WASHINGTON — In one African country, Rep. Keith Ellison witnessed arguments that would have been settled with AK-47s a decade ago be decided by dialogue.
But a bomb exploding amongst soccer fans in Uganda, planted by an out-of-control terrorist group from Somalia, served as a bloody reminder that there remains much to do.
Ellison’s tour in Africa over the July 4th recess was arranged under the banner of the House Democracy Partnership Commission, which sends members of Congress to mentor the leaders of developing democracies.
“I am of the mind that Africa is doing way better than it has, and the stereotype of Africa being a place of coups and famine and war is not accurate anymore,” Ellison said. “That’s not to say these things don’t happen, but they don’t mark the continent like at one point they used to.”
Africa may seem a world away from Minnesota, but the two find themselves connected in many ways. About 25,000 Liberians are now in Minnesota, 1,000 of whom are refugees. The state has been a destination for the so-called “lost boys” of the Sudan region as well as Somali refugees.
This year’s tour went to Senegal, Liberia, Kenya and Tanzania. Ellison returned to the states before the tour concluded in Mali.
Ellison is the first Muslim member of Congress, and as such has quickly become a leading voice on issues in the Islamic world in a legislative body where things outside Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan are often overlooked.
One of those overlooked places has been Somalia, where the country is not so much a failed state but a non state.
The U.N.-backed government controls only part of the capital of Mogadishu. Pirates based in Somali ports have seized international ships passing near the Horn of Africa. And a radical Islamic militia linked to al Qaeda, Al-Shabab has been let to grow enough that they can now orchestrate attacks outside Somalia.
While Ellison was in Africa, Al-Shabab launched its first such attack, killing around 70 World Cup spectators in Uganda.
“Al-Shabab is out of control and it’s just another reason why this nearly 20 year neglect slash abandonment of Somalia is a real cancer on the region and on the globe,” Ellison said.
“The world wants to act like [Somalia is] some filthy, unruly closet and they just want to close the door.”
Attacks like the one Al-Shabab conducted in Uganda are meant to “intimidate and create fear — and then capitulation,” Ellison said, and must be dealt with not just by confronting Al-Shabab, but by speaking to the broader audience affected. That means more U.S. and U.N. involvement in the region, a focus he said has been lacking.
When he returned to Minneapolis, Ellison talked with Somali refugees who told him more needed to be done to aid the country and bring peace.
“Whether they move back to Somalia or not, they want Somalia to be a place where it’s calm,” Ellison said.
On the other side of the continent lies an example of the progress that can be made to turn a war-torn nation around.
While most in Congress were walking in local parades, Ellison spent his July 4th in Liberia, a country founded a generation before the Civil War by freed slaves from the United States as a destination for other freed slaves.
Its name comes from the word liberty, its capital city was named after President James Monroe and its flag resembles that of the United States.
But two bloody civil wars that stretched from the administration of George H. W. Bush to George W. Bush tore the country apart, causing many to flee the country. About 1,000 Liberian refugees remain in Minnesota.
But progress has been made there. Liberia just signed a Millenium Challenge grant with the U.S., a $15 million threshold grant that could mean more money if goals for land reform, trade capacity and education for women and girls are met.
And from the ashes of war, sprigs of democracy have sprouted.
Ellison watched as local leaders debated spending issues, including pay raises for politicians. The issue sparked town hall meetings like one he witnessed in Kakata on the 4th.
Some said they should spend more. Some said less. Many said their piece in a very loud voice. Many with pointed words. Outside was a protest with signs and slogans.
“It was orderly, peaceful, but it was loud,” Ellison said, remembering back to the health care town halls he’d seen last year. “I felt like I was back in Minneapolis.”
It was a good sign for Liberia — and possibly a model for Africa’s future.