Clinton's Second African Safari
By F. Wafula Okumu
November 9, 2000
When President Bill Clinton went on his first African safari in 1998 The Perspective gave a sober analysis of this junket and objectively concluded that it will amount to nothing. Alas, 27 months later, Clinton has gone on another African safari. Apparently he must have hard a heck of a time the last time he was in Africa that he decided to make one more trip before handing over the leadership of the most powerful nation on earth. Like all of Clinton's trips, this one had also to be given objectives. At first, Clinton had only planned go to Nigeria to "support her democracy" and "buttress her role as an anchor for stability in the unstable West African region." But with Nelson Mandela's invitation, he decided to kill two birds with one stone and belatedly included a stop-over in Arusha, Tanzania, to witness the signing of the Burundi Peace Accords.
It will be remembered that during his first trip to Africa, Clinton deliberately avoided Nigeria, which was then an international pariah ruled by Gen. Sani Abacha, a dictator few wanted to touch with a 10-foot pole. US officials then openly and pointedly indicated that the US was vesting many of its hopes for Africa in what were seen as the pragmatic leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Clinton's last visit. The nations he show-cased during his last visit have fallen into war with each other, and Nigeria has returned to an elected government. Mandela stepped down as President of South Africa. Simmering violence has continued in Sierra Leone. There was a military coup d'etat in traditionally stable Ivory Coast. It was therefore laudable for Clinton to come and inaugurate Nigeria as the engine of democracy on the continent. But in a toast to Clinton on August 25, Obasanjo said Africa's transition to democracy would fail without debt relief from the United States.
Amid continued, or worsening, conditions in much of black Africa, Nigeria's democratization is seen by the United States as a major bright spot. A nation of 110-120 million people (depending on whose numbers you are using) Nigeria is a nation that generates annual crude oil sales of $9.2 billion but imports its refined oil. Nigeria is also staggering under a $32 billion foreign debt ran up by the military rulers. A visit to Nigeria will bring tears into one's eyes: much of the national budget must now be used to pay off loans that brought the country few benefits, the infrastructure has collapsed, there is no electricity, and health and educational systems have crumpled. The country is also wrestling with ethnic rivalries and religious fundamentalism that threatens to tear the nation asunder and forestall the transition to democracy. Of course, we should not leave out endemic corruption that, according to Transparency International, has earned Nigeria a reputation as one of the top 5 most corrupt nations in the world.
While the Nigerian democratically elected President Olusegun Obasanjo publicly declared Clinton's visit "historic," he was also bold enough to extend his begging bowl to Clinton. Apparently Obasanjo thought American appreciation of Nigeria's democratic achievement was to be accompanied by a cash award. It immediately became apparent that expectations will clash: Clinton wanted to make a symbolic visit and Obasanjo wanted money. It is obvious that Clinton had not been informed of an African adage that: empty hands cannot be licked. The White House is yet to explain how Clinton expected the Nigerians to lick his empty hands.
In his thinking, Obasanjo was right to expect a cash handout to reform Nigeria's economy whose growth is expected to sustain its fledging democracy. It is absolutely impossible to build a democracy in a non-performing economy. However, Clinton did not understand this Nigerian reality and, in an American way, publicly turned down Obasanjo's plea.
To their credit, the Americans have significantly pumped up aid to Nigeria from $7 million in 1998 to $209 million, the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, in the year fiscal 2000/1. But of this aid package, $10 million is earmarked to help reform the military, and $20 million will be used to train and equip five Nigerian battalions, along with one from Ghana, for regional peacekeeping operations, primarily in Sierra Leone. In fact Clinton had been preceded by several dozen U.S. Army Special Forces troops to set up the training program.
But is this training program truly to benefit Africans? A critical look at this program will reveal that it is the Clinton administration's search for a way to address conflicts in Africa without sending U.S. troops into combat. Since 1993, when 18 GIs were killed in one day in Somalia, Washington has avoided sending its men to die on a continent that has no strategic and economic interests to the Americans. Nevertheless, U.S. officials are insisting that the training program also will help Nigeria to reform its armed forces, which have been discredited by long periods of corrupt military rule. The U.S. has offered to spend 2 weeks to 2 months to help Nigeria reform its military by stressing respect for human rights and civilian control of the military.
