Just as former US president Bill Clinton was on a surprise visit to North Korea yesterday, a place no former US president had visited since Jimmy Carter did so in 1994, his wife and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was starting her first Africa tour since she became US’s chief diplomat. While his visit inter alia is to secure the release of two of his compatriots Laura Ling and Euna Lee who are serving a 12-year jail term, hers is aimed at showing commitment that the Obama administration is making Africa “a US foreign policy priority”.
Among others, Mrs Clinton will visit Cape Verde and our neighbours, Liberia. It all leaves me thinking as to what has happened to our friendship with the United States not least because it all seems like yesterday when the US secretary of state, Madeline Albright was at Freetown’s Mammy Yoko. Before he became secretary of state Collin Powel was also here. I remember as a young college student when I discussed leadership with him. An impression that has stayed in me ever since and has helped keep me going.
Even though the war was raging, we basked and glowed in recognition. Recognition that should not go away because the war has gone away. We need it to rebuild and keep our democracy encouraged and alive.
How about the more remarkable visit by President George W. Bush to Liberia? One may tend to think that it’s all because Liberia and the United States have a bond that binds them. After all Liberia’s capital Monrovia was named after a former US president James Monroe and the country is something like a former US colony. This is argument that will draw parallels with the visit here by the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. But I think the latter had to do more with a personal affinity Mr Blair had and still has with Sierra Leone; otherwise why has Gordon Browne not visited us since he became Prime Minister. And even when Mr Blair visited here as Prime Minister, he invited Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to join in the meeting at Lungi. President Bush did not do so with our own President Ernest Bai Koroma and it is not clear yet as to whether Mrs Clinton will do so during the Liberia leg of her tour.
Like many people outside the US erroneously tend to think that the Republican party are closer to the Jewish state of Israel than the Democrats are, many people would want the world to believe that the Democrats have done better for Africa than the Republicans. But look at how the much-hailed Africa’s Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) initiative arrow-headed by Bill Clinton is being loop-holed by Africans who now argue that it benefits the US more than it does Africa.
Under AGOA, a select group of African countries like Kenya, Uganda and Ghana were enabled to grow from textiles to agricultural produce, to export to the US, tax-free. It also means that all such goods must be of 100% African or US. With Sub-Saharan Africa’s exports to the US far below 2%, it means market access has been challenging to the Africans. With little locally grown materials to export, oil and other natural resources from Africa have been the prime commodities which help the USA more than they do the continent.
But a Mauritian friend of mine was full of praise for the AGOA initiative. He said it gave a shot in the arm to the local garment industry in his country. So blame on AGOA therefore may have to do more with some African leaders lacking what it takes to negotiate and or to even strengthen the capacity of their local farmers. Because of the lack of this, it will not be completely out of place to imagine that African garment producers feel more comfortable importing fabric from Asia to develop them; something that does not qualify under the AGOA initiative because it is not 100% African. Sierra Leone is a part of AGOA, but how much do we know about it let alone benefiting from it? With a Libyan company having taken over a Ugandan company implementing an AGOA are we on that path as well?
President George Bush’s HIV initiative helped the continent tremendously. How I wish that same interest and sincerity was put into trade ties between the continent and the world’s leading nation. The commitment the West showed in developing Singapore and Malaysia they have not replicated a modicum in Africa. Otherwise why does anyone think Singapore grew to the extent it joined the Rich Man’s Club over a decade ago despite having gained independence around the same time as most of Africa did, and lacked the natural resources even Sierra Leone has.
With an African blood, President Barrack Obama probably represents the biggest and brightest hope for the continent. Agreed he is president for the US and not for Africa! But if things keep being bungled in Africa by some of its leaders with tunnel vision, it will be a breeding ground for situations that the world and the US will suffer as a result. So the biggest gift the Obama administration should give to the continent is the guarantee of the civil liberties of the peoples of the world’s worst continent.
Africa should occupy a very serious part on the US foreign policy radar. So far, perhaps, so good. Mrs Clinton’s visit, coming just weeks after the visit of President Obama, makes it the earliest in any US administration that both the president and the secretary of state have visited Africa. If one considers the fact that Turkey, even though geographically in Asia is politically in Europe, then President Obama chose to visit Africa before Asia. Asia, the continent that has the world’s fastest economy in China and the world’s second largest economy in Japan. This is a remarkable start by a remarkable leader who should help transform our continent into a remarkable place for its remarkable people most of whom live under remarkably apocalyptic conditions. Again this is best engendered if America keeps watch over irresponsible African leaders and their tyrannical proclivities and hails progressive leaders on the continent to make them feel good that they are being good.
I understand the Obama way of doing things when it comes to such not meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign countries. This was clearly stated even if not entirely illustrated during the recent elections fallout in Iran. But just as the US Government is ignoring the lack of any spec of democratic values in countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, etc and focusing on Iran which compared with most of the Middle East is a far ahead, they should also not lose sight of repressive regimes on the continent.
It is amazing how half-heartedly the US has come out on what is happening in Niger, Cameroon, Gabon among a long list, or even the seemingly more mundane situation in Sierra Leone where the highest court in the land and the Inspector General of Police can violate the rights of citizens with reckless abandon. These are the “petty things” by which a country’s credentials become a beacon of hope or a torch of hopelessness and breeds discontentment. Let America perform its role without discrimination.
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It’s all in Awoko By Umaru Fofana