In US-Africa relations, attitude is everything

Clinton met with African ministers, signaling stepped-up US focus oncontinent.

It's been a year since President Clinton embarked on the most extensive trip to Africa of any US president, wowing crowds and declaring a new "partnership between our peoples."

This week, it was his turn to play host, welcoming senior ministers from 50 African countries in an unprecedented discussion of next steps in the "partnership."

Like last year's trip, however, Africa-watchers describe the gathering as far more symbolism than substance. George Ayittey, a professor at American University, goes so far as to call it "public-relations fluff."

But even critics like Mr. Ayittey admit that it's consistent fluff, which is more than can be said for previous administrations.

And many hope that sustained symbolic gestures will spawn an atmosphere more conducive to action - such as passage of the languishing Africa trade bill or significant relief for the continent's suffocating debt, both of which the president championed at this week's three-day Africa ministerial.

"Before you can have concrete steps, you've got to have a change in attitudes. And changes in attitudes frequently come with symbolism," says Constance Freeman, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

Ms. Freeman, who worked on Africa issues for 15 years at the State Department, says the Clinton administration is "genuinely captivated" by Africa. "There is a definitive commitment and resolve to move forward in expanding our relationship and to do it on a partnership basis. This is a different attitude from the past."

The president's address sought to remind Americans - and businesses - why they should care about a far away, conflict-riddled continent that accounts for only a minuscule percentage of US exports.

"This is truly a relationship for the long haul," Mr. Clinton told a sea of ministers and ambassadors this week.

Saying Africa obviously matters to the 30 million Americans who trace their roots there, Clinton added it also provides 13 percent of US oil - nearly as much as the Middle East. And he said that investing in Africa is worth it, citing a 36 percent return on investment in 1997, compared with 16 percent in Asia and 11 percent in Europe.

The president also repeated his State of the Union call to pass the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade bill Congress failed to pass last year. And he proposed a plan to speed up and deepen debt relief for Africa. The continent as a whole spends about 40 percent of its export earnings paying off debt, hindering much-needed development.

SERIOUS steps like these are what the African ministers who met here are most interested in. "We think trade is more important than aid," says Eriya Kategaya, foreign minister of Uganda.

The outlook for both measures, however, is uncertain. Lawmakers in the House hope to bring the Growth and Opportunity Act to the floor for a vote by the Easter recess and expect it will pass. But they are concerned about the Senate, which last year failed to pass the bill, in part because of claims that it would hurt the US textile industry.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, of the House Ways and Means Committee, worries Senate majority leader Trent Lott will once again block the bill.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin met criticism from both parties when he presented the president's debt relief plan to US lawmakers Wednesday. The plan, which could result in the international community forgiving $70 billion owed by the world's poorest nations, was criticized as inadequate by some Democrats.

Although Mr. Rubin said countries would have to establish a six-year track record of economic reform before their debt was erased, Republicans said the plan still lacked accountability. Clinton will have a chance to push his plan when the group of seven most industrialized nations discusses debt relief at its June summit in Germany.

Complicating everything is renewed violence in Africa. Congo, Sierra Leone, Angola, and Sudan have yet to resolve their internal conflicts. Neighbors Ethiopia and Eritrea are still fighting, despite US intervention.

This turmoil is a major hindrance to US investment in Africa, says Gregory Simpkins, policy director for the Corporate Council on Africa, an association of US companies that do business there. Last year, 40 eager companies visited Congo to look at business opportunities. Now because of the war, he says, "that's not possible."

In the meantime, the White House appears set on an Africa course that bears the mark of its approach to domestic policy: a series of small steps to aid education, agriculture, transportation, and justice.

Planned improvements such as direct flights from the US to a more secure Lagos, Nigeria airport, may be imperceptible in the grand scheme. But for people like Freeman, who has refused to use the Lagos airport unescorted, they make a difference. "Anything comes from small steps first," she says.

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