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Secretary Clinton's 'Important Trip' to Africa

Interviewee: Princeton N. Lyman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 5, 2009

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CFR's Princeton N. Lyman, a former ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria, says that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to seven African countries will demonstrate that Africa is "important" to the Obama administration. In South Africa, for instance, she will want to repair relations with new South African President Jacob Zuma. In Nigeria, which Lyman says "is in considerable difficulty," Clinton will have a number of issues to deal with. "Those of us who follow Nigeria are probably more worried about Nigeria than we have ever been," he says, because of the corrupt political system and the insurrection in the Niger Delta.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has left on a seven-nation trip to Africa. Is this an important trip, or is it one of those trips where the secretary just shows the flag?

It is an important trip because President Obama has created a great deal of expectations in Africa about his administration. He himself made a quick trip to Ghana, which had repercussions in itself--Nigeria was irritated that it was not the host. Her follow-up mission is going to show again that Africa is important for this administration. There is considerable variety in the number of countries she is going to and the problems she is going to address. This is not a trip where she is going only to "good" countries.

The first stop is in Kenya, where there have been terrible political problems and much violence in the last couple of years. But of course the purpose is to attend the major trade conference, which is partly organized by the United States, right?

It is called the AGOA forum [African Growth and Opportunity Act] that we do every year. It will be an important meeting because many Africans try to take full advantage of AGOA, which gives it access to American markets; they will of course be pressing for even more access to our agricultural market. But it is also an opportunity for her to discuss--and Special Trade Representative Ron Kirk will be there--why the Africans are on the Doha round [of world trade talks] on the side of [more protectionist] India, China, and Brazil. It is not necessarily logical that they be there.

In another words, the African countries have generally been on the protectionist side?

South Africa led them into siding with China, India, and Brazil. Those countries have wanted to keep their markets closed while pressing the European Union and the United States to open our agricultural markets and to get our internal subsidies down. The question is, wouldn't the Africans be better off on the side of the United States? Because India and Brazil have high tariffs on African goods and we have very little tariffs [on African goods]. There is some general trade policy to take up with South Africa as well because South Africa is very much the leader of the African bloc on this issue.

While she is in Kenya, apparently the president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is going to meet with her. What is going on in Somalia?

It is a country that has been without a recognized central government for more than twenty years now. Several years ago, Ethiopians invaded Somalia to restore order and crush the Islamist insurgency. What occurred is what many of us predicted--they opened the country to the most insurgency that it has ever seen. The Ethiopians were promised by the African Union that their force would be replaced by an 8,000-person African Union force because Somalians really hated Ethiopia. But after two or three years, Africans couldn't assemble more than 2,300 soldiers so the Ethiopians just left. Then the UN negotiated a new transitional government. One of the more moderate Islamists from that movement agreed to be president.

The country is very sharply divided and in a miserable state with many dependent on humanitarian aid. But this new transitional government is really incapable of governing and this Al-Shabaab Islamist group has become even more radical, professing ties to al-Qaeda. So it is a real dilemma for the United States because it is probably the most terrorist-prone area on the continent and this is of course destabilizing the whole region. There are a half a million Somali refugees in Kenya and in Ethiopia so it is a very dangerous situation.

The United States is going to give more military aid but is that at all helpful?

It might keep [the transitional government] from being run out all together but this is not a government that is going to be capable of winning a military victory. The players are so divided in Somalia. They shift alliances and that is not going to be the solution. It needs a wider diplomacy. This is not just an African problem. It is very much a Middle Eastern issue. And if we don't have strong cooperation from Middle Eastern countries from which money and people are coming to Somalia we are not going to get this resolved.

And then she is flying to South Africa where she will have the first meeting with the new president, Jacob Zuma.

This is a chance to rebuild a relationship that had drifted downward in the final years of Thabo Mbeki's presidency. Partly it was international politics, South Africa's opposition to the Iraq war.  South Africa was on the UN Security Council and voted many times in ways really irritating to America.  This is a chance to rebuild a relationship. Zuma is facing a lot of problems internally. South Africa is in its first official recession since 1994. He has promised more aid to the poor but is constrained by economic factors and he has got a lot of unrest going on with people who say, "You promised us a lot and now we want it."

The other issue Clinton is going to discuss with him is how active South Africa is going to be on the continent. Under Mbeki, South Africa was extremely active in the OAU [Organization of African Unity, predecessor to the African Union] and contributed peacekeepers. It is not clear if Zuma can continue that role. He has so many domestic problems.

