Senator Obama puts spotlight back on Africa

His visit to the continent attracts attention, but overall, momentum on Africa issues has been waning.

The throngs that Barack Obama has attracted on his two-week trip through Africa suggest a star status for the son of a Kenya-born economist, stretching from Lagos to Lesotho.

It hasn't hurt that the only African-American member of the US Senate has a warmly smiling granny in a photogenic west Kenya village. Or that the first-term senator from Illinois is regularly identified by African media as a likely future US presidential candidate.

Yet the high-profile hoopla around Mr. Obama is hardly the first time a US lawmaker has paid heed to the continent. Indeed, African-American members of Congress have kept close ties to Africa – and Africa issues – for years. Those links were forged when black lawmakers took up the anti-apartheid movement and worked with Africans who were to become officials in new governments.

Obama has raised the attention paid to Africa by a notch, at least temporarily. In addition, some observers say Darfur and its emergence as a global human rights lightning rod has refocused a congressional spotlight on Africa. And they say that such Africa-related issues as development, AIDS prevention and treatment, and global poverty have renewed interest in Africa – especially as some influential religious conservatives in Congress have adopted those issues as their own.

But some veterans of the anti-apartheid years say the absence of an overarching galvanizing issue as strong as that has weakened the intensity of connection to Africa and Africa-related issues.

"Things are at a low ebb right now," says Fran Farmer, a longtime congressional adviser on Africa issues.

Trips like Obama's and continuing rhetoric about Africa may suggest the contrary, but the fact is that Africa continues to lose out to other priorities, says Ms. Farmer, now a senior policy adviser on foreign affairs to Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D) of California.

"Due to pressing commitments in the Middle East, the amount of funding available for Africa (aside from HIV/AIDS) is shrinking," she said in an e-mail response to questions. "Moreover, there seems to be limited engagement of a substantive sort."

That is not an isolated view. "After apartheid, a group of members of Congress in the Congressional Black Caucus remained tuned in to southern Africa, and that has continued," says Adwoa Dunn-Mouton, a consultant to the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and another longtime legislative aide on African issues. "But I can't say it's continued with that same level of excitement."

Some thought the old days of coalitions and action on sanctions were back last spring when veterans of that cause were again on the protest lines – this time against the government of Sudan over Darfur.

"When violent repression was going on in South Africa, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus stepped forward and said, 'Enough is enough!' " said CBC Chairman Melvin Watt (D) of North Carolina as he and a group of African-American lawmakers protested outside the Embassy of Sudan last May. Representative Watt and six other lawmakers were arrested for blocking the embassy entrance, then released after paying a $50 fine for trespassing.

Since then, however, the Darfur issue has barely moved forward, with the United States and other international powers so far unsuccessful at gaining the Sudanese government's acceptance of a United Nations-led peacekeeping force for Darfur. But the UN Security Council did approve a resolution Thursday that would transfer authority over Darfur peacekeepers to the UN – a move the Council hopes will pressure Sudan to accept UN-led forces.

Obama had hoped to visit Sudan and some camps of internally displaced persons during his trip. The Sudanese government threw a wrench into that plan, however, waiting until the day before his departure to issue visas to the entourage, according to an Obama staffer. Instead, Obama is scheduled to tour Darfur refugee camps during his stop in Chad Friday and Saturday.

The fact that a senator is drawing attention to the cause does make some difference, experts say. "There is more interest on the Senate side than there used to be, and that is having some impact," says Gayle Smith, Africa expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

One difference is that religious conservatives like Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas have taken on Africa-related issues like Darfur, AIDS, and poverty as moral imperatives for US foreign policy. Others say it is the unheralded, behind-the-scenes contacts with rising African officials, parliamentarians, and civil society.

Some experts insist the contacts continue on a two-way street. Says Farmer: "We all have lessons to teach and learn, and we should be more mutually supportive."

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