What Hillary Clinton seeks to achieve in Africa

One aim: to bolster relations with resource-rich countries where China has been aggressively extending its presence.

Sayyid Azim/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (l.) is welcomed by Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula and American ambassador to Kenya, Michael Rannerger (r.) at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton begins a seven-country tour of sub-Saharan Africa Wednesday designed to underscore the Obama administration's priority on improving the continent's stability and development.

While Secretary Clinton's stated objective is to address issues ranging from regional economic development and education to democratic governance and gender-based violence, another aim will be to bolster relations with resource-rich countries where China has been aggressively extending its presence.

"The new administration wants to put Africa among the top priorities of its international relations. They want to address the concerns of quite a few countries that were frustrated by Obama's choice of Ghana for his one stop in Africa last month. And then there is the issue of a growing rivalry from China for resources," says Pierre Englebert, an Africa specialist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "Clinton's trip is about trying to kill several birds with one stone."

Indeed, some diplomatic analysts add to that list Clinton's desire to stake a claim among foreign-policy priorities, since a number of top-rung issues like Middle East peace have been assigned to special envoys.

Clinton "may be signaling through the scope and timing of her trip that Africa has graduated into a mainstream US foreign-policy priority," says J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "That would be a significant shift," he adds, "and could begin to right the imbalances of the past that favored the military and other security agencies."

Clinton begins her trip with a speech in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday at the US-Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum. From there she moves on to South Africa, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Liberia, and Cape Verde.

While in Nairobi, Clinton will meet with the beleaguered president of Somalia's transitional government, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who is battling an Islamist insurgency. Clinton is expected to announce the allocation of additional aid to the Somali government, including in the form of arms to fight the extremists.

In outlining Clinton's trip, State Department officials said her objective is to demonstrate how the United States wants to "partner" with African countries – in particular with a rising class of young entrepreneurs, educators, farmers, and civic leaders – to further the goals set by President Obama in his July 11 speech in Accra, Ghana.

One priority in Clinton's stop in South Africa will be to enlist the help of the new president, Jacob Zuma, in pressuring Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, to fully implement a power-sharing plan that made rival Morgan Tsvangirai the country's prime minister.

But Clinton's principal foray into conflict resolution, Professor Englebert of Pomona says, will come in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where war in the eastern portion of the country has resulted in an estimated 2 million deaths. Noting that Clinton will focus on the sexual violence in the war, Englebert says, "The US has not given up on the military solution" to a complex conflict involving armies, militias, remnants of the Rwandan civil war, and the United Nations. "What Clinton wants to pressure for is better behavior among the fighters and hope for terrorized victims of violence," he says.

Mr. Morrison of CSIS calls it "bold" of Clinton to visit "wrecked" eastern Congo and to "put a spotlight on pervasive rape and other forms of violence directed at women and girls." That spotlight, he adds, gives "reality to her claim that gender should occupy a new priority place in US foreign policy."


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