A man of promises, Clinton told the agbada-clad legislators in his address to the Nigerian legislature that he might help Nigeria reschedule its debts if it stayed on course in its economic and financial reforms. However, in a "special appeal" to Clinton, Obasanjo pushed for cancellation of Nigeria's roughly $870 million in debt to the United States. Obasanjo appealed to the US to make this cancellation as "a moral responsibility." To this Clinton retorted: "I will do my best to help Nigeria succeed economically."
Clinton also promised cooperation in developing Nigeria's energy infrastructure, promoting biotechnology research and addressing issues of unemployment, crime and the environment. Clinton also announced the return of the Peace Corps to Nigeria, restored direct flights between Nigeria and the United States, and declared Nigeria "a moral superpower."
Nigeria being America's fifth largest supplier of crude oil, Clinton could not pass on a golden opportunity to promote the interests of the American motorist and oil companies. After promising to help Nigeria in various ways, he asked Obasanjo to "do whatever he could" to encourage other oil-producing countries to increase production so as to bring prices down. To please his esteemed guest, Obasanjo promised to work "to bring an element of stability" to oil prices at next summit of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
But as with the 1998 trip, this one was also rife with American boorish behavior and antics. Once again a number of countries, particularly Kenya, were miffed for being snubbed by the Americans. On learning that Clinton had added Arusha to his itinerary, the Kenyans swung into action, incessantly lobbying Washington for the privilege of fuelling Air Force One on its mercy mission in Africa. To their utter dismay, the Kenyans were turned down and instead Air Force One and its escort squadron refueled in Egypt.
However, the Kenyans did not entirely escape the disruptive presence of the American president. Clinton traveled in style! His limousine was flown into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (Nairobi) and driven in a convoy of more than 50 ambulances and bullet-proof cars that could withstand high powered mine explosions. Driving these vehicles for 260 kilometers to Arusha required taking maximum-security precautions that included closing the road for other motorists and flying marines helicopters overhead.
As usual, President Clinton flew in his luxurious Air Force One equipped with a jacuzzi and sauna. The landing of Air Force One at Arusha's Kilimanjaro International Airport was preceded by two other Boeing 707's, one that served as a state of the art hospital and the other that ferried the president's advance people. An hour before Clinton's landing, the flight corridor over Arusha was closed to all other users. The take-over of Tanzania was about to be completed.
The American invasion of Tanzania had started immediately when Nelson Mandela, the facilitator in the Burundi Peace Talks, innocently asked President Clinton to be a witness in the signing ceremony of the final peace accords. When Clinton accepted the invitation, the Tanzanians were ecstatic. Little did they know that they were about to temporarily lose their sovereignty.
Months before Clinton's arrival, more than one thousand American security and secret service agents came swarming into the streets of Arusha and other East African towns. Most noticeable were the Marines and FBI agents, who were heavily and menacingly armed with 5 tons of security and communication equipment. In meticulous operations, they scanned the Kilimanjaro airport, inch by inch, and the route to the Arusha International Conference Centre for explosives. As a further security precaution, they also closed all the business outlets around the Conference Centre.
At the multi- story Conference Centre, the Americans took over 3 floors, stripped the rooms of old furniture and transformed them into offices, fax and email bureaus and electronic monitoring/surveillance stations. Local communication connections were cut-off to install a new system that could only be used by American security agents, the White House staff and the American press. No non-American press, local and foreign, was allowed to use the newly installed communication facilities.
Using state of the art (in the eyes of the hosts) gadgets, the Americans screened everyone, including the African leaders, who entered the Conference Centre. Anyone carrying a still camera had to click it at least once to ensure that it does not detonate a concealed bomb. Those carrying video cameras had to roll at least an inch of the tape. Even the convoy of President Benjamin Mkapa, the president of Tanzania and the host, was subjected to American security check. As President Mkapa alighted from his official limousine the Marines lunged at it, flanked the doors open and set upon it a sniffing dog to ferret out hidden bombs. One Tanzanian keenly observing the embarrassing moment was heard to muse: "It is a curse to be poor in this world."
Mkapa's embarrassments were just starting. As he stood there bewildered by what the Americans were doing to him and other African heads of state and government he must have wondered why the Americans were humiliating him despite the immaculate preparations he had made for their president. To impress the American president, Mkapa's government had cleared the streets of traders, beggars and children, and washed them with soaped water. The outside walls of the Conference Centre were also washed, its floors were scrapped with detergent and water, and the inside walls stripped clean of any dirt.
