While the new Africa team in the Obama administration is just now taking its place with the confirmation this past week of Linda Thomas-Greenfield as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, the Africa team on Capitol Hill has been in place for some time. While significant differences are evident between the members of the two parties, there is reason to hope that there will be more agreement when is comes to Africa in both the House and the Senate.
In the Senate, Africa may have its strongest advocates it has ever had. On the Democratic side of the aisle, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware is actively engaged on African issues, perhaps as much as any U.S. senator has been in years, if not ever. Coons has experience in Africa, having studied at the University of Nairobi. Coons is especially concerned with the links between jobs in America and African development and has proposed a series of steps for the U.S. that he believes are necessary to strengthen the relationship among the countries of Africa and the United States.
What is unusual about the African Affairs subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is that it is not just one person who stands out above all others in his concerns on Africa. Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin has sponsored and actively pushed for a bill that would strengthen economic ties to Africa as well as create more financial security for companies wishing to invest in Africa. The bill was narrowly defeated last year, but the senator's team is working hard for its passage this session again. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., recently attended the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which was attended by more than forty African Heads of State, and is also committed to international cooperation on African development.
The remaining two Democrats on the Africa subcommittee, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, have shown less of an interest in Africa. Other than a listing of committee assignments, Africa is not mentioned in their bios and little is heard of their engagement with Africa on Capitol Hill. However, Udall comes from a family long engaged in U.S. politics and has a service ethic ingrained as a member of the Mormon Church. Shaheen is the only women on the Africa subcommittee.
On the Republican side, the ranking member, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, is considered by many to be among the most progressive Republicans in the U.S. Senate, often voting against issues his party supports. Like Udall, Flake is a Mormon, and like Coons, has significant life experience in Africa, having served as Executive Director for the Foundation for Democracy in Namibia, and traveled to many African countries. Earlier Flake had served his Mormon missionary requirement in Africa as well. He has shown a strong interest in Africa and is likely to find a great deal of common ground with his counterpart Coons. Both Flake and Coons have also reached out to members of the House on a number of issues related to Africa.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., replaces Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Although both are strong conservatives, McCain is expected to add some moderation to the committee. Inhofe was best known for his opposition to the Sudan government, but showed little interest in broader issues such as economic issues.
The remaining two Republicans on the Africa subcommittee are Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party Republican, and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. Both of these Senators are expected to take strong conservative stands on most issues related to Africa, but Barrasso has a reputation as a more moderating influence.
One Repubican no longer on the Africa subcommittee but still very much engaged with and interested in Africa is Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson. As ranking member of the Africa subcommittee before moving to the Senate Finance Committee, Isakson forged an unusually productive relationship with his Democratic counterpart. Isakson will remain an important bridge in the Senate between parties.
In fact, the Coons-Isakson personal and professional relationship was referred to by some as a badly divided Senate's version of the Odd Couple, two men steeped in very different political philosophies and backgrounds coming together for support of U.S.-Africa relations. The Coons-Flake relationship may also be a very strong one. If so, look for strong coordinated support for U.S.-Africa relations in the Senate over the next two years. There will be serious political differences between other members of the committee, but with a Democratic majority and a jointly progressive leadership on Africa, the continent should expect its strongest support ever from the U.S. Senate.
Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.