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US Secretary of State's Africa tour Powell's empty gesture.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's highly anticipated recent visit to several African states turned out to be a damp squib. All the hero of Desert Storm could offer was the usual, tired platitudes. Milan Vesely has the details.

Aids, regional conflicts and Africa's leadership issues dominated US Secretary of State Colin Powell's agenda during his week-long trip through Mali, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda. Not exactly issues that set the continent on fire.

Secretary Powell's trip was designed to reassure Africa that the Bush administration takes the continent's problems seriously. Despite that, there was little for Africa to cheer about. No new money, limited help in the AIDS battle and 'set your house in order', was the tone of the Secretary's message. Coming from an influential member of the Bush cabinet, it brought a dose of realism to a continent used to ever-increasing amounts of foreign aid.

In fairness to General Powell, the African countries themselves had little to offer in the way of solutions to their mounting financial difficulties. Seemingly stuck in a time warp with the usual pleadings for handouts, they could only elaborate on an ever-increasing litany of problems while offering no homegrown solutions. Only in the case of the Sudan was there a change in attitude, with the US making a surprising offer of 40,000t of relief aid to both the Khartoum government and the rebel movements fighting in the south. Under the Clinton regime such aid to the Arab north had been considered taboo.

The selection of Mali as the first stop in General Powell's trip was due to that country holding a seat on the United Nations Security Council, as well as being the chair of the West African regional organisation, ECOWAS. The issue of security was the number one point of discussion with President Alphas Oumar Konare seeking American support in his efforts to bring the simmering wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to a conclusion.

With the Bush administration's abhorrence of direct military involvement in any of Africa's many regional conflicts well-known - the Somali syndrome is still very vivid on the US military's radar - General Powell was only able to offer a modest increase in logistic support.

Encouraged by the veneer of financial success achieved in Mali however, Secretary Powell opined that democracy and financial transparency have a future in Africa, even if donkey carts are still the primary mode of transport on Bamako's flashy, villa-lined avenues.

Powell in South Africa

Aids was the issue in South Africa, a not inconsiderable concern in a nation with 1,700 people dying daily from the disease. Offering encouragement but no new money, General Powell pointed out that the Bush administration has announced a $200m global trust fund to combat AIDS and other diseases while offering the opinion that US financial aid by itself would not solve the problem.

"It's a health care problem, also a poverty problem," General Powell stated. "As well as a problem of family and culture. It requires active engagement by the South African government.

A further point of discussion with President Thabo Mbeki was the issue of Zimbabwe's political turmoil. In a strongly worded statement General Powell called on President Mugabe to "submit to the law and the will of the people" by stepping down. Characterising the Zimbabwe President as a "throwback" to the days of African strongmen, General Powell expressed concern at the effect that Zimbabwe's political upheaval is having on the financial stability of the surrounding countries.

"I hope we can put the right kind of pressure on him so that he will yield to the desire of the people to have a free and fair election", General Powell said in a speech to students at the University of Witwatersrand, emphasising that President Mugabe should bring the so-called war veterans under control "to stop terrorising the communities in Zimbabwe".

Elaborating further he said that the Bush administration believed that "America will be a friend to all Africans who seek peace" but that "Africans must bear the lion's share of responsibility for bringing stability to the continent".

As expected, the Secretary of State's remarks drew a stern response from Didymus Mutasa, Foreign Affairs secretary for the governing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. "The Americans must leave us alone and mind their own business," he said. "They must not try to impose leaders on us."

Powell in East Africa

The East African portion of General Powell's 'Focus on Africa' trip kicked off with an overnight visit to Nairobi where he held talks with Kenya's long-standing President Daniel arap Moi. Mirroring his call to President Mugabe, he urged President Moi to step aside and let a new President be elected next year, as required by law.

Secretary Powell's concern was caused by the fact that while Kenyan law requires elections to be held by December 2002 and although President Moi (76) is barred from re-election, his die hard supporters and political cronies have urged him to change the system and run again.

Dismissing General Powell's call for free elections and new leadership President Moi told General Powell to stay out of his affairs: "I think it is too much always trying to undermine the intelligence of the African peoples. Those who determine the destiny of Kenya are the people themselves."

The American government's attitude was reinforced by General Powell meeting with Kenyan opposition leaders Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, son of former Vice-President Odinga Oginga. This meeting was seen back in Washington as indicative of the Bush administration's views that President Moi is a spent leader whose time is past.

With vital military facilities in the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa, General Powell's meeting with the Kenyan opposition leaders was also construed by local political observers as a forward-looking insurance policy.

Also rebuffed was the request for increased compensation by relatives of the 224 dead Kenyans killed in the 1998 American embassy bombing in Nairobi. While placing a wreath at the memorial for the victims, Secretary Powell declined to discuss the issue, saying that pending lawsuits prohibited him from debating the matter.

The last leg of General Powell's four-country trip took him to Uganda, a longtime ally of the United States and a country considered by the US as one of the few progressive nations on the continent. Under President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda is one of the leading recipients of US financial and military aid.

Rapprochement with Sudan?

In a surprising turn-about from past policies that signals a rapprochement with the Sudanese regime to the north, Secretary Powell confirmed that the United States would greatly expand its famine aid by shipping a further $5m of food to victims in both the African south and the 'Arab' north.

Until now, such aid to Khartoum has been off-limits due to pressure from a coalition of American Christian groups led by the Reverend Billy Graham urging the Bush administration to take a more active role in bringing down President Omar el-Beshir's Islamic government. American political pundits believe that oil companies eyeing Sudan's oil reserves are instrumental in this change of policy.

"I hope that as we move forward we can find a way to bring a cease-fire into effect and then move toward peaceful reconciliation of this long-standing conflict," General Powell stared on a departure from the Clinton administrations past policy of labelling the Khartoum regime as a rogue, terrorist government.

Revealing that he would soon appoint a special envoy to try to bring about peace between the Islamic government in the north and the rebel movements in the south, General Powell pointedly refused to meet with Col John Garang, the Nairobi-based leader of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

"I have a candidate under consideration as a peace envoy and he will be announced in due course," Secretary Powell stated, confirming that the $3m dollars in equipment being provided to the rebel groups was to "improve their ability to take part in the peace process," and not to wage increased war.

Insider reports from Washington indicate that General Powell's choice as special envoy is seasoned veteran Chester A Crocker, an experienced diplomat with previous experience as assistant secretary for African affairs under the Reagan administration. In that position he negotiated the departure of Cuban troops from Angola and South African troops from Namibia.

Unlike his predecessor Madelaine K Albright, who considered any Khartoum initiatives toward peace as bogus, Secretary of State Powell also adopted a 'wait and see' attitude to President el-Beshir's announcement that all bombing raids by the Sudanese air force against civilian targets in the south would be halted.

Turning his attention to the civil war in the Congo, Secretary Powell pressed his host President Museveni to withdraw all Ugandan troops from the neighbouring country's territory.

Concluding his visit to the continent with what he described as giving him an 'emotional twinge', General Powell toured a number of health centres in the capital Kampala.

Secretary of State Powell's African visit received relatively scant coverage in the United States. His practical approach, coupled with his tough talking on the succession issues in Zimbabwe and Kenya were however well-received in a conservative Washington struggling with a looming energy crisis and a lingering recession.

It is is a message that resonates well among the conservative Republican faithful, even if the lack of clapping from Africa was deafening by its silence.
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Author:Vesely, Milan
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
Words:1559
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