J.C. Watts Heads To Africa

In an effort to promote "American-style" democracy, economic development and healthcare, as well as to highlight the growing importance of U.S. - Africa relations, Rep. J.C. Watts is leading a 5 -member Congressional delegation to Africa on a six-day fact finding mission. Leaving today, Rep. Watts and his delegation will visit Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana. The trip, which comes as a surprise to many, promises to have an impact on the emerging discussion on Africa, taking place in the US Congress, on a variety of fronts.

The House Republican Conference Chairman, who is making only his third foreign trip (the other trips have been to Africa as well), told BlackElectorate.com that he is looking forward to the trip for a variety of reasons.

"We are focused on trade, economic development, healthcare and disease prevention, democracy promotion and stability. The continent of Africa has great potential. And I think Africa can be a fantastic trade partner of ours in the 21st century. Obviously there are infrastructure concerns. There are healthcare concerns. We will be meeting with the President of Ghana and the President of Nigeria. We will be talking to the national assembly in Nigeria and we will be talking about many of these issues. So I look forward to the opportunity to going over there. I met the President of Nigeria about 6 months ago, and actually met him in 1988, although he probably would not remember that. But we hosted him about 6 months ago in the Speaker's office - the Republican leadership did." Rep. Watts said

Those familiar with the trip clearly indicate that Nigeria is the main focus of the trip, especially for Rep. Watts.

"I went to Nigeria back in 1995 when Nigeria was under military rule and did not accomplish what I felt I needed to accomplish. I talked to some of the government officials but did not get to meet with the President. Today, they are a democratic administration. The atmosphere is much different and I look forward now, to going back with some of my colleagues, to address some important issues", the Oklahoma congressman added

We raised the issue, with Rep. Watts, of whether or not he would be discussing with the African leaders the negative impact that taking advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is having on their economies. In particular, we pointed to the recent advice the IMF gave to Nigeria to end fuel subsidies. The result of the implementation of such a policy in Nigeria, last June, was civil unrest and riots. We asked Rep. Watts if he would be comparing his own vision for economic growth with IMF advice to African nations to devalue their currencies, end subsidies and raise taxes and the impact of those policies.

Rep. Watts replied, "Well, I think that anytime you have a lending institution whether public or private you are going to have certain concerns and that there are certain things that you take into consideration and there are real concerns that you should have about extending taxpayer dollars to such institutions. But I think that in Nigeria, they would tell you themselves that there are infrastructure concerns and there is a need for reform. President Obasanjo has made a statement on this. I think that he is going in the right direction. I think he is trying to take his country in the right direction as far as ending corruption and crime and addressing some of the infrastructure problems. I think that any lending institution has to take the culture and the circumstances under consideration when you are lending money. So, I don't know exactly what the IMF has told the country of Nigeria but I think you approach that from the basis that any time the IMF or any other lending institution make a loan, you want to make sure that it is sound and covers the necessary resources for development."

To highlight the importance of the continent and to take discussions even further, U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R.-Il.) will be leading a parallel bipartisan trip to Africa next week. Rep. Hastert will lead his delegation to South Africa and Kenya and will meet up with Rep. Watts' delegation in Nigeria.

A meeting with former South African President Nelson Mandela has even been planned.

Joining Rep. Hastert on his trip will be Congressional Black Caucus members Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX.) and Rep. Bobby Rush ( D-Il.) Many expect the combined trips to have the effect of placing U.S. -Africa relations at a historic level of importance, setting the stage for legislation, on a variety of issues, from AIDS drugs to sanctions on Liberia and Sudan, to be debated in Congress this session.

Many expect Rep. J.C. Watts to most visibly represent the GOP's increasingly nuanced position on African issues.

It is a role that Rep. Watts does not appear to be shying away from.

When asked a question about the possibility that his trip may have a positive effect in terms of a political outreach to Black Americans, Rep. Watts clearly responded in the affirmative.

He answered, "I definitely think so and I think that the Republican Party ought to be involved in Africa"

Rep. Watts believes his trip makes that abundantly clear.

Cedric Muhammad

Thursday, April 5, 2001