Mr Christopher visits the dark continent

US Secretaries of State rarely visit Africa, and Warren Christopher's trip typified the attitudes they bring with them
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American Secretaries of State have a habit of coming a cropper over Africa. A typical example of the genre took place in 1969, when Richard Nixon sent his then Secretary of State, William Rodgers, to Ghana for a visit arranged with an eye on coverage by the US media. The tour provided a source of innocent merriment to Ghanaians, when during his speech at a gala reception, America's number one diplomat referred to the Ghanaian Prime Minister, the late Dr Kofi Busia, as "Dr Busio".

A few years later, the redoubtable Henry Kissinger, triumphal over his feats in the Far East, thought he would take a Tarzan-type swing across Africa and add a solution of the Rhodesian problem to the trophies marking his "world" accomplishments.

He, too, came new to the continent, and therefore knew little of the prickly temperament of its leaders. So having initially excluded Ghana from his list of countries, he thought he could hastily pencil it in, when one of those on his list dropped out. The US Ambassador in Ghana happened to be the famous former child movie star, Mrs Shirley Temple Black. Under orders from Washington, she used her considerable charms to get the Ghanaian Foreign Ministry to invite Kissinger.

But the country's military ruler of the time, General Ignatius Acheampong, was later apprised of the fact that Ghana, "The Mother Of African Independence", had only got on to Kissinger's itinerary as a "second best". Acheampong bristled, and while the US Secret Service was busy turning several suites of Accra's Continental Hotel into a miniature "war room" for Kissinger, Acheampong issued a terse press statement, giving what must go down in history as perhaps the most bizarre excuse ever given by one statesman for not being able to see another. Acheampong claimed he had developed "a boil on his bottom", and consequently had been ordered to his bed by his doctor.

I was reminded of these vignettes of America's relations with Africa by the five-nation tour that the present Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has just made to Africa. Christopher carried in his pockets two very controversial proposals. The first suggested the establishment, with American financial assistance, of an "African Intervention Force", to be sent to areas of civil strife. His second idea was to canvass African support for the US campaign to prevent the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr Boutros Boutros- Ghali, from being elected to a second term.

On the face of it, the "African Intervention Force" idea is quite sound. If such a force had existed in 1994, and had been dispatched to Rwanda, it would doubtless have been able to save the lives of some of the hundreds of thousands of Tutsis brutally slaughtered by Hutus.

But why is the US exhibiting this concern for the lives of Africans now, when in 1994, it failed to provide the UN - which had troops in Rwanda - with thebacking that could have enabled it to save the lives of the Tutsis? And why isn't the US providing adequate financial assistance to support the West African Ecomog (economic community monitoring group) force sent to save lives in Liberia?

In fact, the UN felt so weak in Rwanda that it actually withdrew the bulk of its troops from Rwanda, just as the terrible genocide was beginning. The blame for this must be shared equally by the UN secretariat and the permanent members of the Security Council. But the US must take the greater portion of the blame, for as the only acknowledged "super-power" left from the Cold War, it ought to contribute most to the UN's peace-keeping efforts,

Yet the US has deliberately refused to pay its contributions to the UN. This creates the suspicion that the US secretly resents the UN's ever- increasing role, as the only "rival" to America's desired status as moderator- in-chief of the new global order.

From this perspective, the US desire to remove Boutros-Ghali from the UN also appears sinister. Has the Secretary-General proved impervious to American "arm-twisting"? Surely Boutros-Ghali is hardly the first Secretary- General to exhibit "personal failings"? Why, only in the past week, the first-ever Secretary-General of the UN, the late Trygve Lie, was exposed by a Norwegian journalist as someone who passed secret information to the founders of Israel.

In any case, was it not insensitive for a US Secretary of State to go to Africa and urge Africans to ditch the first-ever African Secretary- General? No wonder Mr Christopher was rebuffed: on the African Intervention Force, he was told by President Nelson Mandela of South Africa: "If this initiative is to succeed, it must have credibility. It must not come from one country. It should be the initiative of the United Nations."

But it was a minister from France - a country that is America's ally - who poured the most withering sarcasm upon Mr Christopher's African safari. French opposition might, of course, be connected with the fact that France maintains troops in several African countries and could see its influence wane if the American proposal for an African intervention forcer were adopted.

France's Minister for Co-operation, Jacques Godfrain, said: "Since Bill Clinton hasn't been to Africa once, since he didn't even mention Africa in his speech before the UN General Assembly, and since US foreign development aid has diminished by 15 per cent, I am delighted to see the President showing interest in Africa and making it a priority three weeks before the [US] presidential elections."

Washington was outraged. The State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said Godfrain's comment was "a ludicrous charge" and "ought to be retracted." But Godfrain remained adamant.

The affair has developed into a row between Paris and Washington over whether any foreign country can claim Africa as its "private domain". To which Africans, who have lost so much through past foreign intervention, will surely retort: "A plague on both your houses!"

Warren Christopher himself has reacted to the French jibes with restraint. In a speech in South Africa he said, "The time has passed when Africa could be carved up into spheres of influence, or when outside powers could view whole groups of states as their private domain. Africa needs the support of its many friends, not the exclusive patronage of a few."

Perhaps these fine sentiments will spur Mr Christopher to seek to strengthen the UN, through which both France and the US can contribute to the welfare of Africa without arousing suspicion. And surely it is impossible to imagine that the "client state", semi-independent status that France has bestowed on its former colonies in Africa, can last into the next century.