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Is This the End of Africa's Invisibility?

Author: Salih Booker
March 29, 1998
The Washington Post


The ancestors of at least one-tenth of the American population came to America in slave ships from Africa. The continent is three times the size of the United Sates, represents one-quarter of the earth’s land mass and is home to 53 sovereign nations and some 800 million people. Yet no American president had ever made an extensive state visit to Africa until president Clinton did last week.

The continent, like Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man," has been the invisible land. Indeed, American perceptions of Africa often have had little to do with African realities and everything to do with the projection of our fears, fantasies, racism, and ignorance onto the enormous canvas that is Africa.

As President Clinton pointed out in his speech in Uganda, the cardinal sin in American relations with Africa has been that of neglect. Thus his 11-day, six-nation tour of sub-Saharan Africa—with stops in Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal—is truly historic. It may also mark the beginning of a new era of cooperation with Africa based on mutual respect and mutual interests.

The president’s visit to Africa certainly is based firmly on America’s national interests. The increase of stability and the spread of democracy there are creating new opportunities for trade and greater participation by Africa in global affairs.

At the same time, the administration has at last assembled the ingredients of the United States’ first real Africa policy, intended to move Africa from the back of the bus of the foreign policy agenda.

The new Africa policy will promote greater private business involvement in Africa, trade incentives conditional on democratic political change and military cooperation to produce a collective African peacekeeping force. Unfortunately, absent are additional funds for development and for the relief of the debts of African nations, a willingness to commit U.S. troops for peacekeping on the continent and specific efforts to support democratic movements in crucial countries such as Nigeria and Sudan.

It may surprise some Americans—who have noticed only the tragedies in Rwanda and Burundi—but this is the most promising period for Africa since the heyday of African independence some 40 years ago. While the continent’s continuing problems should not be understated, in just the past eight years Africa has celebrated the independence of Namibia and Eritrea; an end to war in Ethipia, Mozambique and Liberia; a peace agreement in Angola; and of course, an inspiring transition to democratic majority rule in South Africa.

Several despots hang on, but their days are probably numbered. Elections have swept away one-party systems or long-standing dictatorships in Zambia, Malawi and Ivory coast, with 26 African states conducting presidents elections in the past two years. The emergence of a strengthened civil society and the incorporation of women in positions of power are also helping to create the conditions in which governments can be held accountable by the people.

On the economic front, more than two-thirds of African countries are implementing reform policies that emphasize growth, private-sector development and greater openness to the global economy. Aggregate growth rate for these 35 reforming countries have averaged around 5 percent over the past three years.

America has just begun to recognize the opportunity for doing business with Africa. U.S. trade with the 12 nations of southern Africa alone is greater than U.S. trade with the 15 independent states of the former Soviet Union combined, while trade with South Africa is greater than U.S. trade with all of Eastern Europe.

The Clinton administration has benefited from a sharper focus on Africa over the past three years by Congress, which has been working with indefatigable nongovernmental human-rights, development and relief organizations to produce a trade liberalization bill called the African Growth and Opportunity Act. It passed the House on March 11, just in time for Clinton’s travels. The legislation promotes freer trade with sub-Saharan Africa, based on eligibility criteria that include market reform and respect for human rights. Last year, the Clinton administration, needing something to take to the G-8 summit of industrialized nations in Denver where Africa was to figure prominently on the agenda, embraced the Africa trade bill and announced the President’s Partnership for Growth and Opportunity in Africa. This effort is aimed at opening up U.S. markets to more African goods, creating a high-level annual forum for discussing economic issues with African partners and instituting federally insured investment funds for Africa.

The legislation gave rise to an important debate regarding the right mix of assistance, debt reduction and trade needed to promote investments for economic development in Africa, and to a consensus that Africa’s recovery will require all of these types of economic engagement. The president has made passage one of his top legislative foreign policy priorities.

In 1996, the administration, without African consultation, hastily unveiled a plan for training peacekeepers in a handful of African armies under an "Africa Crisis Response Initiative." This has now been recast as a program offering communications equipment for and military training to help several countries develop rapidly deployable peacekeeping unites which could respond to crises as a combined force. The motivation for a crisis-response initiative came from a desire to avoid new U.S. military commitments in Africa following the 1992 debacle in Somalia, and a simultaneous concern that the conflict in Burundi might produce a crisis on the scale of a genocide in Rwanda. The White House feared a scenario in Africa where the only options would be U.S. intervention or now intervention.

Though many political questions have been left unanswered, the initiative represents a new framework for cooperation on security and conflict resolution that even its critics welcome.

The final element of the new policy framework is the development of a coherent approach to democratization and human rights in Africa. The appointment last year of Rev. Jesse Jackson to the post of special envoy for the promotion of democracy in Africa is part of this effort, though it seemed to result more from domestic political considerations than a thorough review of the requirements for promoting democracy in Africa.

Indeed, Jackson’s first trip in December to Kenya and Zambia was widely criticized for its perceived embrace of the heads of both states at a moment when they were resisting pressure to reform from democratic forces in their countries. His second trip in February to Kenya, Congo and Liberia, demonstrated a far more visible commitment to supporting pro-democracy groups. Initially considered a potential liability by Africa policymakers and human-rights groups, the special envoy is now viewed as an asset.

That the White House failed to integrate these efforts into a creative new Africa policy prior to Clinton’s trip is partly the result of the happenstance manner in which they emerged. It was also a reminder that Africa’s sheer size and diversity require an approach tailored to specific countries and regions rather than one that lumps them together.

The new initiatives for Africa as a whole provide a framework for the administration. But it will need to pursue it differently in each of Africa’s five subregions—Southern West, Central, Eastern and Northern—with a special eye on the key countries of South Africa, Nigeria, Congo, Kenya, Sudan and Algeria.

In the context of this new debate on where the United States should concentrate in Africa, suggestions have tended to emphasize partnerships with "successfully reforming states" and/or with those states who leaders are considered to represent the new generation of African leaders, such as Ethiopia or Uganda.

These approaches are more opportunistic than strategic. The administration needs to take into consideration the subregional context within which states are seeking to make economic and political progress. There is significant agreement among those closest to events on the ground that subregional cooperation will be crucial to the success of any new chapter in African affairs.

South Africa’s new role as an engine for economic growth in southern Africa, an anchor for security cooperation and a leader on issues of democracy and human rights demonstrate the importance of one key nation’s influence in supporting positive change regionally.

Without this refinement, various new U.S. initiatives may miss opportunities now emerging, or fail to solve problems in key countries that threaten to undermine the progress being achieved by their neighbors.

When President Clinton returns to Washington, the real work will begin. Acknowledging the critical need for greater development cooperation and debt reduction to help African nations create an attractive environment for trade and investment, he will need to secure more money from congress and get the trade bill enacted if he is to "walk the talk" that he offered in Africa.

There are already constituencies in the United States that care about Africa and can help provide the political support needed for these new initiatives. Among them, and not mutually exclusive, are newly interested businesses, non-government development and human-rights organizations, environmentalists, churches and labor. And central to the effort will be the mobilization of the African American community.

By changing the generally uninformed mind-set of Americans about Africa, President Clinton’s trip could broaden the base further by engaging the public at large in the African renaissance.

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