Secretary of State Warren Christopher's first visit to sub-Saharan Africa was meant to convince a struggling continent that the US was not abandoning it.
Whether he succeeded in that mission remains to be seen. But what is certain is that he has few concrete results to show for the trip.
Indeed, eyebrows of several African officials were raised over the timing of the five-nation tour of the world's most impoverished continent, just weeks before the US elections.
The State Department hotly denied claims that Mr. Christopher's end-of-term trip was an after-thought aimed at wooing African-American voters and that Africa was slipping even lower on the priority list in the post-cold war era.
But a widespread feeling here was articulated by one South African newspaper, which wrote that the late visit by the well-traveled Christopher was the diplomatic equivalent of being invited to a party at 5 in the afternoon.
Christopher's tour to Mali, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Angola and South Africa centered on rallying support for three plans: tightening pressure on Nigeria's military rulers to democratize, blocking UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's reelection to a second term, and establishing a pan-African peacekeeping force.
It is questionable whether he was successful on any of the points, political analysts say.
"One wonders what they were expecting. If I were on his staff, I certainly wouldn't be overjoyed with the results," says Antoinette Handley, an analyst with the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs.
"Certainly on the peacekeeping and Boutros Boutros-Ghali there was very little progress," she says. "On Nigeria, we don't see any immediate progress, although perhaps we will see some results later on."
Hesitancy to corral Nigeria
She and other analysts note that many African nations share Washington's concern about Nigeria's drug trafficking and entrenched dictatorship. But the tendency of African states - except in the recent case of Burundi - is to refrain from criticizing too harshly one of their own.
Attempts so far to rally strong African censures of Nigeria's military regime have failed. This is partially because of fears by nearby states that tough sanctions would cause the economy of Africa's most populous nation to collapse and bring unrest to its neighbors. Many are concerned that there is no viable political alternative to the current rulers.
A plausible explanation for the timing of the secretary of state's visit, aside from domestic concerns, was to canvass Africans for support against Mr. Boutros-Ghali two months before the secretary-general's term ends. The Clinton Administration is waging a lone crusade against him as a symbol of all that is wrong with the UN.
Most African leaders including South Africa's influential President Nelson Mandela have come out in support of the UN chief, who is an Egyptian.
Christopher scored some success in Mali, a West African state favored by the US for its transition to democracy. The government there said that an African should lead the UN, but would consider an alternative to the incumbent.
Organization of African Unity (OAU) Secretary General Salim Ahmed Salim has supported Boutros Boutros-Ghali, but he said African leaders might be willing to back another African candidate.
So far, several names have come up at the UN's New York headquarters but it is unclear how viable they are as alternatives.
A not-quite-new peace plan
The proposed all-African peacekeeping force is not a new idea - such a proposal has been mooted by the OAU since last year. But pan-African peacekeeping is riddled with complications, as evidenced by failure in Liberia and aborted attempts to set up a mission to Burundi.
The 10,000-member force, as envisaged by the US, would be sent to countries where civil war, insurrection, or genocide threatened mass civilian casualties. The US has undertaken to pay one-fourth of the estimated $40 million to train the force and has pledged an additional $10 million.
Such a peacekeeping force is a logical notion that has something for everyone. It allows the US and UN to disengage gracefully following the costly, failed peace missions in Somalia, Rwanda, and elsewhere. It allows African states to assume responsibility for each other.
Christopher won backing in principle from Ethiopia and Mali, and his assistant for Africa, George Moose, is believed to have gotten approval from other African nations on a trip last month.
But Salim, while endorsing the idea in principle, said African leaders had concerns about the plan, such as why Washington had approached only 10 of 47 sub-Saharan states, who would command the force, and how long-term funding would be guaranteed. He foresaw problems if only Washington's allies joined.
Christopher failed to prompt enthusiasm by South Africa - arguably the most important player in the region with one of the best equipped and trained armies. Mandela did not rule out joining a peacekeeping force but said such proposals should come from the OAU or UN instead.