“He was a leader in US-Africa policy, making enormous contributions towards helping restore democracy and human rights across the continent,” said President Barack Obama.
A former teacher, insurance executive and head of the YMCA, Payne was the first African American elected to the Congress from New Jersey.
“Payne was known for his progressive voting record,” Politico notes, “and he devoted significant time to African relief causes.”
“It is such sad news and a huge loss for the cause of democracy in Africa,” said Ethiopian democracy advocate Birtukan Midekssa. “He was one of those who fought hard to get Ethiopian political prisoners released in 2007,” she said, noting that he also secured passage of a bill in defense of Ethiopian democracy and human rights and wrote an official letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, calling for her release when she was imprisoned in 2008.
In a prescient warning of the threat of terrorism in the African sub-continent, he called for greater efforts to alleviate poverty, end corruption and promote democracy in Africa, warning (above) that “If we’re not paying attention, someone else will.”
“Today we have all lost a champion for the underserved, a voice for the downtrodden, a leader for peoples and causes that are too often neglected,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on Foreign Affairs. “With wisdom and charm, insight and steadfastness, Don Payne distinguished himself as a leader on many important issues, but particularly related to Africa. Presidents, Prime Ministers, and many of his colleagues in Congress followed Don’s lead and sought out his counsel, for his word on these topics was, often times, the only word.”
A Newark native, Payne served 12 terms in Congress, after first being elected in 1988.
“Congressman Payne spoke out on behalf of suffering people in some of the most difficult situations around the world: from Rwanda to Sudan to the peace process in Northern Ireland,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“He’s had a tremendous impact on the state, country and the world,” said William Payne, his brother:
Payne was known as a tireless advocate for his constituents, a champion of education and a de facto ambassador to Africa. He helped secure $100 million to help prevent and treat Malaria and HIV/AIDS, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Payne was the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights. In 2003, President George W. Bush named him as one of two congressional delegates to the United Nations.
“On one of his many trips to the African continent, a 2009 visit to Somalia after a U.S. advisory against Americans visiting there,” Bloomberg reports, “Payne narrowly escaped a mortar attack in the capital, Mogadishu. Islamist insurgents took responsibility for the attack on the Mogadishu airport as he was leaving.”
One of his earlier trips to Africa was a 12-day tour with President Bill Clinton in 1998 to Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal. Upon his return, Payne told the Associated Press that he hoped the coverage of the trip would give Americans a new awareness and appreciation of African countries that were making strides toward democracy.
“The only images during the past decade have been those of strife, disease, conflict, dictators, children starving,” he said. “So for the first time, America had an opportunity to see a balanced picture of Africa.”
In 2004, Congress passed a resolution introduced by Payne describing the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan as “genocide,” the first time Congress had applied the term to an ongoing massacre, the New Yorker magazine reported.
A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy for nine years, Payne received the NED’s Democracy Service Medal in 2003. He “effectively combined a thoughtful, low-keyed approach with an intense determination to fight injustice, and not only in Africa,” the Capitol Hill award ceremony heard:
Don Payne is recognized as the leader of efforts to promote democracy throughout Africa and to build close bonds of friendship between African democrats and the people of the United States. Regardless of the administration in power or the issues that capture the spotlight of the media, Don has been a steady voice for engagement abroad to advance human rights and peace, and for solidarity with those who are struggling, often against great odds, to build democratic societies.
“He was an idealist and a democrat,” said Dave Peterson, NED’s Africa program director, “undaunted by what was politically convenient or logistically possible, routinely haranguing dictators, visiting political prisoners, and flying off on grueling tours of Africa, famously visiting Mogadishu just a couple years ago, even as al-Shabab militia fired on his plane as it departed.”
Payne was not only an eloquent advocate for African democracy, but a nuanced analyst who remained sensitive to the potential for backsliding and wary of prescriptions for development without democracy. Noting that Kenya had deteriorated alarmingly from its former status as a celebrated oasis of stability and success in a volatile region, he told a NED meeting that Zimbabwe provided an ominous precedent for a beacon of prosperity turned failed state.
Dave Peterson, NED’s Africa program director, adds:
Congressman Don Payne was rightly known as Mr. Africa for his deep commitment to the continent, but he was also an extraordinarily warm and generous human being. As head or ranking member of the House sub-committee on Africa, he weighed in on every significant event concerning Africa over the past two decades, including the end of apartheid, the struggle against Nigeria’s military dictatorship, the Rwandan genocide, the fall of Mobutu in Zaire and Charles Taylor in Liberia, the Darfur genocide, the fight against HIV/AIDS, and the famine in Somalia, to name just a few.
His door always seemed open to the hundreds of constituents and activists who knew he was the go-to person for his district and for Africa, and he would listen and opine and get things done in his inimitable way. Any event that he showed up for was automatically elevated by his presence.
He was an idealist and a democrat. He was undaunted by what was politically convenient or logistically possible, routinely haranguing dictators, visiting political prisoners, and flying off on grueling tours of Africa, famously visiting Mogadishu just a couple years ago, even as al-Shabab militia fired on his plane as it departed. Having once led the YMCA, he retained a strong interest in youth and cultivating their leadership. He also had an interest in archaeology, advocating the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece, among many other causes.
He certainly had a special place in his heart for the Endowment. He was happy to meet with program staff and learn about our projects, and was a great advocate for Africa on the board, sometimes humorously inarticulate, but ultimately making his point and commanding respect. Don remained very popular in his home district, enabling him to focus so much energy on Africa, and to have an enormous positive impact on the lives of literally millions of Africans.
His passing will create a void in the lives of his many friends, but his life is also one to be heartily celebrated for its richness and bounty.