Reflecting On Clinton's Africa Safari
By: F. Wafula Okumu

Today, probably Clinton's recent African safari has faded from the memories of many. Some of us have even forgotten why Clinton made this safari. Clinton stated, in his own words, that America is seeking a new friendship and partnership with an Africa that is committed to democracy and economic development. And, he said, he was visiting Africa in order that the American people may see Africans with new eyes.

Deemed as a trip designed to restore "hope," it was conspicuous for avoiding countries which needed hope-boasting most. One of the most notable statement was Clinton's acknowledgment that "the worst sin America ever committed about Africa was the sin of neglect and ignorance." No one understands this statement better than Liberians, the people of Horn of Africa, Rwandans, Burundis, former Zaireans (Democratic Republic of the Congo), blacks in South Africa, and millions of Africans who were misused or discarded during and after the Cold War.

This trip was well-timed and executed to sell American image. It was laced with apologies, humility, respect, and other things Americans have never given Africans. Clinton's destinations were carefully selected: he visited two countries (Ghana and Senegal) in West Africa, two (South Africa and Botswana) in Southern Africa, one (Uganda) in East Africa, and one (Rwanda) in Central Africa. There is no doubt these countries were carefully picked for their potential usefulness to American interests. Probably Clinton's most memorable stop was in Accra, Ghana. In Accra, an exuberant city, Clinton was caught on camera with a scrunched-up face, screaming "Back up!" at hordes of ecstatic Ghanaians.

During the trip, Clinton traveled in a true safari-version. His entourage of 981, according to the New York Times, comprised of advance people, security specialists, stenographers, telephone operators, pilots, diplomats, coordinators, facilitators, cooks, assistants to the president, deputy assistants to the president, special assistants to the president, reporters and technicians, 10 spin doctors, 16 members of Congress (12 of whom were African Americans and were 2 Republicans), 3 Cabinet members, business executives (one of them Nigerian-born), labor leaders, mayors, church leaders, Clinton pals, and his special envoy for democratizing Africa, the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

He not only traveled in style but also in comfort. He brought four Boeing 747s, four helicopters, and four armored limousines. In Kampala, the President and his entourage stayed at the Sheraton in a $210 per night room. This is more than what a Ugandan makes in a year! According to the Daily Mail, his security detail had eight goons armed to the teeth with M4 assault rifles, Heckler and Koch MP5 machine pistols and 5.56mm belt-fed Mini machine gun; and 12 chaps whose job was "basically to take a bullet for him."

Clinton, on his part, was armed with an economic programme whose centerpiece was "the Africa Growth and Opportunity Bill." The contents of this bill is that Africa opens its markets; grants the US more access to these markets; and, in return, America replaces aid with trade. Furthermore, it envisages debt relief and creation of an African infrastructure fund linked to political and market reforms.

This sounded harmonious to some African leaders but not to the South Africans, whose Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, castigated this bill and pointed out that Africa needs both aid and investment. Clinton was further chastised in South Africa by Mandela who boldly told him to tell other Americans who do not like South African friends (such Gaddafi and Castro) to "go throw themselves in a pool."

There are two best ways to understand this safari. The first one is through the ageless American policy of "Manifest Destiny." Americans have cultivated a strong-held belief that they have a God-given mandate to rescue unfortunate creatures like Africans from the claws of hardships. In the past, this involved making Africans loathe communism and all those things it stood for. American "manifest destiny" from 1960-1990 was to save Africa from Soviet expansionism and the "evil Soviet Empire."

Africans were rewarded according to how much anti-Communist or anti-Soviet rhetoric they spewed. Those who followed the American nyayo (footsteps) like Moi's Kenya were handsomely rewarded and patted on the back even for committing horrendous inhuman crimes against their own citizens. To the Americans, who are fond of putting a spin on anything no matter how disgusting, these victims of Moi, Mobutu, Doe, Numeiry, Barre, apartheid, and many other American-supported dictators, and their ill-conceived policies, were "collateral damages."

Since 1990, after the collapse of the so-called "evil empire" America has feigned fatigue from bearing the burden of Africans for too long. Statements have come from very high-ranked Americans individuals and institutions such as Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and the U.S. Congress mocking Africans for begging aid. When the Republicans took over control of Congress, they put aid to Africa on the chopping block. Amazingly, while aid to Africa was being chopped to "balance the budget" aid to the former Soviet republics and eastern European countries was sky-rocketing. Even traditional allies like Israel saw increased aid between 1990-1998, from $3 billion to $5.5 billion, that is 25% of all the foreign aid disbursed.

One might question the moral basis of this Christian country on seeing the fact that here is a non-Christian nation of less than 7 million people receiving more than $5.5 billion in aid while a continent with more than 230 million Christians receives less than $700 million, that is, having declined from $841 million in 1992.

