Clinton in Africa: Gestures Count

Presidential trip is designed to put the continent on the map for more Americans.

A sobering exchange with Rwandan genocide survivors. A poignant moment inside the former jail cell of South Africa President Nelson Mandela. A visit to the point of embarkment for countless slaves to America.

President Clinton's historic 12-day, six-country sub-Saharan tour is an effort to put Africa on the map for most Americans - and to lay the groundwork for his new policy of weaning the continent from foreign aid in favor of greater trade with America.

But if Mr. Clinton's Africa trip is shaping up to be more symbolism than substance, Africa watchers here say, his touching speeches and gestures at this stage are appropriate and even meaningful.

"One shouldn't dismiss the symbolism" of the president's trip, says Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan and Bush administrations. The tour is raising the profile of Africa with the media and the American public, he says. It's showing something "hopeful about Africa, as well as its problems'' and is "keeping the faith'' with blacks in America by going back to their roots, he says.

But the real test of the president's commitment to this long-neglected continent will be after his return to Washington Thursday. That's when, to keep the momentum from the trip going, Clinton will have to translate promises into action.

During his trip, the president has tried to lay out his vision for the future, emphasizing a new US relationship with Africa that replaces paternalism with economic and political partnership.

"It used to be when American policymakers thought of Africa at all, they would ask, 'What can we do for Africa, or whatever can we do about Africa?' '' Mr. Clinton said in an address before South Africa's parliament last week. "Those were the wrong questions. The right question today is, what can we do with Africa?"

Clinton has also addressed other American failings: slow response to the Rwanda genocide, favoritism of some authoritarian regimes during the cold war, and general neglect of Africa. He's reinforced these messages with visits to sites stained with sadness, such as Robben Island, South Africa's political prison.

At this point, "the symbolism is the substance," says Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) of Florida, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Subcommittee on Africa. "The most important aspect of the trip is the fact that it occurred." He cites gestures such as the president's expression of remorse for slavery, which the congressman described as a "powerful message."

'Pretty thin gruel'

While the president's messages have had sweep and scope, the aid initiatives he has unveiled - the substance of the trip - have been less grand. The initiatives include $120 million for education in Africa over two years, $16 million for health care, $61 million for food production, and $30 million for judicial reform in the tinderbox Great Lakes region in central Africa.

Mr. Crocker calls this aid "pretty thin gruel." Simply put, "we don't have any money," he says. The White House "had to scramble'' to come up with even these items.

Rep. Lee Hamilton, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on International Relations, is more generous, calling the initiatives "modest, but worthy." But Congressman Hamilton echoes others when he stresses that presidential follow-up is essential to progress in Africa.

"If this trip is to have any lasting value, focus has to be maintained and this is very difficult,'' Hamilton cautions. The "pattern'' with Africa has been that it captures US attention during crises, and then disappears when a crisis is over, he says.

"It's crucial to have the president's commitment'' and not just leave implementation to government underlings, Hamilton warns. He adds that "the president is going to have to work hard" with Congress to restore Africa aid to its historic high ($840 million from the current $700 million), as he pledged last week.

"Whether or not the president can sustain [his Africa focus] is at best an open question," says Janet Fleischman of Human Rights Watch in Washington. Between now and the next four months, the president expects to visit South America, Europe, and China. The Paula Jones case is scheduled for trial in May, and the Lewinsky story is sure to drag on as well.

The most crucial test will be how actively the president pushes an African trade bill, which is the bedrock of his plan to wean Africa from poverty through trade, rather than massive infusions of aid. The bill passed the House March 11. A companion bill awaits action in the Senate. It's controversial among senators who fear dumping of African textiles and apparel in the US.

Although the president praised the bill during his trip, he "has a record of giving very good speeches and showing interest but not doing the follow-up work with the congressional liaison office," says Andy Fisher, spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who introduced the Senate version of the bill.

Testing US commitment to human rights

Other tests await the president. Crocker believes violence will erupt in central Africa again, and when that happens, it remains to be seen whether the president's agreement with six African leaders to work on genocide detection and prevention will hold.

Likewise, the president's commitment to promoting democracy and human rights in Africa will be scrutinized.

"It will be so important that these messages be conveyed consistently, that there are no exceptions and excuses" for countries that don't develop democratically or honor human rights, says Olara Otunnu, former Uganda ambassador to the United Nations now with the International Peace Academy in New York.

Of course Africa will have to do its part to develop the partnership. But for Clinton, the question is whether he will keep step or be plucked from the arms of his new partner by some other distraction or crisis.

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