And then there is Zimbabwe. There is a fragile coalition government in Zimbabwe. Zuma will say, "Give it more support, give it more money, it is the best deal we have got going." We want to help the former opposition leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, but we don't want to put any money into that central government because we think the bad guys are still very much in charge. That will be a very important part of the discussion. But Zuma doesn't have the ideological hang-ups that Mbeki had. He wants better relations with the United States. He is a street-smart politician and will want to do what works. He will want to rebuild the U.S. relationship.

And then she is going up to Angola.

She is going to Angola because it is a country that feels neglected. After ending the civil war, they had free elections. The opposition is in such disarray that they didn't do very well at all. They got a ton of Chinese money. They have now surpassed Nigeria as the number one oil producer in Africa.

That is a fact that most Americans do not realize.

It is because Nigeria is in such trouble. Angola is now the number one foreign supplier of oil to China.

More than the Middle East?

It is a very important country. When you remember all the years of civil war, it is [now] the most stable country in the Gulf of Guinea. They have been looking for more recognition and they don't want aid from us. They are looking for more private investments.

Are there American oil companies in there?

American oil companies are very prominent there. Chevron is there and other American oil companies. They have been there all along. It is a country that still has a lot of poverty in the rural areas. They are cleaning up the oil sector a little bit. There are a lot of questions about the transparency in the diamond sector but it is good that she is going. Angola could be a very important influence on the Gulf of Guinea and they are improving their relationships with South Africa. It is a good start.

From there she goes to the Congo. That's to highlight the continuing violence in the eastern part.

Exactly. And to emphasize that all the donors have to get together and carry through a much more vigorous security-sector reform because the government's army as well as the rebel army commit terrible, terrible deprivation on the population. They are fighting over resources. There are very valuable minerals in that area, [including] minerals that support the cell phone industry because one is vital to cell phones. And there is coal and there is diamonds. Various peace efforts have collapsed over this so this is going to be the big issue there--trying to get a resolution for some of those problems. And I am sure Hillary being who she is will focus on the plight of women in that area because it has been really terrible.

From the Congo she goes to Nigeria.

Nigeria is in considerable difficulty. And those of us who follow Nigeria are probably more worried about Nigeria than we have ever been. There is a weak government right now. In the last election, President Umaru Yar'Adua was elected. It was a very bad election. You've had three successive elections in Nigeria and each was worse than the previous.

You mean it was corrupt?

Yes, corrupt, very badly corrupted, and particularly in the oil-producing regions. So Yar-Adua wins but he is ill. He is not very strong and as a result the government has not been able to address two major problems. One is the problem in the [Niger] Delta where the oil is produced. There is a long history of environmental devastation, discrimination, poverty, etc. This is an area that feeds the whole country's wealth but they are probably some of the poorest people in the country. Over time, the protests have morphed into a group of militia who are on the line between criminality and freedom fighter. They engaged in what is called "bunkering" in Nigeria, which is to steal large amounts of oil and through corrupt officials in the military in the area, you get that oil out and buy ever more sophisticated arms. They are also into the drug trade but they claim to be fighting for more resources and better development of the people in the Delta. And to make their point they have attacked and shutdown at least one-third and approaching one-half of Nigeria's normal oil production. That is why Angola has now surpassed Nigeria and it is having an effect all throughout the country because all of Nigeria is heavily dependent on oil revenue. [Yar'Adua] has got a serious problem. The government has just offered amnesty but they are also having very active military action in the area. No real development plan has emerged out of all of this, so it is a very unstable situation.

And then we have this violence in the north?

In the north a rather extreme radical group that was a rather marginal one a few years ago launched attacks in three cities. The underlying problem, which is as worrisome as anything else, is that Nigeria has failed over the years to develop its own infrastructure. For example, they produce now 6,000 megawatts of power; South Africa produces 40,000. And the result is Nigerian domestic industry is no longer competitive. They are closing down. Chinese and Indian goods flood the market. And particularly up north where a lot of the consumer industries were located are large numbers of unemployed young people who are easy to entice into either religious conflict or other kinds of conflict. The failures of successive governments to tackle the infrastructure problem create, in my view, a very long-term dangerous situation in the country.

Do they listen to us at all?

Not much. They were very miffed that Obama didn't go there. What the secretary will find is that under this government Nigeria is not projecting itself as it did under the previous president. So she is not going to be able to get a lot from Nigeria in help for regional problems. Her issues will be electoral reforms, which are very vital there, and tackling the problems in the Delta. The Nigerians like material help but they don't like much other help. They have a great deal of pride, and while it is important that she goes there and it is a very important relationship, it is going to be hard to do more than establish some important lines of communication for the new administration.

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