Clinton Tone-Deaf During Africa Trip

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 11-day trip to Africa, which came less than a month after President Barack Obama’s visit to Egypt and Ghana in July, was an attempt to emphasize Africa’s importance to the United States. Clinton was supposed to reassure African leaders that the Obama administration intends to engage with the continent, despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and perennial problems in Israel and the Korean peninsula.

The trip, however, merely reinforced Africa’s marginal position in U.S. foreign policy. Clinton did not announce any new initiatives or policy directions. Instead, she said the United States would continue to support Bush administration initiatives on “faith-based” HIV prevention and Millennium Development grants. She also pledged to extend military aid to Somalia and $17 million for victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Clinton’s rhetoric during the trip signaled a continuation of the Bush administration’s dualism in its policies toward Africa. This dualism consists of moral condemnation of corruption and human rights abuses while facilitating economic and security ties with mineral-rich and security partners. Oil producers such as Equatorial Guinea, for instance, are exempt from U.S. sanctions. Ethiopia, one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, also escapes sanctions for its egregious human rights record. This dualist rhetoric reinforced the image of the United States as oblivious to the rapidly changing geopolitics of the region.

During the trip, Secretary of State Clinton appeared as petulant and imperious. Her self-proclaimed “tough love” speeches sounded patronizing. She threatened Eritrea with unspecified action for supporting militants in Somalia. In the DRC, she lost her temper at skeptical questions from students. In response to a question about the motives for her trip, she replied that the United States was not obliged to aid victims of violence. She also took umbrage at another student’s query about her husband’s views on China’s investments in Africa. In Angola, too, she struck an incongruous figure lecturing on good governance, despite the history of U.S. efforts to subvert the democratic process by financing a terrorist militia (UNITA) to destabilize the government.

Neocolonial Scold

Reading from an outdated script, Clinton insisted on giving unsolicited advice on the connection between democracy and economic growth. She called for an end to corruption and impunity in Kenya, urged South Africa to lead the campaign for political reforms in neighboring Zimbabwe, deplored sexual violence in the DRC, and called for accountability, the rule of law, and an end to corruption in Angola. In Nigeria, she blamed the “failure of leadership,” incompetence, and corruption for widespread poverty in the oil-rich country.

The media in Africa immediately labeled her speeches “lectures.” One day before Clinton arrived in Nairobi, her first stop on the seven-nation tour, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told the United States: “We don’t need lectures on how to govern ourselves. Lecturing us on issues that deal with governance and transparency is in bad taste.” The next day, Clinton went ahead and criticized Kenya’s leaders, calling on them to hold those responsible for the postelection violence accountable. In Nigeria, the ruling party and the Senate President strongly condemned Mrs. Clinton’s remarks. In South Africa, the Southern Times argued in an editorial titled “Do we need these lectures from the West?” that her preaching cast her in the role of a “neo-colonial scold.” An editorial in the East African, “Poor Hillary, just good enough for Africa,” pointed out that Clinton has been relegated to the “sort-out-the-Africans role,” while her husband and other White House envoys get the critical foreign policy assignments.

Geopolitical Shift

This outdated dualism policy is a liability in the changed circumstances engendered by Africa’s growing economic ties with emerging economies such as India, Brazil, and China. According to a recent United Nations report, there is growing optimism that Africa will weather the current economic crisis by increasing trade with emerging economies instead of its traditional trading partners in Europe and the United States. The report indicates that China has increased its trade with Africa tenfold in the last decade. It has overtaken the United States to become Africa’s second largest trading partner after the European Union. Its trade with Africa south of the Sahara stands at $107 billion for 2008, compared to $104 billion for the United States. China provides African countries with billions of dollars in loans for infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, railway lines, and ports in exchange for access to oil, copper, cobalt and other minerals. It is also interested in markets for its consumer goods.

Both Obama’s one-day visit to Ghana and Clinton’s 11-day tour in August pale beside Chinese president Hu Jintao’s tour of Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Mauritius in February. Hu arrived in these countries with a series of aid and loan packages. At a time when Western countries are reducing their investments, China announced a $5 billion China-Africa Development Fund that has already spent $400 million and will add another $2 billion to help promote Chinese investments in Africa. The Chinese strategy is to provide resource-rich countries with loans for infrastructure development in exchange for raw materials like oil and other minerals to fuel its industries. China announced numerous trade and investment deals while in Africa, including a $3.6 billion copper mining agreement with Zambia. China buys 60% of Sudan’s oil and 30% of Angola’s. China recently provided Angola with $5 billion loan to rebuild roads, bridges and housing projects. The DRC also negotiated a $9 billion development loan in exchange for long-term access to copper and cobalt.

