Clinton begins tour of sub-Saharan Africa First long visit to area since Carter in 1978

March 22, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton embarks on the longest overseas journey of his presidency today, a 12-day, six-nation African marathon that will tout the continent's dynamic prospects and touch on its horrific experiences.

The trip will be the first sustained presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa in 20 years and the most extensive ever, highlighting the variety and texture of a region that usually appears on American television in episodes of ethnic war, famine and disease.

It will be the first time a sitting president has stopped in any of Clinton's six destinations -- in order, Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal.

The Clinton administration calls the trip historic, and, to underscore its importance, has invited a number of African-American leaders to accompany the president on Air Force One or join him in South Africa. They include the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson; NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a former Baltimore congressman; and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

With this important Democratic constituency in mind, Clinton won't leave Africa without noting the painful legacy of 2 1/2 centuries of slavery.

At his final stop, the president will speak at Goree Island in the West African country of Senegal, a departure point for millions of Africans shipped in bondage to the New World.

But the White House recognizes that for African-Americans, as for Americans generally, the continent is not a burning issue.

"One of the overriding goals of this trip is to help Americans rethink Africa and Africans rethink America," said Samuel R. Berger, the president's national security adviser. In a briefing to reporters, he said: "We have a very one-dimensional view of the dark continent."

White House aides recognize that the president won't be able to escape the sex scandal that has shadowed him in recent weeks. But they say the trip will be rare and important enough to grab attention on its own as the president moves from teeming cities to villages.

With 700 million people and abundant resources, Africa has vast potential as a stable economic partner and market, U.S. officials say. It also poses a security challenge because of narcotics, environmental degradation and disease, and rampant arms trafficking.

The president is expected to announce a number of new initiatives dealing with justice and education, among other things, though none are expected to be of headline-grabbing significance.

A key plank of his Africa policy -- new trade and investment legislation -- faces trouble in the Senate and in his own party and won't have passed by the time he leaves town.

The United States is sending $700 million in development aid to Africa, the equivalent of $1 for each African. Aid groups say the amount is paltry and want the United States to spur international debt relief for the continent.

But prospects for the visit cheer the small but growing American community of Africa specialists and investors.

"We will have a sitting president spending more time thinking about Africa on a sustained basis than ever in history," said Philip Christenson, a former House staff member and specialist on the region.

President Bush visited U.S. soldiers and aid workers in Somalia just before leaving office early in 1993. President Carter went to Liberia and Nigeria in 1978. President Roosevelt made several transit stops in West Africa en route to conferences during World War II.

It's a measure of Africa's patchy progress that none of the countries visited by Carter and Bush is deemed worthy of a presidential visit now.

Somalia remains without a central government five years after a failed attempt at nation-building ended with 18 U.S. servicemen being killed in an ambush and an embarrassing American withdrawal.

Liberia, founded by freed American slaves and the African country with the closest American ties, remains devastated by a brutal civil war that ended only recently. Its elected president escaped from a Massachusetts jail.

Oil-rich Nigeria is the target of strong U.S. criticism and condemnation from human rights groups for its repression of political opponents and corruption.

It is one of several important sub-Saharan countries -- Kenya and Congo being two more -- whose autocratic leaders are seen to be holding back a regional trend toward democracy.

During the Cold War, a number of African states fell within the Soviet orbit and would not have welcomed a U.S. president.

Jesse Jackson, who serves as a U.S. envoy for human rights on the continent, says this trip marks a more mature, "mutually beneficial" U.S.-African relationship.

Nowhere is this more true than Clinton's fourth stop, South Africa, where U.S. sanctions helped end a system of racist apartheid. The country is becoming a multiracial democracy, corporate magnet and potential engine of regional growth.

Over four days in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Clinton will address Parliament, meet with President Nelson Mandela and visit Robbin Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.

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