Ramping up US Africa Relations – An Interview with Dr. Melvin Foote of the Constituency for Africa

Part of a series of Live Interviews conducted during Global Health Catalyst Cancer Summit at Harvard in Boston
For six days beginning September 12 to the 17th, the Washington DC based Constituency for Africa (CFA) – a non-profit 501 c3 organization that works to educate and galvanize American opinion over African issues, US policy towards Africa and the African Diaspora – will be holding its 2016 Ronald H. Brown African Affairs Series. CFA will convene key stakeholders to analyze and develop formal recommendations that will be presented to both the Democratic and Republican parties for their consideration.

Under the theme “Setting the US-Africa Agenda for the next Administration”, CFA also will use the findings from the Ronald H. Brown African Affairs Series to base their advocacy with the next administration. The theme certainly reflects the impending and inevitable change with US elections in November and as President Obama exits the stage for a new leader of the free world.

Back in April of 2016, DUNIA Magazine caught up with the President and CEO of CFA, Dr. Melvin Foote at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at the Harvard in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was a speaker at the Global Health Catalyst Cancer Summit. Dr. Foote acknowledged that as much change as there has been in the US-Africa relationship over the decades, there is much more to be done even as China, India, Japan and others zero-in on opportunities in Africa and put the US in an awkward defensive posture.

Dr Melvin Foote

DUNIA Magazine: Dr. Melvin Foote, your organization, the Constituency for Africa (CFA) has arguably been a force in US – Africa relations for quite a while. What are some of its key accomplishments, if you were to name just three of them?

Dr. Melvin Foote: Gosh…Where do I start… We were at the forefront of The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) – President George Bush’s AIDS program. Prior to President Bush’s announcement on launching PEPFAR, CFA, under my previous Chairman former Congressman Ron Dellums, launched our own program which we called the AIDS Marshal Plan. Mr. Dellums, as CFA’s Chairman, got his successor in Congress, the Honorable Barbara Lee to sponsor legislation (The Leach-Lee Bill), that was the footprint and guidance for PEPFAR. Needless to say we were really pleased that President Bush committed $15 billion dollars and signed PEPFAR into law.

A few years earlier, CFA was heavily involved in the creation and establishment of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – the Trade Bill. CFA took the idea of AGOA around the United States and organized a series of townhall meetings in cities and towns across the country that built support for AGOA — which was being advocated by many African countries. AGOA was a monumental shift of US engagement with Africa from traditional provision of humanitarian aid to Africa, with a trade regime which created dramatic changes in Africa and more effectively addresses US long-term interest.

A third major area of CFA impact has been the engaging of the diaspora in US – Africa relations, and positioning African Americans and other Americans of African descent to be part of the process. To this effect we advocated with the US government that the Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs be black. Five of the past six Assistant Secretaries have all been black — (Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Ambassador Jendayi Frazer, Ambassador Connie Newman and Ambassador George Moose). The only break in this chain was with Ambassador Walter Kansteiner, who served the first term of President George W. Bush’s administration while the Secretary of State was General Colin Powell – who is obviously an African-American. Before this period the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs were all white!

We are now pressing to have the Diaspora engaged in all aspects of US policy towards Africa. When you look at the US government agencies that implement US policy towards Africa, such as USAID, the US Department of Commerce, OPIC, the US Department of Agriculture, etc., you would be shocked at how few blacks are included in their leadership; how few black firms are engaged in procurement and contracting; and how few blacks are engaged in their policy formulation processes. CFA is working to change this picture by lobbying for much more Diaspora engagement in employment services, in contracting and procurement, and in the policy formulation. One idea we are pressing is for each of these agency to have an annual Diaspora Open House, where Diaspora can be invited in to explore opportunities. We also want these organizations to have written Diaspora policies which can be posted on their web-sites and shared with various Diaspora networks.

What are some of the improvements that you think we need to see in terms of the relationships which you’ve mentioned between Africans and African Americans? What are the challenges, but what are especially the improvements in the relationships?

Dr. Melvin Foote: Well, when I first came to Washington our foreign aid to Africa constituted dropping food from airplanes. Sometimes we killed people on the ground with the food coming out of the airplane landing on their heads. That was the nature of our strategy to address hunger and poverty in Africa. We were not on the ground…we just dropped stuff from the airplanes.

We’ve gone from those days of airplane food drops to where we started giving the money to African governments directly. And of course they stole a lot of the money and put it in secret Swiss Bank accounts. We then switched up and gave the money to NGOs, thinking they would manage the resources more honestly. Unfortunately, the NGOs also had management problems with the money and started having paid conferences all over the place, to talk about poverty in Africa.

I think the US is actually learning and today is doing a much better job of helping in Africa. I think that President Clinton really opened the door for a new relationship with Africa. President Bush followed and was outstanding on many fronts! President Obama was slow in the early years, largely because he inherited a country that was nearly bankrupt, but has certainly stepped up in strengthening US relations with Africa.

For decades for whatever reason, the US refused to support infrastructure projects in Africa. The US thought that our support in Africa should be humanitarian and social. The Chinese meanwhile have invested billions in support of infrastructure projects in Africa, and are clearly seen by many African countries as the best partner for the continent. The US now finds itself in a defensive posture and scrambling to try to catch up and remain relevant.

Africa matters to the United States. We currently get about 10% of our oil from Africa and that number is expected to go up to about 25% in ten years. With the critical situation in the Middle East, Africa may well become even more important to the US as a source for oil. So now as we come to realize that Africa does matter, we are seeing ourselves competing with the Chinese, Indians, Japanese and with others who also want access to Africa’s natural resources. We certainly have a long way to go. We have indeed made a lot of progress over the last two decades. We have a lot of commitment on both the Republican and Democratic sides of Congress. We are very much moving in the right direction and on the right train. We just need to add more fuel to the tank and move faster. We still have a long way to go before we achieve a good relationship with Africa, that benefits African people.

