Rediscovering Africa Washington: As President Clinton prepares for six-nation tour, House passes trade bill.

March 16, 1998

AFTER DECADES of benign neglect, the United States is finally beginning to pay attention to Africa.

The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed a broad bill that would create a new U.S. trade and investment policy for the 48 countries of the sub-Saharan region.

This month, President Clinton is scheduled to become the first U.S. president in 20 years to visit black Africa.

His six-nation itinerary includes some of the continent's most stable and promising countries -- Senegal, Ghana, Uganda, Botswana and South Africa. Rwanda, the scene of much recent bloody suffering and tribal warfare, has now been added to the tour that is scheduled to begin March 22. This kind of high-level U.S. attention is long overdue. Africa has been so neglected by U.S. policy-makers that even visits by the American secretary of state have been rare.

The continent's trade with the United States is so insignificant that no U.S. airline has regularly scheduled flights to sub-Saharan Africa.

The proposed African Growth and Opportunity Act that passed the House last week attempts to change that.

The bill would allow duty-free and quota-free exports to the United States for 10 years and would establish a mutual forum, similar to the Asia-Pacific Economic Council, that would meet annually to discuss economic and trade matters.

Despite the measure's passage in the House, on a strong 233-186 vote, its fate in the Senate remains uncertain.

Since the days of slavery, the relationship between the United States and Africa has often been complicated. After the "winds of change" began to unravel colonial empires in the 1960s, distrust persisted as Africa was seen as an ideological battleground between East and West.

(When W.E.B. du Bois, the American historian and equal-rights campaigner who became a Communist in old age, died in exile in 1963, Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana gave him a statesman's send-off. Dignitaries from around the world attended the funeral; the U.S. government sent no representative.)

The congressional trade bill and Mr. Clinton's visit come at a time when many African countries feel resentful of the attention the international investment community is paying to the economic troubles of Indonesia and other Asian countries. Most African countries have never received comparable attention.

On his trip, Mr. Clinton should reassure African leaders that they will be supported if they strive for political and economic liberalization.

Pub Date: 3/16/98

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