The second way to understand this trip is to reflect on it from the realities of American domestic politics. This trip was in line with another common American practice, now perfected by this African safari, of using foreign adventures to bolster sagging presidential popularity. Carter tried a bold rescue of Americans held hostage in Iran in 1979; Reagan send marines to invade Grenada; and Bush invaded Panama to arrest General Noriega and "liberated" Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation. Other than Carter, the others, particularly Bush, saw their popularity ratings almost jump through the roof. In view of the sex scandals besieging Clinton, the 12-day African safari was convenient to detract the attention of Americans from the president to the presidency.

Clinton also, in un-American way, "apologized" for America's enslavement of Africans. But while doing this he turned, without embarrassment, to the descendants of slaves in his entourage and pointed out how much they have contributed to the United States. Other apologies were made in Rwanda where, closeted in an airport hanger, he admitted American negligence in the Rwandan pogrom and vowed that it will never happen again. This is a typical American practice of giving false hope through rhetorical statements which carry no substance. As Clinton was making these "commitments," ninety-four people were being massacred in a village not far from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

We are still waiting to hear an apology to the millions of Liberians who lost their loved ones and valued property through Charles Taylor's instigated and perpetrated senseless violence as the Americans watched from the Atlantic Ocean with a flotilla of warships.

Clinton also expressed regret for the U.S. support of nasty African dictators during the Cold War; and "complicity" in apartheid. Many Americans thought these apologies were un-called for and wondered why an American president should engage in an "odyssey of apology" and "mea culpas." Some conservatives thought the president should be apologizing to Paula Jones instead of the Africans. However, Samuel Berger, the national security adviser, stated that "for the big United States to come here and acknowledge that we've made mistakes is empowering to the people of Africa."

African-American leaders, such as Jesse Jackson saw Clinton's expressions of compassion different from ordinary African-American people. For Reverend Jackson, these statements acknowledged the existence of "a mutually beneficial, reciprocal partnership that will represent mutual growth" and affirmed "the humanity of African people, whether in Africa or America."

But from the media reports which carried their views, it seems the average African-American displayed the usual opposition to aid going to Africa. The perception of ordinary African-Americans is that the money being sent to Africa should best be spent on domestic programs that benefit them here in America. They loathed Africa being given attention instead of them.

One obvious purpose served by this trip was the resuscitation of the "Nixon Doctrine" of appointing regional proxies to be used for American indirect domination. A view that gained currency during Mr. Clinton's stay in Uganda is that President Yoweri Museveni, as host to the leader of the world's sole superpower and a co-host of a regional summit, emerged especially burnished if not Washington's undeclared or preferred regional leader or its regional point person.

But there are a number of dilemmas Clinton had to deal with in this regard. Museveni's Uganda is not an ideal "democracy" in the American sense as it is not based on a multi-party system. But the economy is doing extremely well and capitalism is flourishing with Americans hoping to reap high profits. If this "African economic miracle" can be spread all over this vast continent of over 700 million people and 3 times the size of the United States the beneficiary will definitely be American businesses.

Another dilemma was how to embrace Museveni with his "no-party" democracy without alienating former lackeys like Moi who had in place a parody of "multi-party democracy." Should the US put on a pedestal a country like Uganda which is doing extremely well over a traditional ally like Kenya which professes "multi-partyism" but is doing extremely bad? What signal will this send to the rest of Africa? No wonder, a miffed Moi challenged Clinton to state American strategy in Africa.

Yet another dilemma faced was whether showcasing Jerry Rawlings and Yoweri Museveni, two former soldiers who had civilianized themselves and turned around countries that had once been declared by many in the west as lost causes, would set a precedent to the likes of Gen. Sani Abacha of Nigeria and Col. Jean-Batista Bagaza of Burundi.

Africa and the rest of the world is still waiting to see if Clinton's promises will be met with deed. Although this six-nation jaunt has been termed as historical, it will take a long time to establish whether the visit brought any positive developments in US-Africa relations, or whether it amounted to nothing more than a highly publicized safari and public relations junket taken by an American president to escape from domestic political heat. While many Africans were disappointed for being left out of safari route and destinations, many more will be disappointed in the future for missing the gravy-train.

But disappointments are already being dished out. Last month the U.S. threatened to withdraw from the United Nations-sponsored malaria programme, dubbed Roll Back Malaria, which won the support of the world's rich nations at their recent summit in Birmingham, England. It is notable that while in Uganda, President Clinton pledged that the U.S. will "do more" to support anti-malaria research. A litany of other promises have yet to be fulfilled.

Like many other past intentions, Washington's real aims in Africa on the threshold of the new millennium have yet to emerge. It is possible that Washington having telescoped into the future has seen Africa's potential as the next economic tiger and wants to strategically position itself to reap maximum benefits during the second scramble for Africa. All things considered, there is no doubt that Clinton was the biggest beneficiary of this "mission of mercy." While in Africa, he was not only met by the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds in his life but also received the best news of his presidency - the dismissal of the Paula Jones suit against him. One camera caught him through his hotel room window in Dakar smoking a cigar while banging on a conga drum. As for the Africans, they are still waiting for the talking drum to tell them the good news.


The Perspective