Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to the continent is welcome, but more needs to be done.
Africa is a continent whose news coverage in the United States has been primarily dedicated to its characteristic proliferation of diseases, civil wars, and poverty. It was about time for it to be cast in a more positive light, as something more than a crises hotbed. By sending Hillary Clinton on an 11-day tour of seven African nations last month, the U.S. government at last conversed with Africa in a dialogue that does not consist of oh-pity-them.
The symbolic value of Clinton’s visit is not insignificant. After overcoming centuries of colonial and slave exploitation these seven African nations received Clinton as sovereign states governed by their native populations. Progress has been slow, but definite. The hand the Obama administration has extended portends further cooperative talk.
Still, I cannot help but feel a bit cynical about the process. The nations visited still have a ways to go before they can come to the table as equals. The press at home flashes its cameras, showing how America is helping the world. Meanwhile, Clinton continues to deliver broad praises and criticisms, asking for better relations and less warfare here and there, but giving no means by which these nations can effect change. An analogy: a father admonishes his son for not catching more fish, but he knows that his son does not have a strong enough net. Clinton’s symbolic gesture doesn’t immediately translate into loaves and fishes.
I further question Clinton’s motives for visiting the nations that she did. Kenya, as Obama’s father’s birthplace, apparently deserved a stay. Perhaps the cynical side of me is being oversensitive when I point out that Nigeria is the fifth largest producer of oil in the world, the Congo has vast reserves of diamond, gold, copper and tin, and Angola is rich in both oil and minerals. Perhaps Clinton had the Congo’s best interest at heart when she warned that the nation that many want to exploit its natural resources. I really want to believe that she did. Yet, the U.S.’ treatment of Africa and oil-rich states in the past nudges my cynicism.
However, no matter how pure Clinton’s motives are, she has helped her country take (overdue) full responsibility for one atrocity. In 1961, in the midst of the Cold War, the CIA single-handedly helped Mobutu Sese Seko displace the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, after Lumumba sought Soviet assistance for the Congo’s independence from Belgium. Mobutu’s kleptocratic and nepotistic rule led the country into destitution and rampant debt, which, of course, the U.S. and its Cold War allies of the International Monetary Fund allowed. It was not until the end of the Cold War that Mobutu’s control weakened along with the West’s dying support. Mobutu’s reign finally ended in 1997, 36 years too late. America is undoubtedly responsible. If it weren’t for America’s help in 1960, Mobutu’s coup would likely have failed, if it were attempted at all, and if it weren’t for U.S.’ tolerance for Mobutu’s self-serving practices at the expense of 69 million others, Mobutu would have been ousted long before 1997.
One brave soul brought this issue up at the town hall Q&A, as Jeffrey Gettleman reported in the August 10, 2009’s New York Times. One student asked Clinton, if he were to become president of the Congo, and if he tried to follow his own ideas independent of the West, would he be assassinated? Gettleman quotes Clinton’s response to this reference to Lumumba: “I can’t excuse this past and I won’t try.”
However, simply saying that we understand what happened is not enough. Admitting error does not mean that we are doing something to make up for it, nor does it amount to a promise that the U.S. will try, to the best of its abilities, to prevent something similar from happening again. We can “decline to excuse” whenever we need to, but unless we do more than passively ignore this issue until it is brought up (and then address it by saying that we are not excusing it), the U.S. is not admitting its faults. It is this irresponsibility on the part of the American government that is much worse than its greed-driven actions, for the latter are morally mistaken, but the former is the denial of morality altogether.