Clinton won’t shy away from thorny issues in Africa

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week visits Africa, where she’s expected to show support for the government of Somalia, renew political pressure on Zimbabwe and raise awareness of sexual violence in Congo.

Clinton’s 11-day, seven-country tour reflects the range of U.S. strategic interests in Africa ? from humanitarian relief to trade agreements ? and follows President Barack Obama’s brief visit to Ghana last month, when he urged Africans to take greater responsibility for lifting themselves up from poverty, conflict and corruption.

Starting Tuesday, Clinton will visit Kenya, South Africa, Congo, Angola, Nigeria, Liberia and Cape Verde on a tour aimed at “supporting strong and sustainable democratic governments,” State Department officials said. Obama’s message of promoting African self-sufficiency will face challenges, however, as Clinton confronts some of the continent’s most intractable problems.

“This is not a happy-talk schedule,” said J. Stephen Morrison, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s a pretty heavy workload.”

In Kenya, where she will begin her visit, Clinton is scheduled to meet the president of Somalia, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, whose government barely clings to power amid attacks by radical Islamist militias. U.S. officials recently acknowledged they sent a shipment of arms and ammunition to help the government fight the Islamists, who allegedly have links to al-Qaida.

With more than 200,000 people having fled the capital, Mogadishu, since May, Somali government officials have begged the world for more firepower. However, the Obama administration has been reluctant to wade directly into the conflict ? a departure from the Bush administration, which backed warlords and then the Ethiopian military in failed efforts to defeat the Islamists.

In South Africa, officials said Clinton will call on President Jacob Zuma to do more to end the political crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe. South Africa has avoided criticizing Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, despite a collapsing economy, widespread human rights abuses by the armed forces and Mugabe’s failure to follow through on an agreement to share political power with his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Clinton will attempt to open a new chapter in U.S. relations with South Africa, the continent’s most powerful nation, which have soured over Zimbabwe and its reluctance to deal with an AIDS epidemic. Months into office, however, Zuma is already faced with several domestic crises of his own.

“Their economy is taking a big hit . . . unemployment is way up and there’s concern around Zuma and the new government,” Morrison said. “It will be interesting to see whether there’s a capacity to engage on their side.”

U.S. officials said this is the earliest in an administration that both the president and secretary of state will have visited Africa, but experts are skeptical the Obama administration can make Africa a foreign policy priority amid a host of other international and domestic crises.

Officials said Clinton will emphasize how foreign investment can promote economic growth. Visits to two major oil-producing nations, Nigeria and Angola, will highlight the continent’s growing importance as a trading partner, now supplying 20 percent of U.S. oil imports.

In Kenya, Clinton will address a trade summit aimed at reducing tariffs on goods imported from African nations that have implemented democratic changes. Officials said the administration also is developing a plan to strengthen food security in Africa’s predominantly agrarian regions.

Clinton figures to deploy a softer touch in a visit to eastern Congo, where a decade of civil war and humanitarian catastrophe has left millions dead. Human rights groups say Congolese military forces and an array of militia groups have committed grave abuses, including perhaps tens of thousands of rapes, while no senior commander has been prosecuted.

“It is very encouraging that Secretary Clinton is taking a deeply personal interest in the plight of women and girls in the Congo,” said John Prendergast, a co-founder of the Enough Project, an advocacy group. “Her intention is that the U.S. will step up its engagement and help craft a more comprehensive approach to dealing with the multiple causes of conflict in the world’s deadliest war.”

While much has been made of Obama’s connections to Africa ? his father was born in Kenya ? the continent may also carry emotional significance for Clinton. She visited the continent several times as first lady, including for Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration in South Africa. She’s often said the title of her bestselling 1994 book, “It Takes a Village,” comes from an African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“The administration is placing more responsibility on Africans themselves for resolving their problems and improving economic development,” said David H. Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. “Having said that, I believe the secretary’s visit will produce some ‘good cop’ rhetoric to offset the ‘tough cop’ remarks of the president.”

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.