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Post-Clinton Africa: The Wait Begins

President Clinton successfully directed American attention to Africa. But will Washington continue to focus on the needs of the world's poorest and most neglected continent? Or, when Mr. Clinton continues traveling, to Latin America and China, will Africa again be the recipient of official neglect?

When holding hands with President Nelson Mandela in South Africa's parliament or walking arm in arm with him on the former prison fastness of Robben Island, Clinton embraced Africa effectively and meaningfully. Those African ministers and heads of state who met him at the minisummit in Uganda were impressed by his warmth and his grasp of the central issues of the continent.

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Yet Clinton's itinerary and his speeches favored economic growth over the spread of real democracy. Whereas the US during the cold war favored anti-communist autocrats, and supported some of the most kleptocratic predatory leaders, like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Clinton's words and posture in Africa favored a new set of "growth-crats." Once again, the US has lined up on the side of fully-expressed democracy only in South Africa and Botswana.

In Botswana, Clinton associated the United States with the peaceful transfer of power from outgoing President Sir Ketumile Masire to incoming President Festus Mokwae. In South Africa, he celebrated Mr. Mandela's famed inclusiveness and his deft democratic touch.

Elsewhere, however, Clinton bestowed praise on militants who gained power at gunpoint - President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana. Both now run guided democracies. Mr. Museveni is quite clear: He doesn't believe in party politics or in completely participatory government. But he's opened Uganda to world trade and has presided over eight years of fiscally-disciplined, solid annual GDP growth, averaging 7 percent a year. Mr. Rawlings's Ghana has also grown effectively over the same period as the regime gradually transformed itself from a military dictatorship into an elected government.

At the minisummit, Clinton encouraged the assembled presidents to open up their economies in the Ugandan manner. He focused on economic growth, which the World Bank and the IMF often do not. He also pledged US assistance for these growth efforts, mostly by promising enhanced trade (if the Senate follows the House in approving a new bill) and by persuading Congress to appropriate more than this year's $700 million for direct aid.

At the same summit, the jointly signed declaration was weak. Signing were autocrats like President Laurent Kabila of Congo, President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, and President Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. The "no party" guided democracy of Uganda and the nominally multiparty guided democracy of Zimbabwe also signed. Mr. Kabila has exiled his main political opponent and forbids party politics.

Clinton missed a golden opportunity to speak publicly about participatory democracy, and pointedly to criticize human rights violators like Kabila and Moi. Nor did he heap praise on Tanzania, where there is a resurgence of full democracy.

Instead, Clinton and the others agreed merely to "pursue a dialogue on democratization," recognizing that "there is no fixed model for democratic institutions." The language of the agreement left open wide loopholes for no-party guided democracies, or even for the Congolese autocracy. The leaders agreed that human rights were worth preserving, but not at any cost. Valiant African democrats, and there are many, were badly let down once again.

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Clinton was right to apologize for his personal and Washington's collective failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In Senegal, at the end of the visit to Africa, Clinton observed a US co-sponsored training mission with the army of Senegal. Part of the State Department's African Crisis Response Initiative, the training exercise in Senegal followed similar exercises in Malawi and Uganda. They are meant to help lay the foundation for an African organized response force capable of intervening in and preventing future genocidal episodes. Washington needs now to make Clinton's apology meaningful by putting funds and concerted effort behind these and other practical methods of reducing intrastate conflict in Africa.

"Perhaps the worst sin America ever committed about Africa," Clinton said in Uganda, "was the sin of neglect and ignorance." Those were superb words, heartfully meant. Official Washington usually moves on, however. Only Clinton, sensitized and invigorated by his trip, can transform his words and his interest into something positive for and with Africa. That will be the meaningful test of any enduring relationship.

* Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., and coordinator of the Southern African Program at the Harvard Institute for International Development.

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