China on Clinton's mind
concludes that much criticism of Hillary Clinton's African tour does not really matter because she is out of politics, but some for posterity's sake her successors should heed
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the ranges -- something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go" -- Rudyard Kipling
Click to view caption
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds hands during a dance with African Union Chair-Designate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, during a gala dinner in Pretoria, South Africa and paying her condolences to her Ghanaian counterpart Mohamed Mumuni at the funeral of the late Ghanaian president John Atta Mills
Sometimes the ability to force another's hand is far more effective than making your own move. This is precisely what Beijing is doing and Washington isn't. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's gift to Africa during her recent tour of the continent was to convey a sense of nostalgia without cliché or a clear narrative. Whenever the subject of China cropped up, the Godzilla-like leader's bright blue eyes, her feverish steely eyes, flashed in anger.
One thing is best explained at the start -- something of a paradox. Clinton was in Africa to combat China. But is she drawing the wrong lessons from history?
The refrain in Beijing is that African leaders like to talk business. The mood in Washington, in sharp contrast, is a curious mix of scorn, despondency and outrage. The plea from America is for Africa to strengthen its nascent democratic institutions.
The Chinese have the ability to force America's hand leaving Clinton's blanched face peering into African politics, not to her best advantage. Clinton does not have a sense of humour at the best of times. However, her nose has been put properly out of joint by Chinese intervention in African economic affairs.
There are always moments that stop a secretary of state on a foreign tour in her tracks. All talk and no action seems to have been Clinton's take on African crises. Human rights top America's agenda in Africa but the continent's leaders couldn't care less when they are doing brisk business with Beijing.
Clinton's marathon tour meant that she stopped over in seven countries in 11 days, avoiding political heavyweights such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo -- another apparent paradox. To her credit, Clinton did visit South Africa and did some serious dancing there -- no, not the Zulu war dance. But patience with Washington's foibles in Africa is running out. Is America traditionally expansionist? Well, yes. Think of the image conjured up by the Wild West.
For all Clinton's joie de vivre, and she did look at home in Africa -- whether visiting Nelson Mandela's home village of Qunu or attending the funeral of the late Ghanaian president John Atta Mills -- she did not come across as a politician on the move.
Clinton made it clear that she was not interested in politics, African or otherwise. She would much rather have been on an African safari.
She was not at ease when talking politics. Indeed, last month in Jerusalem, Clinton conceded that she was not going to seek political office if President Obama is re-elected. "I am out of politics," she said.
It was tempting to try and draw conclusions about the political significance of Hillary Clinton's Africa tour, but there was not enough evidence apart from dancing with local officials, to draw them.
Drawing comparisons, however, with her predecessor former secretary of state during the George W Bush administration Condoleezza Rice, sprang to mind. The late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi called Rice, the "African Flower in the White House".
Poetic, for he was rumoured to be enamoured by Rice. In her trademark grey pinstripe suits, she was not particularly obsessive about Africa, even though she was the first female African American secretary of state. Clinton visited Africa extensively and made many friends across the continent.
Stiff as a board, Rice, however, did not dance with the "natives". Her stopovers in African capitals were strictly speaking as a black chaperon to the white president she accompanied.
During her time in office Rice visited 10 African countries. Clinton, on the other hand, so far has been to 13 Sub-Saharan African countries in an official capacity. Clinton has visited three key African countries -- Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa -- twice during the past four years. Rice pursued a policy known as "Transformational Diplomacy" in American parlance. For America the strategy has been costly.
Rice, like Clinton, yearned for her own private life far from politics and the public eye. Rice, an accomplished pianist and academician, was happy to return to Stanford University and the Hoover Institution "back west of the Mississippi where I belong," she said.
The history of America's involvement with Africa starts with a question. Who are the African Americans? The classic answer was that they are the descendants of African slaves forcibly transplanted in America. This answer at the same time explains the close relationship between Africa and America, one that is, ironically, too close for comfort.
