Clinton carries mixed blessings to Africa

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The Independent Online
THE UNITED STATES has never considered Africa important enough - politically or economically - to merit a proper tour by an American president. So why has President Bill Clinton chosen to make an 11-day tour of the continent, and why now?

There is of course a feeling in Washington that Mr Clinton (and his wife, Hillary) will be so far from Washington for so long simply in order to have a break from the relentless volley of sex allegations against him, though the president seems unlikely to win a reprieve with more than 200 Washington-based journalists accompanying him on the trip.

The president's advisers claim he has been devising a new strategy for relations with Africa since the late 1980s, when the continent's usefulness as a battleground for proxy super power wars ended along with the cold war.

Self interest and ethics, US government officials insist, now compel the US to find a way of ensuring that Africa is not left behind in economic globalisation. More than 700 million people in sub-Saharan Africa create a huge untapped market for US goods and the promising economic improvements in a handful of African countries make trade between the world's richest and poorest continents a possibility.

Not everyone is convinced by the US's stated motives. Some analysts say Mr Clinton's trip is largely symbolic and designed to play to the African- American constituency at home.

Those who insist the trip is for a home audience point to the president's visit to Ghana today - the first African country to win independence from European colonialists - and to the former slave fortress at Goree Island, Senegal. The emotional climax of the tour, and the televisual episode that the President will be most keen to have played back home, is his planned speech at Goree Island, at the end of his trip. An estimated 2 million Africans were dispatched as slaves from the fortress to the American colonies.

Taking President Clinton at face value it is true that some African countries are showing signs of economic recovery and tendencies towards democracy. It may be that President Clinton believes this progress deserves recognition.

It would be easy, then, to see why Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal are being visited. Today's first stop could be seen as a pat on the back for Jerry Rawlings, a former flight lieutenant who took power in Ghana after staging a military coup but has since moved towards democracy to secure international loans.

The Clinton administration comes to Africa bearing the African Growth and Opportunity Act. It offers better trade terms for African countries which meet democratic and economic requirements. Ironically, some of Africa's poorest countries complain that stringent economic rules set by international lenders actually undermine fledgling democracies by imposing additional hardships on populations which already rate among the poorest in the world.