Russia’s president Dimitri Medvedev visited Egypt, Namibia, Angola, and Nigeria in June. The Russians, like the Chinese, were interested in trade. The presidents of Brazil and India also visited Africa this year seeking to strengthen their relations with the continent’s big oil and mineral producers.

Scramble for Africa’s Resources

In this context of a new scramble for Africa’s resources, one would have expected a more aggressive response from the United States. On the political front, the United States and EU no longer have the leverage to bully African countries into accepting harmful conditions on credit and trade. They no longer have the upper hand as Africa strengthens its economic ties with China, India, Malaysia, and Brazil. U.S. corporations will have to work harder to maintain their position in Africa. This will be extremely difficult with the current economic downturn meaning that the ties with China and other emerging economies will continue to strengthen. The Chinese argue that they are seeking relations based on equality and mutual respect. There are no lectures on human rights or governance and no political conditions for loans. The UN warns, however, that growing ties with emerging economies in Asia and South America will not necessarily benefit ordinary Africans. Chinese investors have been accused of dumping substandard consumer goods, promulgating corruption, hiring only Chinese workers, and contributing to the decline in African industry.

The recent tour and statements indicate that the Obama administration’s policies toward Africa continue to revolve around anti-terrorism and access to natural resources. This is evident in the inclusion of Kenya, Angola and Nigeria in the Secretary of State’s itinerary. In Kenya, Clinton announced that the United States would double its military aid to Somalia’s fragile government led by President Sharif Ahmed. The United States has clearly thrown its lot in with the moderate Islamist government led by Ahmed. The new government also has the support of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional security association. This is another desperate effort to prevent the chaos in Somalia from further destabilizing the region. U.S. officials consider Somalia one of the “ungoverned” regions of the world that could become a safe haven for terrorists. The U.S. military is engaged in countering that threat through a variety of tactics that reportedly include training Somali troops, and providing logistics and equipment.

This militaristic response resembles the Bush administration’s support first for clan militia, and then, when that policy failed, for Ethiopia’s invasion in 2006. Both these succeeded only in destabilizing the region further and hardening resistance. The current effort to support the fragile government of Sharif Ahmed is a long shot at best. The Islamist al-Shabaab militia controls most of southern Somalia and the capital Mogadishu. Ahmed controls only a few blocks of the capital held by African Union peacekeepers. There is no military solution to the chaos in Somalia. The United States and its allies therefore should focus on the peacemaking process and encourage negotiations with all parties, including the breakaway regions of Puntland and Somaliland.

By continuing to subordinate Africa policy to the “war on terror,” the Obama administration has missed an opportunity to evolve along with the ongoing geopolitical and economic shifts on the continent. Obama missed the opportunity to go beyond dualism to a more equal partnership with African countries.

A more coherent foreign policy would mean applying equal standards and sanctions for both the resource-rich and other, less endowed countries. The countries that receive the most U.S. aid (Egypt and Ethiopia) are undemocratic, mired in corruption, and have horrendous human rights records. It is not surprising, then, that U.S. lectures about democracy are met with cynicism. This does not mean that the United States should abandon the campaign for democratic reforms. Greater coherence, however, would give the campaign more legitimacy.

The United States must also recognize the diversity of political systems on the African continent. Since the 1960s, the U.S. government has tended to focus on countries that are either security threats or sources of raw materials. This perspective is extremely narrow. The United States must develop a nuanced foreign policy that recognizes that African countries are at different stages in the democratization process. They have different resource endowments and have complicated relations with other parts of the world. Building a sustainable long-term relationship with African countries would require a broader human security perspective that takes into account the basic needs of the population in addition to personal security.

The United States can start by supporting the work of multilateral institutions such as the African Union and the United Nations, and initiatives such as the AU’s peer-review mechanism, which requires ongoing evaluation of efforts to improve adherence to the rule of law, governance, development, and human rights. In Somalia, it would make more sense to strengthen the regional and AU initiatives rather than duplicating their efforts. Strengthening the AU’s capacity to organize peacekeeping operations and efforts to build regional economic blocks are worthwhile long-term projects. The United States must also adopt fair trade policies by dropping protectionist barriers and subsidies for its farmers – and thus open U.S. markets to African products and prevent the crowding out of local products by cheap American imports in Africa itself.

Without such serious policy changes, Africa and Africans will continue to look skeptically at U.S. speeches, however high-minded they might sound.

Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor and teaches African politics and conflict resolution at San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions (Indiana University Press, 2004) and is completing a book on peacemaking in the Horn of Africa.