From Somalia to South Africa, Clinton confronts competing demands

Clinton met with Somalia's president Thursday and traveled to Tshwane (Pretoria) Friday. She must work with a continent most united by a desire to appear independent from the US.

Khalil Senosi/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (r.) and Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, during a press conference at the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, on Thursday.

JOHANNESBURG – Just three days into her Africa tour, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is probably beginning to see what longtime travellers of Africa have known for years. The differences between Africa’s 47 countries (53 if you count the island nations) often are more profound than the similarities.

In Kenya, Ms. Clinton met with a government riddled with corruption and infighting, and discussed trade ties with African nations and the Islamist threat in Somalia. Clinton also briefly met with Somali transitional President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in Nairobi, telling the embattled leader that the US government would continue to provide financial and military support to the government’s fight against Islamist militias.

In South Africa, starting today, she will see a mainly first-world economy where the main issues are getting tough with Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and meeting the needs of South Africa’s 6 million citizens living with HIV. In Angola and Nigeria, she will discuss how those county’s oil wealth can create wealthy functioning democracies, but in mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo, she will see how the fight for minerals has led to an almost-endless civil war that has killed perhaps 5 million in the past decade.

What exactly do these countries have in common, and what possibly could be the underpinnings of a new United States policy toward Africa?

The answer, for many African nations, is that they share a post-colonial suspicion of Western nations such as the US, and have very little interest in appearing to do America’s bidding, even if it is in their national interest.

Liberation leaders such as President Mugabe – no matter how despotic they became after liberation – have made a career out of defying the West, says Richard Cornwell, an independent political analyst in Tshwane (as Pretoria is now called). “There’s always been this attitude for political opponents of Mugabe to be labled as ‘lackeys of the West,’” says Mr. Cornwell, and that makes it difficult for African leaders such as President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Botswana’s President Ian Khamma to criticize Mugabe publicly.

The key, for visiting Western leaders, such as Clinton, is to discuss the common interests of South Africa and the US in a stable post-Mugabe Zimbabwe behind closed doors, and let Mr. Zuma work out the details on his own. “It is difficult for Western politicians, who have public pressures at home to deal with, to be seen to be doing nothing,” Cornwell says, “but when it comes to countries like Zimbabwe, the least to be seen to be done, the better.”

Ah, now there’s a challenge. While her husband jets home with two journalists freed from a North Korean prison, Clinton must appear to do nothing. Nice work if you can get it.

After meeting with the Somali president in Kenya, Clinton echoed his concerns, warning Eritrea against its reported support for Islamist militias such as Al Shabab, which is thought to share an ideology with Al Qaeda. “We are making it very clear to the Eritrean government that their support of Al Shabab is unacceptable as it amounts to interfering with the rights of the Somali people to elect their leaders,” Clinton told reporters. “We intend to take action if they don’t cease,” she added, without elaboration.

Clinton’s trip has had moments of rich African humor. One Kenyan man offered a dowry of 40 goats and 20 cows for the hand of Clinton’s daughter Chelsea. Clinton explained that her daughter is “her own person,” but promised, “I will convey this very kind offer.”

Dollarwise, American interests in South Africa have less to do with how to get tough on Zimbabwe and more to do with how to deal with HIV. Through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the US government gave nearly $590 million to help South Africa fund its own programs for education, prevention, and treatment. More than 500,000 South Africans received antiretroviral treatment medicines, and 1.8 million received other AIDS-related care and support through PEPFAR last year.

This is an area where the US government can make a massive difference, say aid workers such as Nancy Kachingwe of ActionAid.

“We have to be creative, even in cases like Zimbabwe, where the tragedy of political decline has run quite a long course now, we need to sit down and see how to deal with things, what works, and what needs to be done,” says Ms. Kachingwe, who had been a country representative in Zimbabwe and now heads ActionAid’s programs in South Africa. “The priority needs to be humanitarian needs, to keep children in schools, to keep people fed.”

Unlike their predecessors, President Thabo Mbeki and President George W. Bush, neither Zuma nor President Obama are particularly ideological, and are more likely to focus on what works, Kachingwe adds. “It is a chance for a new beginning.”

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