Here at the Summit you have emphasized the importance of Africans and African Americans, even within a Summit like this, to caucus in an isolated environment. Why do you think this is extremely important?

Dr. Melvin Foote: It is critical for black people to have space, even in such an impressive conference here at Harvard, to discuss issues of unity, cooperation and responsibility. Kwame Nkrumah talked about this over 50 years ago, you know, and not much has changed. Marcus Garvey and others…we have to understand that unity is the key for the survival and empowerment of African people. The history of black people including slavery and colonization should be sufficient for our people to understand the urgent need to unify in order to protect our economic, political and social interest. The divisions, and lack of trust and understanding amongst the 2 billion black people of color has opened the doors for other communities to exploit us in all kinds of unimaginable ways. It is going to take a long time, maybe even 100 years or more – but if we are able to come together domestically and globally, we will find that we can compete with China, India, the European Union, and other blocks for economic and political gain. Education and consciousness-raising are certainly keys in this process.

The colonizers divided Africa into more than 50 small and fragile countries, speaking different languages and promoting different cultures. This was done intentionally to ensure that no one group in Africa could resist the colonizers. As an African-American, I have no idea where specifically in Africa my people are from. I am often asked, “Mel, where are you from in Africa?” I honestly don’t know nor care. I never tested my DNA…I don’t want to test it. They might tell me I’m from a little country called Togo, you know. I see myself as from Cape Town to Cairo, and you can add in there the Diaspora, add in there Jamaica and Trinidad and the United States. I am from the Diaspora of Africa.

How closely do you work with African leaders? A short while ago I heard you indict them for their management and leadership of Africa. How does the Constituency for Africa that you represent, foster a working relationship with them to improve lives in Africa?

Dr. Melvin Foote: I recently had dinner with the President of Namibia, Hage Geingob, who is my personal friend. It was a small and intimate dinner affair at the Ambassador’s residence. We talked, just like we are talking now, on some important issues affecting Africa. I know many of the African Presidents and other leaders personally. While I try to work with some of the leaders, I can’t say I work with all of them. I do though try to be open to talk with all of them whether I personally (or my country) likes and agree with them or not. I have met many of the African leaders one way or the other. Some of them are really doing very good work, and you can see it in the well-being of their people. Others are doing poorly, and that is also reflected in the quality of life of their people. There are many issues of governance, democracy, war, corruption and ethnicity, that many of the African leaders grapple with. On balance though, I think Africa is doing much better today than 20 years ago. I also think that the next generation that is emerging is poised and will do an even better job of moving the continent forward.

I hosted a meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan (the former President of Nigeria) after he came out of power and everybody was afraid to touch him because of allegations of massive corruption in his government. But I organized a 40 persons delegation here in Washington and people sat down with him and had a very fruitful and honest discussion. We raised issues and discussed the corruption allegations against him and with his government. We also discussed issues of democracy and governance in Nigeria and in Africa, the political leadership challenge in Africa, and other important topics. We actually learned a lot from him, and I think he also learned a lot from us too. I have also had fruitful dialogue with the governments of Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, DRC and other so-called problematic actors on the continent!

If we talk about the future of Africa we’ve got to talk about good governance and leadership. We have also got to talk about the next generation. What we heard about Nigeria and the billions that have been stolen – and taken out of the continent and placed in Swiss bank accounts, accounts in Panama and invested in luxury houses in London and Washington – this money in no way benefits Africa. What we hear about poorly executed contracts for African resources, whereas the money ends up in China, in Europe or here in the U.S., is totally unacceptable.

This is one reason that I am so excited by President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (the Mandela Washington Fellows), which brings young African leaders to the United States for a 6 – weeks training and empowerment experience during the summer months. I am personally pleased that this is an idea that I was able to offer President Obama, and which was accepted, at the onset of his administration in early 2009, while he was searching for ideas to positively impact in Africa at a time when US economy had collapsed; the US was fighting wars involving US troops on two fronts; and the US was trying to adjust to the historic nature of his election. YALI has attracted the best and brightest on the continent to come to the United States for the program. Most importantly, the YALI program has enabled young people from different African countries to meet each other! This must not be understated. The weakness thus far has been the reluctance of the US contractor managing the project to have the YALI participants to interface with similarly high-achieving African-Americans. It is almost like there is a fear that these young people might try to unify if introduced to each other. Anyway, CFA is going to press to change this going forward with the next administration.

One last question, Sir. You said earlier that you met with President Goodluck Jonathan, on the aftermath of his presidency in Nigeria. Did he have any regrets about leaving power so easily, as opposed to rigging elections like most of his African and developing world peers, or was he happy about the transition?

Dr. Melvin Foote: I think he was somewhat relieved about it actually! I think he was honest with us. I think he reflected on the facts and concluded that he can be a good example for African leaders going forward. If an African leader loses an election and it is certified by the national election body, then he really must go. Unfortunately because of the fragile nature of democracy in Africa, the leaders are often tied closely to their tribal and ethnic affiliations, and so if he loses the election, his people also lose the election. The bottom line is that this translates into jobs, political appointments, patronage and everything else. Sometimes leaders actually want to step down, but their militaries and others who benefit from the largess of the government won’t let them leave! In the past year we have seen a number of African leaders change their constitutions to enable to continue to rule – Rwanda, Republic of Congo, Angola, DRC, Zimbabwe and Uganda to name a few!

Thank you very much, Sir

Dr. Melvin Foote: Thank you.

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