Remembering Howard Wolpe, the Tireless Peacemaker

Oct 28, 2011
By
Howard Wolpe
Michel Kassa, DRC Country Team Leader of the Cohesive Leadership Initiative, and Howard Wolpe

Former U.S. Representative Howard Wolpe of Michigan, who served seven terms in Congress and was a powerful advocate for Africa, died on October, 25 at his home in Saugatuck, Michigan.  After leaving Congress, Wolpe served as the Director of the Wilson Center's Africa Program and Project  on Leadership and Building State Capacity.  He was 71.  He is survived by his wife, Julie, his son, Michael, and stepson, Paul.  His was a tremendous spirit that continues to move and inspire us all.  

Remembering Howard Wolpe, the Tireless Peacemaker

I have known Howard Wolpe for over 30 years. When he took over as Chairman of the Africa Subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1981, I had been living and working on the continent for a decade.

I had the chance to interact with him professionally and welcomed having a chairman of the important subcommittee who had lived and worked in Africa. Because he had done his doctoral research in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where he lived for two years, he brought to his position not just a love of Africa, but a sense of its deeper character, culture, potential and promise.

It was a life-long love between Howard and Africa, on both sides. I worked closely with Howard in the 1980s during the fight to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act and to move South Africa to a just future, helping put him in touch with South African leaders inside and outside the country. He strategized with Members from both sides of the aisle and both houses and brought together the bi-partisan coalition that eventually overrode the Reagan veto and set in motion the international pressures that were so important in influencing non-violent change in South Africa.

Just as important, however, was the dialogue that Howard joined with former Senator Dick Clark at the Aspen Institute to bring together black and white South African leaders across all party lines to seek understanding and common goals for their country's future. It was a role Howard would play later as U.S. Special Envoy as he negotiated the Lusaka and Sun City talks that brought an end to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Arusha Peace Process that did the same for Burundi. 

It was the next decade that allowed me to know the true visionary and statesman that was Howard Wolpe. He asked me to join him in an 'experiment' born of his despair as the Arusha Accords fell apart and Burundi returned to war in 2000. He drew upon his experience, long before his public life, of working to bring reconciliation and rebuild trust and collaborative capacities among community leaders and students in schools and towns torn apart by racial strife in a racist America.

He had seen communities come together again to rebuild their lives after they had been facilitated through a process that restored their sense of cohesion and interdependence - a process that changed how they saw each other and helped them "walk in the shoes of the other," as he put it.

Why, he asked me, could that not work at a national, state-building level in war-torn Burundi. We were to make that our central task for the next 10 years, with the support of the World Bank, United Nations, European Union, and the U.S., UK, Norwegian and Swedish governments.

By then we were both at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, where Lee Hamilton, president of the Center and former congressional colleague, asked Howard to take over the Africa Program. Howard also started a project on Leadership and Building State Capacity to reinforce the work we had started in Africa.

In Burundi, we helped facilitate the 2004 cease fire commission; the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of the various military factions; elections in 2005, and training for the new government, parliament and political parties in the following years. With a dedicated and professional team of Americans, Africans and Europeans, we did the same in the DRC, and later Liberia.

Howard's team designed a similar program for Timor Leste, and consulted on similar projects in Togo, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere.

Even though Howard retired in 2010, he and I met three weeks ago with Burundian President, Pierre Nkurunziza, to gain his support for renewed political party work with his ruling party and the extra-parliamentary parties who left the country after the 2010 elections, reigniting violence and human rights violations and pushing Burundi towards another precipice.

Howard was excited at the prospect of re-engaging in this troubled land that he knew so well and loved. I asked him if his health would allow it. As usual, he dismissed that as a factor and focused on what he could do to help build a lasting peace in Burundi.

I can tell story after story of Howard's celebrity - Nelson Mandela calling him on his release from prison or sighting him across a crowded Congressional chamber and waving for Howard and his wife to join him; of his counseling President Clinton in Arusha as they tried to hold the angry ethnic groups together and move them to a signature of the peace accords; of the calls he got in the night from presidents, Congress members, cabinet members, military faction leaders, United Nations representatives; of stars like Peter, Paul and Mary or Harry Belafonte campaigning for him; of a dinner with actor Ben Affleck that excited his interest in channeling his resources and energy to help the people of the DRC. This list goes on and on.

But my favorite memories stem from his humanity - his mentoring of young Americans and Africans just beginning their careers, never failing to take time from his impossible schedule to counsel, guide, and assist; his understanding of and connections with the victimized and disconnected African populations; his endless hours, working around the clock, with patience and wisdom as he sat with warlords and presidents, dissidents and dictators, peasants and priests, teachers and technocrats, moving them to understand the need for change; his deep intellect and analytical clarity.

Most of all, I cherish memories of his constant sense of humor, often self-deprecating, which served him so well in breaking down barriers, and disarming the most recalcitrant of individuals to help them see the folly of pride and prejudice.

Howard was a rare leader for all these reasons. He loved what he did. He loved those he worked with, was unstintingly loyal and gave a new meaning to the word commitment.

Africa has lost a great champion. The world has lost a great peace maker. His family and friends, who are legion, have lost a loved one who can never be replaced.

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Donations in Howard’s memory are welcome, but the family would prefer that you do not send flowers or gifts to them.  Howard saw the apex of his life’s work embodied in the post-conflict peace building and reconciliation programs in Africa that he initiated at the Woodrow Wilson Center in 2002, and would want that legacy to continue.  The Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, which Howard directed for six productive and exciting years, continue under Steve McDonald’s stewardship to underpin the transitions to peace, democracy and development in countries like Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and elsewhere.  So, Please send any donations to the following address, stating that they are in Howard’s memory:   The Woodrow Wilson Center, the Africa Program, One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004-3027.  The Woodrow Wilson Center's Africa Program is a 501(c)3.

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