Preaching reform, Clinton wins African hearts

In Liberia, Hillary Clinton brought out the crowds despite torrential rain. In Congo, she came away deeply shaken from a meeting with rape victims. Kenya’s prime minister said Africa didn’t need lectures from the West about democracy, but Africa got one anyway.

At home, the U.S. secretary of state’s visit may have been overshadowed by the aftermath of her husband’s mission to North Korea to bring home two imprisoned U.S. journalists. But on her seven-nation Africa tour, ending Friday with a stopover in the West African island republic of Cape Verde, she made one splash after another.

Coupled with Barack Obama’s visit last month, the two trips to Africa were the earliest into an administration by any secretary of state or president, underlining Washington’s pledges to pay more attention to the continent.

In the U.S., the headline-making moment of the trip was her testy response to a question about Bill Clinton. But in Africa, it quickly became a footnote. What people wanted to hear was support for democracy, clean government and ending its many civil wars.

Clinton’s ambitious itinerary resembled those of China’s foreign minister, who makes extensive annual tours of his country’s allies on the continent. But where China tends to sidestep the issues of corruption democracy, Clinton confronted them head-on.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, speaking hours before Clinton arrived, said Africa did not need to be lectured about democracy. After they met, she did just that. “The absence of strong and effective democratic institutions has permitted ongoing corruption, impunity, politically motivated violence and a lack of respect for a rule of law,” Clinton said. “These conditions … are continuing to hold Kenya back.”

Odinga switched to a more conciliatory tone, saying African countries could learn from Clinton’s example when she conceded defeat to Obama during the U.S. presidential primaries.

“That is a lesson Africa needs to learn seriously,” he said. “In Africa, in many countries, elections are never won, they are only rigged. The losers never accept that they lost. If we do this, we will be able to develop democracy truly in the African continent.”

In Angola, she told Foreign Minister Assuncao Afonso dos Anjos that his country needed to write a new constitution, prosecute human rights crimes and hold a proper presidential election.

“So, Mr. Minister, we have our work cut out for us,” she said.

And in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer, she said “the disconnect between Nigeria’s wealth and its poverty is a failure of governance at the federal, state and local level.”

To Africa’s reformers, often an embattled minority, these were heartening words.

Emma Ezeazu, who campaigns for free and fair elections in his native Nigeria, said Clinton’s visit showed that U.S. officials “are becoming more pro-active in their relationship with Nigeria, in particular on the subject of governance and democracy. They are paying more attention.”

Tiseke Kasambala, a Johannesburg-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, commended her grasp of human rights abuses in Africa ? not just the headline-makers, like Zimbabwe and Congo, but the lesser publicized offenders such as Angola.

In Goma, a Congo town in a region ravaged by gang rapes amid continuing fighting between army and rebels, Clinton announced $17 million in American aid to help the victims.

She toured a squalid camp of 18,000 refugees and heard one of them tell her, “We really want to return home, that’s why we are asking America to help stop the fighting.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Clinton replied. “I want you to be able to go home.”

In Cape Town, South Africa, big, joyous crowds turned out for her at a housing project. In Liberia, founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, rain-drenched crowds waved U.S. and Liberian flags at Clinton’s motorcade.

The crowds in Nigeria and Angola were fewer, but community and religious leaders seemed excited just to be with Clinton and be heard by her.

Nancy Kachingwe, a Malawian with the development group ActionAid, applauded Clinton’s “very strong emphasis around women’s rights.”

Some of former President George W. Bush’s Africa initiatives, particularly on AIDS, have been widely praised in Africa. But there were also sharp differences over world trade, global warming, and over the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism strategy.

Washington wants to buy Africa’s oil and gain access to its markets, and fears instability in places like Somalia could fuel anti-U.S. terrorism. Clinton won points by stressing that as the U.S. pursues its interests, it sees the virtue of “working with and listening to our friends and allies, and creating not a multipolar world, but a multi-partner world.”

Kachingwe said what matters now is the follow-up.

“There will be a positive impact” from Clinton’s trip, she said. “But somewhere along the way, we do need to see … what’s going to come to keep the momentum going.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.