Ellison tours African democracies


Africa is very important to U.S. national security, U.S. Representative Keith Ellison told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder’s editorial staff during a July 11 visit to the newspaper.

“America’s national security really does depend largely on the security of others,” said Ellison, a member of a congressional delegation that recently visited several African countries June 29-July 7.

“If they are not safe or don’t have secured borders, it makes them attractive for the Bin Ladens of the world, and we end up committed there.”

Ellison, Minnesota’s first Black elected to the U.S. Congress, is part of the House Democracy Assistance Commission, which promotes the development of democratic governments worldwide. Many African countries are in the formative stages of democracy, he pointed out.

“Democracy in Africa is surging,” Ellison observed. “In countries where single-party states existed for many years, now a multi-party democracy is emerging. The U.S. needs to be a friend to these democracies.

“It is incumbent on everybody to try to strengthen the [African] states, because if you have a failed state, [the U.S.] will end up in a war zone,” he continued. “I say [that] what safeguards them will safeguard us.”

During his nine-day tour, Ellison visited Liberia, Kenya, the Congo, Malawi and Mauritania. Among the things he learned and shared with MSR editors were:

• Kenya “is a very diverse country” that include Muslims, Somalis, and those who call themselves “straight-up Africans.”

• Gender-based violence “is a massive problem” in such countries as the Congo. “It started out as a tool of war,” the congressman explained. “Tribe X would go out and rape the women of tribe Y. Now, no woman is safe — she complains about it [to officials] and either they do nothing about it or they ask her what she did to bring it upon herself.” Government officials, however, have begun seriously looking at this problem, Ellison said.

• Educational access for girls must improve. “Girls still are being told, ‘You don’t get to go to school [but] your brother does,’” said Ellison.

• The current world food crisis is “impacting Africa… The problem in the world is not that there is not enough food, but that there is not enough money to buy the food.”

“One of the lessons for me from the trip,” Ellison added, “is that here we are as the big bad U.S. telling these little African countries what they ought to be doing. But actually, in some ways their enthusiasm for the roles that they have as parliamentarians cause us to reflect on what we are doing.

“Are we falling into negative patterns? Do we need a shot in the arm on the importance of having a strong, active, vibrant oversight process and a voice for the opposition?”

China is currently very influential in several African countries; therefore, the U.S. must step up its involvement as well, Ellison pointed out. America’s strategy should be “to try and help strengthen the parliaments,” he believes.

Also, because many Liberians and Somalis are living here, Minnesotans should be interested in African affairs as well, said Ellison, whose district includes areas heavily populated by African immigrants.

Ellison described as a highlight of his trip meeting U.S. Senator Barack Obama’s grandmother, Sarah Hussein Onyango Obama, during a U.S. ambassador’s reception in Kenya, where she lives. “She is very matronly,” he said of her.

Africans are extremely interested in this year’s U.S. presidential election in which Obama is the Democratic Party’s nominee, reported Ellison: “Everybody wants Obama.”

Finally, visiting Africa helps him in his own reelection campaign, said Ellison. “It helps rededicate my commitment to oversight, my tolerance of voices of the political opposition and understanding that [political] parties that are not my party are not the enemy.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com, or read his blog: www.wwwchallman.blogspot.com