Clinton’s Trips to Africa Boost Chance that Democracy will Develop – September 6, 2000

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The recent visit of President Clinton to Nigeria at the head of a large delegation was a manifestation of support to the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, as it tries to adjust to a democratic dispensation after the depredations of military rule.

Nigeria, with a population of around 110 million, is an oil rich country, but a combination of dictatorial rule, mismanagement and corruption had brought endemic poverty and suffering to its people.

President Clinton and Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo met a number of times to discuss regional and bilateral relations, and how the U.S. could help shore up fledgling democracy in Nigeria.

The Nigerians were happy with the increase in aid for a broad range of socio-economic projects promised by the U.S. from practically nothing in the past to around $170 million.

The U.S. has also pushed the G-8 to reschedule Nigeria’s debt as a measure of support to Obasanjo.

Clinton’s earlier visits in 1998 to Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal were evidence of an activist African policy. Previous administrations had not paid as much attention to Africa, but Clinton foresaw correctly that if the U.S. took the lead in supporting democracy, institutional reform and good governance there, it would be to mutual benefit.

Without prodding and help from outside Africa would get mired further in its political, economic and social problems.

African commentators have welcomed and lauded the interest and involvement of the United States which has also encouraged other G-8 countries, the World Bank and the IMF to focus more closely in this region of 600 million people.

The African continent is a huge land mass roughly divided by the forbidding Sahara desert into North Africa and sub Saharan Africa.

When the 19th-century explorers conveyed news of a vast continent of rivers, mountains, animals, minerals and other riches, a feverish scramble began among the European countries to parcel out Africa among themselves.

The colonization of Africa was an unedifying spectacle based on greed and aggrandizement. It is not surprising that the native Africans suffered upheaval and repression.

The colonized nations started achieving independence with Ghana leading the way in 1957.

Soon, however, patriotic fervor and the euphoria of independence gave way to the stark realization that sub-Saharan Africa was a poor and underdeveloped region with artificial frontiers.

To its credit, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) decided that the frontiers inherited by the emerging African states would be respected and the African map would not be redrawn. This was a wise decision as the boundary question was a Pandora’s Box, the opening of which would almost certainly have led to violence and chaos.

At independence in the 1960’s Africa appeared poised to achieve rapid growth and development. This promise was belied as the state-led economies failed to keep up the promising initial momentum. Waste, mismanagement, authoritarian governments and a mounting debt burden put the brakes on economic growth.

The situation in Africa in the nineties shows some glimmerings of hope compared to the mounting gloom of the seventies and eighties. There is increased awareness that dictatorship does not work and that democracy has a much better chance of delivering. Economic performance has improved with a GDP growth rate of 4 percent which while not spectacular, at least gives some cause for hope.

It is a pity that the media tends to highlight the HIVAIDS problem in Africa to the relative exclusion of other issues. AIDS is a staggering issue with around 40 million Africans affected. If left uncontrolled it will leave a permanent blight on African development. But it is not the only issue. Poverty with all its attendant evils continues to haunt Africa, with 40 percent of its population subsisting on less than U.S. $1 a day. Reversing the iron grip of poverty is the number one challenge in Africa today.

— S. Azmat Hassan is a former Pakistani ambassador now teaching at Seton Hall University.
— From: The Daily Record, Morristown, NJ
— Published: September 6, 2000

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