Sunday, September 6, 2009

Africa important, but not top priority for U.S.

by Matthew Rusling

WASHINGTON, Aug. 11 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seven-country tour of Africa is intended to send a clear message: Africa is important.

But critics say the level of attention the United States can devote to the continent remains unclear, given the abundance of more pressing international and domestic obligations.

Washington says it is committed to Africa, a sentiment underscored by President Barack Obama's African heritage (his father was from Kenya), his visit last month to Ghana and his pledge to double aid by the end of his first term.

"We believe in Africa's promise. We are committed to Africa's future and we will be partners with Africa's people," said Secretary Clinton in a speech from Kenya. By her trip's conclusion, she will have stopped in Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Angola, Cape Verde, Liberia and Nigeria.

But a gap may exist between what the administration would like to do and what it actually can do, said Bronwyn Bruton, international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worst U.S. economic recession since World War II," it's not clear there will be time to do a lot of coherent thinking on Africa," Bruton said.

Mark Schroeder, director of Sub-Saharan Africa analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence company, said: "It'll be hard for the Obama administration to live up to expectations in Africa, at least in terms of popular expectations."

"Despite Obama's personal appeal in Africa, there's no getting around the fact that the U.S. has many higher priority concerns in other regions of the world," such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Russia, he said.

Africans want recognition and assistance so they can get a leg up in the world, and the United States cannot readily provide this, he added.

Princeton Lyman, former ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the biggest emphasis of Obama's administration will be better governance, less corruption and better economic policies.

"(But) U.S. influence on these matters is marginal at best, and it is Africa that must make these things happen," he said.

And whether the administration realizes these limitations remains unknown, despite its positive statements on U.S.-Africa relations.

"The U.S. has frequently given lip service to Africa," Schroeder said, adding that former President Bill Clinton was especially criticized for this. "(Hillary Clinton's visit) could turn out to be the same - a lot of high hopes, and little in return."

Lyman said it would be difficult to top George W. Bush's record in the region - the former president tripled aid to the continent over his eight years in office. And Obama was unlikely to meet the most exaggerated expectations - that the United States could end African poverty. His promise to double aid also "may prove hard to achieve in the face of U.S. budget (limitations)."

Bruton of the Council on Foreign Relations said one of Clinton's main tasks will be to manage African expectations to prevent disappointments.

Despite the administration's limitations, Lyman said the tour was still important. It is a sequel to Obama's Ghana visit and one in which Clinton will meet all the key players, which could strengthen ties and lead to increased trade and investment, experts said.

Indeed, securing foreign investment in order to develop their economies is a major priority for many African nations.

"Africans crave investment more than anything else, and ... there are abundant opportunities for the U.S. to launch business partnerships with Africa," Bruton said.

Such partnerships, particularly in energy security, are crucial, she said.

"China has certainly come to this conclusion already, and has provided investment without any governance strings attached," she said.

Among Africa's power players is Angola, which could ramp up its U.S.-bound oil exports - it already supplies the United States with 7 percent of its oil imports - although it and other African oil exporters are unlikely to surpass the Middle East as the No. 1 U.S. energy source, according to Schroeder.

Still that balance could shift slightly if more investment bolsters Angola's oil industry and boosts the county's importance among U.S. energy providers.

"It's important to our energy interests to cultivate relations with (Angola)," Bruton said. "I think that's why Clinton went there."

Experts note that Angola has overtaken Nigeria as the top African oil supplier. Lyman said Clinton's visit is recognition not only of that but of the country's ability to overcome civil war.

Another destination, Kenya, where Clinton stopped last week, has close links to east and central Africa, especially its neighbor Somalia, site of the "Black Hawk Down" incident in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in 1993.

U.S. authorities would work through Kenya to help prevent Somalia from succumbing to Islamic fundamentalists, who could plan further attacks against U.S. interests, Schroeder said.

During her visit, Clinton met Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya to discuss ways Washington could bolster Somalia's fragile government by providing more military and financial aid to help defeat the Islamic insurgency there.

But the meeting elicited mixed reviews in Mogadishu, the war-torn nation's capital, reported Xinhua correspondents in the city. While some Somalian commentators applauded the meeting, others said Clinton should be trying to broker a peace deal instead of supplying the government with military aid.

Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation and home of vast energy reserves, could become a more important U.S. oil supplier if the conflict in the delta area, where local fighters demanding a greater share of the country's oil wealth attack pipelines and kidnap industry employees, was resolved.

"But Nigeria does not look kindly on outside interference or offers of help on this issue, so it is hard to help," Lyman said.