It turned out the obsession to impress the Americans had a purpose. The Tanzanian government officials could be seen distributing a glossy magazine to anyone thought to be American or with American connections. Even secret service agents got copies of Ten Reasons Why Americans Should Invest in Tanzania. Everything in Tanzania seemed to have been done to impress the Americans or focus attention on them. Even the television rights of relaying the proceedings were handed over to American NBC television. However, NBC did not record or air the proceedings since it did not bring the necessary equipment. Surprisingly, the other media houses that had compatible equipment were denied satellite access.
While the security details of African leaders were denied entrance to Simba Hall, where the delegates were gathered, Clinton's were given total control of the Hall. When he stepped inside the Hall, his agents took positions all over the Hall and two of them took extreme seats reserved for the heads of the African delegations. Before his arrival, the agents had shuffled the seating arrangements on the podium when the African leaders took a break. When they returned from the break, the American agents showed them where to sit.
As Clinton drove from the airport to the Conference Centre a Marine helicopter hovering over his car and barely 30 meters above the ground escorted his convoy. With tinted windows rolled up and hardly seen from outside, Clinton waved at the awe-struck Africans lined up along his route to widely cheer his entourage. On reaching the Conference Centre the chopper hovered over Clinton's car until he had entered the Hall. As its rotor blades blew the wind, the jackets of secret agents were fluffed to expose the heavy weaponry wrapped around them.
As Clinton entered the Hall, everything seemed to come to a standstill. Surprisingly, even the African presidents who are only used to being cheered turned themselves into Clinton cheerleaders. It was a spectacle to watch African leaders perform cheering antics to attract Clinton's attention. This was another moment for Clinton to savor as he reveled at the circus of heads of state go crazy for seeing him. It seemed like the African leaders were in the midst of God.
Inside the Hall, Clinton was escorted to his seat by Mkapa and Mandela and took a seat next to Mandela. Moments before walking in, the mineral water and soda bottles in front of his seat were cleared and replaced by a can of coke brought along from the US. Clinton drank directly from the can. For the 5 hours Clinton was in the Hall, he only drank that one can of coke while the African leaders sipped mineral water bottled by a Tanzanian company.
For the duration of time Clinton was in Arusha, the phones were jammed to abort any evil plot being hatched over the lines and ensure total security and safety for the leader of the world's only superpower. Once inside the Hall no one was allowed in or out except American officials or security agents. Except for Mandela's guards, all the security men accompanying the visiting Presidents carried walkie-talkies, which ceased working for the duration of Clinton's presence in the hall.
Consequently, telephone communications between the security details of the African presidents and their home countries were cut-off. Since the conference went on beyond the assigned time the security personnel of African leaders could not inform officials at home of the delay in arriving at an agreement between the Burundi Accord facilitators and the Tutsi extremists. In some countries, those left behind to protect their leaders' interests became extremely jittery when the expected arrival times of the presidential jets came and expired with no word. Their frantic efforts to contact Arusha turned out to be frustrating and futile.
As the conference came to an end, Clinton moved from one African leader to another shaking hands and exchanging one or two things. One can almost speculate that these leaders were begging something from this benevolent American leader. However, to the chagrin of other African leaders Clinton spend more time with Jerry Rawlings with whom they joked and laughed and seemed to be chummy with each other. As he exited the Hall, he warmly embraced Mandela. Once more, invidious looks could be seen on the faces of the African leaders who felt another limelight had been stolen from them.
When Mandela invited Clinton to the anticipated signing of the Burundi peace accords, he had hoped that the added weight of a U.S. presidential visit would help press Burundi's fractious political groups into finalizing a deal. This turned out not to be as several hard-line Tutsi parties balked at the deal framed by Mandela. All Clinton could do was warn the Burundians that "if you let this moment slip away, it will dig the well of bitterness deeper and pile the mountain of grievances higher."
What was expected to be a visit to encourage the peace process fell below expectations as the U.S. made no specific commitment. It was surprising to many observers that Clinton had unrealistic expectations from this conference since his administration had not given the Burundi conflict the attention it deserved. In fact his impatient could be noticed as the conference dragged on and on. Clinton was being delayed in checking on Hosni Mubarak's progress in reviving the Middle East peace talks.
The Nigerians and Tanzanians had paid their prices for hosting the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Now it was the turn of the Egyptians. Having had two of their embassies in Kenya and Tanzania blown-up by Arab terrorists one can only imagine the security precautions and measures the Egyptians had put in place for the few hours President Clinton stopped in Cairo to refuel Air Force One. In view of the deep American commitment to finding a lasting peace solution in the Middle East, it can be assumed that he never made empty promises to Mubarak.