Wolpe, who was originally named special envoy in 1996 by President Clinton, is now responsible for policy development and much of the face-to-face diplomacy for Africa's entire Great Lakes region, which includes the countries of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Howard Wolpe is a peacemaker, but unlike Richard Holbrooke, another special envoy widely known for his role in the Bosnian peace process, he remains intentionally out of the limelight.
Howard Wolpe's interest in politics goes back to his days at Reed College in the late 1950s, where he studied political science and was a member of the student senate. Wolpe, who is a native of Los Angeles, says he chose Reed because of its academic standards, its ethos, and the lack of fraternities and sororities. "I wanted a small liberal arts college. There were 200 people in my freshmen class," said Wolpe. "Reed even now is a small college, but in those days it was really small."
Wolpe graduated from Reed in 1960, around the time when many African states were becoming independent. He entered a Ph.D. program at MIT in political science, but it was an African studies course he took at Boston College that sparked his interest in African nationalism. The first book he read for the course was on Nigerian nationalism. The more he read, the more he became engaged. "It was my interest in civil rights that led to my interest in African nationalism and the struggle against colonializing," said Wolpe, who went to Nigeria for two years to work on his dissertation.
His current position follows seven terms, from 1979 to 1992, as a congressman from Michigan. For 10 years, he served as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and was known for his outspokenness against apartheid and his fight for sanctions against South Africa.
One of the big problems contributing to misperceptions of Africa today, according to Wolpe, is that except for news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post, most American news on Africa lacks context. "Tribalism, being the bane of Africa's existence, is the famous phrase that we have heard always," he said at a recent media workshop sponsored by the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to free press and free speech. "And that conjures up all sorts of images that are simply wrong. It is because people are competing for the same jobs and for the same political offices that they enter into conflict, and ethnicity comes to be manipulated in Africa just as it does in the United States, Europe, and Asia."
For example, when the first stories of the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda were reported in 1994, they reached an American public who by and large did not know where the country was and who had never heard of either group.