America's first historical contacts with Africa explain some of the paradoxes and contradictions through the very history of slavery and emancipation and up to the present with a black president.
Rice suffered from racial discrimination, Clinton didn't. Both as women might have been confronted by sexism. But growing up in Birmingham Alabama, in America's "Deep South", Rice was witness to the full horrors of racial segregation and discrimination. "I remember the bombing of that Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963�ê� That bomb tool the lives of four girls, including my friend Denise McNair. The crime was calculated to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations," Rice told students at Vanderbilt University in May 2004.
But alongside the sublime there is also the farcical. While in office, Rice chaired the Millennium Challenge Corporation board of directors. The quagmires Washington has sunk in since Afghanistan and Iraq owe much to petroleum politics.
Not so long ago, Washington used to be the guardian of good governance, human rights and democratisation. Today, nobody in Africa takes the American role model terribly seriously.
The content and the tone of Clinton's statements were more forceful than what came out of her Asian tour. She was always quite hawkish. In Africa she was arrogantly admonishing her hosts and her pontification bordered on the offensive.
Washington's politics are driving everyone in Africa towards making things worse. True, the economic pressures are not everywhere the same. Oil, and not cotton, is now king.
Clinton is everything but self-effacing. She swings to the African beat, but meticulously makes sure that she is the first to strut out of the dance floor. Indefatigable, Clinton defends democracy but she neither defines it nor does she speak of social justice.
Such caveats, however, cannot camouflage the uncomfortable truth. Clinton and successive administrations in Washington preach freedom of speech but scrupulously avoid any mention of income inequalities and the dire consequences of focussing on individual rights as opposed to social and economic rights. China focuses on economic rights and social welfare of its citizens while the US highlights individual liberties. What these are precisely is not entirely clear. And, some of the rights are not so obvious.
There are no easy options. Clinton's 11-day, seven-nation African tour was a Ulysses of sorts. Dakar was Clinton's first stop. Ghana was the most melodramatic sojourn. The two West African nations have become exemplary bastions of multi-party democracy and political pluralism and stability.
Above all America needs to go back to first principles. To achieve that words may speak louder than actions. Washington's Africa policy enabled Beijing to enter the African arena with ease.
Washington pre-emptively reacts to Chinese incursions in Africa. China demonstrated how doing nothing on the political front is far from being inactive in the economic coliseum.
Washington understands that winning strategies involves feints. In counteracting the current stagnation, Clinton must use more of the levers at her disposal. There will be calls for Clinton to relax her bellicose action.
Clinton is wobbling on the edge of a cliff. Washington and Beijing, of course, face two different predicaments in Africa. The US economy, hardly in top shape, and many African economies, gearing up into shape, are at least plodding ahead thanks to China and a bonanza of mineral resources.
Such thoughts may have been on the minds of Africa's leaders with whom Clinton feted. Beijing overtook the United States as Africa's biggest trading partner three years ago and Washington has never been able to regain its premier position.
The Chinese helped to develop and launch Nigeria's communications satellite (NigComSat-1) and Beijing expanded Africa's most populous nation's cellular and Internet networks. Curiously, Clinton did not include Nigeria in her African tour.
Nigeria's gross domestic product (GDP) amounts to $415 billion, according to a 2011 estimate. The country is the largest producer of petroleum and gas in Africa south of the Sahara, with a GDP growth rate of eight per cent and a per capita income of $2,500. Yet Clinton visited smaller African countries that provide exemplary role models of multi-party democracy such as Senegal and Ghana in West Africa.
Ghana, one of the continent's fastest growing economies has a GDP of $82.5 billion and a per capita income of $3,257 -- much larger than Nigeria's -- and a GDP growth rate of 14.3 per cent. Ghana has recently joined the club of African oil exporters and the country already has a vast mineral wealth that includes gold -- Africa's second largest gold producer after South Africa -- diamonds, bauxite and manganese. Ghana is also one of Africa's largest cocoa and timber producers.
