JUST before President Clinton's inauguration, an African ambassador with many years of experience in Washington commented, "We have never seen this kind of thing. Under Reagan and Bush we felt completely left out of things. But these Clinton people, they know about Africa and are including us in things. It is very exciting."
Then he dashed off to a meeting with Mike Espy, the newly appointed secretary of agriculture.
Four months later, the Clinton administration has begun to live up to the ambassador's expectations by putting a higher priority than its predecessors on US foreign policy toward the 51 nations and 800 million people of Africa.
Under a blueprint unveiled last week by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the days when the US supported dictators in Liberia, Zaire, Sudan, and a half a dozen other countries is over.
Africa's future lies "not with corrupt dictators like Mobutu [of Zaire] but with courageous democrats in every part of the continent," Mr. Christopher told the African-American Institute. "At the heart of our new policy is an enduring commitment to democracy and human rights...."
As if to underline the secretary's words, on May 19 President Clinton recognized the formerly Marxist government of Angola. In the process, the US turned a cold shoulder to rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, who had received support from Presidents Reagan and Bush but has been criticized recently for refusing to abide by a peace settlement and election.
Another sign of the new US policy: Clinton refused to meet with Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida when the Nigerian military leader visited Washington recently. Christopher said that Clinton has invited the "first president of a democratic Namibia, Sam Nujoma, as the first African head of state to be recognized at his White House."
While eschewing African dictators, the administration has pledged itself to helping to rebuild the continent. Christopher promised to keep development aid for Africa at $800 million for the coming year and to work with other creditor nations to reduce debt for countries "cooperating with IMF [International Monetary Fund] adjustment programs."
Christopher also said that the US would spend $70 million this year to protect Africa's environment, and has already spent $1 billion to fight drought this year.
The administration's approach has drawn praise from many quarters. After Christopher's speech last week, Nigerian Ambassador Zubair Mahmud Kazaure said, "I am very satisfied. He spoke of democracy, regional conflicts, the environment, human rights, and population control - all issues that are shared by the people of Nigeria."
REP. Harry Johnston (D) of Florida, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Africa subcommittee, also praised the new policy, calling it "a significant departure from the Africa policy of previous administrations."
But other analysts are more cautious. They note that Africa's deep-rooted poverty, illiteracy, ethnic diversity, corruption, and troubled history with Western nations make US goals there hard to achieve. Haunting the Africa debate is the vast human suffering in Somalia, Liberia, Angola, and Zaire, where the collapse of dictators has led to chaotic power struggles, famine, and war.
Another obstacle, many say, is decades of misdirected US efforts. The biggest recipients of US foreign aid were dictatorships that "are all basket cases now - Liberia, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Zaire," said research associate Janet Fleischman of the human rights group Africa Watch.
"The important questions are what to do about the remaining cold-war autocrats, where we backed the wrong people such as Mobutu [in Zaire] and Moi [in Kenya]," says Randall Robinson, executive director of the Washington-based activist group TransAfrica. "And what to do in support of countries that on their own volition implemented democratic reforms."
Mr. Robinson's solution sounds similar to the administration's policy: "We should support the [democratic] process - that means civic associations, involvement at the table of women, economic development at the local level," and other steps, he says.
But he raises a cautionary flag: "The administration says it supports these but let's see it."
The newly confirmed assistant secretary of state for African affairs, George Moose, contends that the administration will live up to its lofty goals.
In a speech to the African American Institute, he pledged to avoid a pitfall of previous administrations - giving money directly to corrupt rulers - by funneling American aid through nongovernmental organizations that assist in democracy-building.
But he also pledged that aid to the poor for "basic human needs" would not be cut off "even when we disagree fundamentally" with a regime's direction.