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Clinton's Africa trip highlights importance US attaches to the continent

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's long African tour shows that Africa is a foreign policy priority and confirms a commitment by the US to tackle crucial issues on the continent, but can it meet expectations?

Photo of Hillary Clinton

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised a number of crucial issues while in Africa

Hillary Clinton kicked off the 11-day trip in Kenya and US officials were keen to emphasize that her trip to Africa was the earliest by a secretary of state to the continent of any administration.

Dominic Johnson, who writes on African affairs for the German TAZ newspaper, told Deutsche Welle that, "the purpose of the tour is for the US to establish contact with Africa and provide high visibility for US policy. Hillary Clinton will say what she thinks of African governing policies. It's not to establish trade ties as no contracts have been signed."

Addressing a forum of some 40 African states which enjoy trade preferences with the US on the condition they uphold free elections and markets, Clinton advocated democracy saying that improving it in Africa was the key to boosting trade and development, and pointing out that investors would not be attracted to states with failed leadership and civil unrest.

Photo of Hillary Clinton, left, with Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki, right

Mrs Clinton urged Kenya to follow through on critical reforms

"True economic progress in Africa will depend on responsible governments that reject corruption, enforce the rule of law and deliver results for their people. This is not just about good governance - it's also about good business," she said. Clinton said Africa had all the ingredients for growth, prosperity and progress and should reject corruption.

"We can't seem to get past the idea that the continent has enormous potential for progress. Too often the media's portrayal is so much less than that. But such notions are not only stale and outdated - they are wrong," she said.

Emphasis on Kenyan political reform

Clinton brought a message of tough love to Kenya, emphasizing that the country is a key American friend in east Africa but must follow through on political reform. She expressed disappointment that President Mwai Kibaki's government has refused to set up a special tribunal to try the key perpetrators of last year's election violence which saw more than 1,300 people killed.

"The absence of strong, effective democratic institutions has permitted ongoing corruption, impunity, politically motivated violence, human rights abuses and a lack of respect for the rule of law," Clinton said during a news conference in Nairobi after meeting President Kibaki and Raila Odinga, the prime minister. "These conditions helped fuel the post-election violence and they are continuing to hold Kenya back."

Tour's impact on African crises

Of the many crises on the continent the one in Somalia remains particularly volatile and given previous US involvement there it was no surprise that Clinton reinforced US support for the embattled president, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, whose government is trying to face down Islamist extremists, notably a militant group called al-Shabab with alleged links to al-Qaeda.

The group has recently been accused of organizing a Mumbai-style attack in Australia. The Somali government has received US arms to fight al-Shabab and Clinton promised to send more military aid.

"It signals how the American government, the Obama administration and the international community are willing to support Somalia this time," the Somali president said, referring to earlier failed peacekeeping missions to the country.

US diplomatic efforts were also on the agenda when Clinton met South African President Jacob Zuma. She put pressure on Zuma urging him to do more to press neighbouring Zimbabwe, in the throes of a severe economic crisis, to fully implement a political pact between President Robert Mugabe and former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Photo of Mrs Clinton, left, and Nigeria's Foreign Minister

The US is keen on cementing its oil ties with Nigeria

In Nigeria, Clinton said the US was keen to help in bringing stability to the country's oil-producing Niger Delta region, which has experienced attacks from armed groups. Observers say US sentiments are not entirely altruistic in nature and that Clinton's trips to both Nigeria and Angola highlight the importance the US attaches to African oil as it tries to secure a long-term alternative to Middle East oil. In the past, the US state department has described Angola as a nation with "enormous economic potential."

Delving into another key Nigerian issue in the religiously divided nation, Clinton met 17 faith leaders for a roundtable discussion opening with a Muslim prayer and closing with a Christian one. Sounding another key theme of the Obama administration, she called interfaith understanding "one of the most important tasks" in the world.

However, Clinton's most vociferous calls for peace and reconciliation came in DRC where she expressed condemnation of an issue close to her. She visited the war-torn eastern region of Goma and urged Congolese authorities and a UN peacekeeping force there to step up efforts to end the epidemic of sexual violence.

Germany's take on Congo violence

The current rampage of sexual violence in war-torn eastern Congo has sparked outrage and sympathy all over the world. A major part of Clinton's efforts in Africa has been to address the issue and press for an immediate end to what has become a rape epidemic. Here in Germany, media coverage of the crisis in Congo has been extensive.

Photo of Congolese soldiers

The US is concerned with the escalating violence, including sexual crimes, in DRC

Amelie Utz of the German foreign office told Deutsche Welle that Germany is supporting the humanitarian projects in Eastern Congo and is the third-biggest financial contributor to the UN peacekeeping mission in the war-torn Goma region.

Germany was physically involved in Congo's peacekeeping efforts during the country's elections in 2006, making up the largest contingent of European troops in the country during that period. However, there is currently no discussion among European nations to once more get involved in Congo's conflicts.

Mixed response to Clinton's tour

Hillary Clinton's tour of African nations has generated a lot of media hype and significantly raised expectations on the continent. There is hope that the US may be able to exert considerable influence on a number of crucial issues in Africa. However, some experts are less enthusiastic and more sceptical.

Dr. Franz Ansprenger, Africa expert at the Free University in Berlinger, told Deutsche Welle that “Hillary Clinton's policy in her tour of Africa is of course President Obama's policy. I am afraid a little because it follows the example of former President Bill Clinton's first term when he took an interest in Africa and was looking for a new brand of African leaders to usher in a new era. But he chose people who were ultimately unreliable in delivering on their promises and had no new ideas to work on in terms of economic development and political development.”

The US is clearly committed to extending a hand to Africa and bringing it further into the international fold, perhaps more so than previous administrations. Nonetheless, high expectations may ultimately experience an anti-climax as the US, though committed, is severely occupied with equally pressing domestic issues.

Author: Faith Thomas
Editor: Rob Mudge

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