Yet the onus of Clinton's African tour was neither economic nor for trade purposes. Clinton's carefully selected choice of African countries on her tour was decidedly political. Senegal and Ghana are beacons of Western-style democracy in Africa.
Other African countries on Clinton's visiting list are struggling with political pluralism and need the support of the Western powers. Among those are countries such as Kenya, Malawi and Uganda. Kenya and Uganda are also two of Washington's staunchest allies in the continent and are of critical importance in combating terrorism and containing the militant Islamist threat in East Africa. Both countries suffered serious terrorist attacks by militant Islamist groups.
Kenya and Uganda understand how perilously close they are geographically to the strongholds of militant Islamist forces in East Africa. Both countries form the core of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the African peacekeeping force in the war-torn Horn of Africa country.
Paradoxically, it is their proximity to Somalia that prompted Clinton to visit the two countries. In Kenya, Clinton convened several meetings with Somali leaders. Sadly, it seems that Washington is reluctant to learn the lessons of the 1990s.
Clinton acts as if Washington is the sole global superpower. What makes her homilies concerning human rights, good governance and democracy so pretentious is not her criticism of past excesses of Washington's adventurism in Africa but her firm belief that Americans should be emulated rather than blamed for the blunders of the past.
Such blunders have obscured the underlying strengths of the African emerging economies and the profound changes in the political arena. "The old ways of governing are no longer acceptable. It is time for leaders to accept accountability, treat their people with dignity, and respect their rights and deliver economic opportunity. And, if they will not, then it is time for them to go," Clinton said at Dakar's celebrated Cheikh Anta Diop University.
The question is whether this is fair. Democracy does not feed the hungry and, like petroleum, is always a paradoxical commodity. Contemporary Africa has an abundance of the two.
"America will stand up for democracy and universal human rights even when it might be easier to look the other way and keep the resources flowing," Clinton stressed in Senegal.
What Clinton clearly insists upon is a desire to contain the Chinese threat. China has replaced the US as the main trading partner of the continent -- and that was no less than three years ago. Beijing does not meddle in the internal affairs of African states. It does not chide anyone in Africa or admonish Africans to adopt its own form of government and social and political values. Moreover, its presence in the continent is one of constructive cooperation and Africans appreciate the high-mindedness and magnanimity of the Chinese. Beijing does not talk condescendingly to the leaders of the African continent as Clinton is perceived to do. China constructed the African Union headquarters as a gift and has just doubled its credit line for Africa to $20 billion. The US only takes the initiative when it comes to constructive criticism.
Among Africans, mentions of former European colonial powers such as Britain and France tend to provoke either dismissive shrugs or misty-eyed romanticism by a handful of neo-colonialist lackeys. The bulk of the African bourgeoisie eyes the East.
"We are, however, concerned that China's foreign assistance and investment practices in Africa have not always been consistent with generally accepted international norms of transparency and good governance. And, that it has not always utilised the talents of the African people in pursuing its business interests," Clinton told her African hosts.
Clinton's counsel fell on deaf ears. Africans realise that unlike Washington, Beijing supported Nigeria's bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. The Chinese African policy has been persistent. As far back as 2004 and again in 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a state visit to Nigeria. The China-Nigeria trade agreements and trade harmonisation have been a matchless example of economic cooperation between China and Africa.
More worryingly for Washington is that its forums of economic cooperation with Africa have been the subject of constant criticism. This kind of process is potentially explosive. Clinton was keynote speaker at the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum in June but the very concept of AGOA is not particularly attractive to Africans, especially those in the media and non-governmental organisations.
In Liberia, Clinton's faltering attempts to dance to the pounding rhythm of the African drums captured the mood of the moment and depicted graphically America's inability to win African hearts and minds. She stood encircled by African women in colourful traditional attire, dancing as if swaying drunkenly. The African women urged her on.
This was not what she had come to Africa for. That much was painfully obvious.