Africa tarts herself up as Bill comes calling

But, says Mary Braid, the press won't find this as sexy as his troubles at home
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AFRICA has braced herself: President Bill Clinton is coming in. This week the United States apologised in advance for the diplomatic assault mighty America is about to make on the world's weakest continent.

For when the president flies into Ghana tomorrow for the start of a six-nation tour - the first visit to Africa of any substance by a US president - he will be bringing 600 aides and 200 Washington-based journalists with him. Susan Rice, the US assistant secretary of state for Africa, admitted this week that the fragile continent might feel the strain, and begged a little understanding.

The obscene gulf between the world's richest nation and her poorest, scrawniest cousins was evident even in Ms Rice's method of communication. Courtesy of US embassies in Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal - the countries selected for a presidential visit - Ms Rice had a six-way video conference via satellite with local and foreign correspondents. A routine event for her; an awesome demonstration of power for countries where even a local call is hard to place.

You can forgive poor, neglected Africa for being a touch excited at the sudden attention. American presidents have passed through before - Jimmy Carter in 1978 and George Bush in 1992 - but never really thought the place worthy of a real visit.

America is promising a shift in its relations with Africa, quashing the continent's "basket case" image. "Our relationship with African countries," says Ms Rice, "is being recast from one of paternalism, dependency and indifference to one of genuine partnership." In other words, trade, not aid.

Africa, battered by international debt, should not be left behind in economic globalisation, says the US official, arguing that this is self- interest as well as morality. A stronger Africa will have fewer crises in which Washington may be forced to intervene and the continent is a huge potential market for US goods.

Good news, perhaps, for a part of the world where outside interest has always been exploitative. Africa was first plundered by colonials and later used as a distant arena for Cold war proxy battles. But some analysts are cynical over the sudden interest from the economic and political giant which the South African political scientist Richard Cornwall accuses of "gliding through the ghetto in a stretch limo".

In this view the Great African Tour will amount to no more than a series of photo opportunities for President Clinton, beleaguered by sex and perjury allegations at home. The disparity between the two partners in the proposed new relationship is too wide for much to come of it. African leaders are less pessimistic, reckoning that at the very least it is an opportunity to show something other than famine, war and bleak poverty.

So Africa is tarting herself up. In Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, darling of the West, is hosting a conference for President Clinton and 12 African heads of state. Janet Museveni has been making her own wifely contribution, taking a broom into the streets of Kampala to encourage Ugandans to spruce up for Bill. Her campaign, as well as one to clear the capital of "idlers", has its critics - the Monitor newspaper described Mrs Museveni's spring clean as "the theatre of the absurd".

In Ghana hundreds of new phone lines have had to be installed just to cope with the first leg of the President's 11-day tour, and he is staying only seven hours. Accra, the capital, does not have enough hotel space to accommodate Mr Clinton and his huge entourage - apart, that is, from the Golden Tulip, which is Libyan-backed and therefore unsuitable.

It is to be hoped that the expense will eventually be justified. But Africans should be wary of relying too much on the Washington press corps to present a better picture. It is unlikely that they will consider anything the continent has to offer as sexy as Bill's troubles back home. The domestic scandals look certain to dominate the news agenda.

Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper has even offered Clinton some advice. "Mr President," warns a columnist. "Uganda has the world's most beautiful women. They walk with the gracefulness of a gazelle, sing with the tunefulness of a nightingale and dance with the suppleness of an eel. DO NOT. Sex policeman Ken Starr is watching."