain where we will be in the next Congress -- it goes through the process with elections -- and so I can not say for certain where I will be -- but I think it's a good possibility that I will be in a leadership position on the subcommittee that deals with Africa and global human rights. I have been to Africa several times to meet with the Secretary General Kofi Annan and it will certainly be a priority in the new Congress, so far as I am concerned, if I am in a position of leadership on that committee.

With Kofi Annan leaving, Jan Egeland leaving, I just worry about a future that does not look encouraging. But we are going to have to step up to the plate and encourage our European allies that they too have to become more engaged as well. It's surprising the lack of resolve on the part of the NATO countries (regarding the genocide in Darfur.)
If I am not mistaken, Jan Egeland is the UN Commissioner of human rights who was recently kicked out of Darfur for sharing in a blog , accounting the atrocities that were happening. And as a last resort he was so desperate that he put aside the usual diplomatic protocols and started blogging about what he was seeing in Darfur. So he's gone. Kofi Annan is going to go write his memoirs as well pretty soon so I guess the democratic takeover of Congress is the only glimmer of hope that some of us have. So I know we can't be sure of the committee assignments, but don't you think that before you even get out of the gates, having a black person as the Africa subcommittee chairman is symbolically very important?
Oh, there's no question about it. Only for a short time with Congressman Dix back in the 70's was that the case (that a black person led this committee.) But like I said, the issue of Darfur is as big as any we're facing right now, like North Korea or Iran or Iraq, this is right there at the top.

But we have lost so much of our moral leadership. We were once a beacon of hope, when the going got tough the United States was willing to find solutions and answers. That's been our legacy since the birth of this nation. So it's really a shame that we have sort of relegated ourselves to where we are today.
Do you think that possibly assuming the lead on Sudan would be a really great way for the United States to possibly restore some of our moral high ground?
No question. Let me tell you something: the people in this country are really anxious to see something happen in Darfur. For example there's a group of high school kids right here from Milburn, NJ that I spoke with about a year ago. These kids raised over $100,000 for Darfur relief! Just last week those same students came to an event at Essex County College where African students and these (high school) youngsters from suburban Essex came together for a film showing and discussion where I also spoke.

In Washington DC just yesterday some students from Northern Virginia had a press conference urging their local Congressmen Wolfe and Moran that they want to get their state of Virginia to divest in Sudan! We had that done here, my brother (Assemblyman) William Payne had a bill in NJ and now the state's pension monies are all out of Sudan, just that quickly. It just shows what can be done in about 6 or 7 states now. Trade policy is a federal issue, but we are moving against Sudan with the divestment.

I had my colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus and we met with the ambassador of the People's Republic if China and we told him under no uncertain terms that we were outraged by their continued support of the government of Sudan and that their objections to strong resolutions (on the UN Security Council) and that we are not willing to accept this anymore. We also had a meeting with the Arab League and we are totally disappointed in their response and we expect them to come up with some solutions as well. So we are going to keep the pressure on, this is the Congressional Black Caucus whose membership has taken on Sudan as its number one issue
That was one of my questions, about China and Russia and maybe some of the other Arab and Muslim countries like Egypt. Don't they have a vested interest in this working out peacefully?
Absolutely. Egypt has more influence on Sudan and could actually act on (Sudan president) Bashir. They were actually one country for a period of time and Egypt has really been making excuses for their Sudan roll through the years, usually downplaying what is really going on. So we'll let the Egyptian president know that the 2 billion dollars his country gets every year at the first of the year (in US aid)....he's got to get his act together and stop making excuses for the Sudanese government.

This crisis also has racial overtones. The people getting killed in Sudan are allowed to die because they are black.
You speak to the racial component of this crisis and that's really the 10,ooo pound elephant in the room, but no one ever wants to acknowledge that it was the Jews in Europe, it was the Asians in Cambodia, it was the Muslims in I guess Bosnia and now it's the black people in Africa. I mean is this a pattern or is this just a huge coincidence?
It looks like a pattern. It seems like we are regressing backwards. No one ever thought in the new Millennium we would be talking about people being killed because they are black. It's unconscionable. And the denial of the part of the Sudanese government that this is even happening....and it's happening before our very eyes.

But the people in America are eager for a solution. They want to know what they can do to help. They are frustrated.
I think I share a lot of people's frustration. Why the hell doesn't the government do something?

I read an op-ed in the Washington Post by John Prendergast who was the director of African affairs for the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration. Umm, he suggests the American government's inaction is rooted in a deepening intelligence sharing arrangement that Washington has with Khartoum which basically blunts any US response to the violence. Basically he says that our human rights principles are clashing with our post-911 intelligence gathering priorities.
Absolutely no question about it. The head of Sudan's intelligence agency was brought here and they brought him here to talk about the sharing of intelligence and Sudan offered the US information about Al-Qaeda. Of course, this is the same regime that arranged for Osama bin Laden to be there (in Sudan) from 1991-96. So if the Bush administration thinks that their government is leveling with us about Al-Qaeda, they have another thought coming.

But we are so desperate, so weak in intelligence, that we are willing to really go for anything it seems like. And so it's a bad cop-good cop thing. The Congress is making resolutions, and then the Bush Administration follows up with a wink and a nod. And that's exactly what is happening. When our government has to wallow in the gutter with criminals and murderers with blood dripping off their hands, it's a sad day for the United States of America.
Well why don't we just admit that there is no viable solution that's palatable to both sides of this crisis and just give up?
Oh we can't give up. We are going to keep fighting and we are going to win. And we will win.
Congressman is there anything that might inspire some hope moving forward?
I believe that when the Congress reconvenes were are going to put together a team of good people to address the Darfur Crisis. To have a roundtable, then hold official meetings to see what ideas are on the table. Then we are going to take the best ideas forth because we are not going to allow people to be killed and murdered simply because their skin is black
.JL: I feel so ashamed that I don't even know what to say.

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For more about Darfur:
Sudan Freedon March
High School students speak out against Genocide

(Image courtesy Mike Lane)

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