Clinton says U.S. will be 'friend for life' of Africa
But president suggests continent is roundly ignored in western world
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Many African nations are poised for grand success in the first portion of the 21st Century, but developed nations -- most specifically the United States -- must become more involved in the welfare of Africa for those nations to succeed, President Bill Clinton said Thursday.
Clinton, in a speech marking the opening of the National Summit on Africa in Washington, said knowledge of African affairs and geopolitics is at a low level in the United States, thanks in large part to sparse media coverage, but his administration has realized that such a level of interest and involvement will not serve the U.S. or Africa well in the global information age.
President Clinton spoke Thursday on U.S.-African relations.
"Africa does matter to the United States, not simply because 30 million Americans trace their heritage to Africa, though that is very important," Clinton said.
"The 21st century world has been transformed, and our views and actions must be transformed accordingly," he continued. "The central reality of our time is that all this globalization is making us more vulnerable to each other's problems."
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Among the problems enumerated by the president: "economic turmoil," disease, terrorism, poverty, inadequate education, and racial and ethnic conflicts.
It is well within the national interest of the United States, Clinton said, to increase ties and cooperation with the nations of Africa in a concentrated effort to alleviate many of these problems, while opening up vast sub-Saharan trade markets to U.S. economic concerns.
"We can no longer choose not to know (what is going on in Africa)," Clinton said. "We can only choose not to act -- or to act."
Clinton credited as 'friend' to Africa
Clinton's keynote at the African summit -- which has been established by American and African interests to promote economic and cultural ties between the U.S. and the continent -- was significant, because perhaps more than any other U.S. president, Clinton has been credited with casting an empathetic eye toward Africa's myriad problems and success stories.
Salim Salim, secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity, described Clinton as having been intimately involved in African affairs since taking office in 1993. The president engaged in a lengthy tour of the continent in 1998, the first such excursion undertaken by a sitting U.S. president.
"It is our hope and prayer that future administrations in this country will sustain his efforts," Salim said.
The first day of the African conference was attended by a large number of luminaries, including Kenya President Daniel Arap Moi, a number of high ranking officials of Nigeria's new democratic government, as well as other ambassadors and members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The key to expanded U.S. interest in Africa, Clinton intimated, is the dissemination of more information about the continent throughout the United States, in concert with a series of government-initiated programs to extend economic and social aid to the countries that need it most.
"It wasn't very long ago that the average American child saw Africa as colorful flags and exotic names on a map," Clinton said.
"Last year, the world's fastest growing economy was Mozambique's. Botswana was second, and Angola fourth. I wish every American knew that," he said. "But the slow, steady progress of democracy is not the stuff of headlines."
Clinton outlined five long-term goals for the United States to attend to in its dealings with Africa.
The first of those, he urged, is free and open trade with the continent -- an issue that was knocked around the House and Senate last year with the consideration of a bill that would extend free-trade provisions, under certain circumstances, to nations in the continent's sub-Saharan region.
"Open markets are indispensible to raising living standards," Clinton said.
The trade bill is still hung up in Congress, though House leaders predicted this week it would be ready for the president's signature by mid-April. The president urged House members in attendance Thursday to push for the bill's progress.
Clinton said the second item on his agenda would be a comprehensive effort to provide many struggling African nations with relief from their international debts, in keeping with a growing movement worldwide to provide debt relief to developing countries.
"We will continue to work to find a way to provide debt relief to African nations that are working on sound (economic) policy. Struggling African nations should not have to choose between feeding and educating their children, and paying interest on their debts," he said.
He also called for a deeper commitment to basic education across the continent, where school enrollment levels are dangerously low in some regions, and called on western pharmaceutical manufacturers to work to find cost-effective ways to provide preventative medicines and vaccines to curb the high rates of AIDS and tuberculosis through much of the continent.
U.S. drug makers, Clinton said, would be granted a generous tax credit under his fiscal 2001 budget plan to develop vaccines for impoverished nations.
"You make vaccines for AIDS, malaria and TB, and we will pay for them," Clinton said.
Lastly, the president said the key to sustained growth in Africa will be the elimination of racial and ethnic conflict, and an end to the many wars that have flared across the continent in the course of the last five years.
No portion of Africa has been spared recent conflict. The ongoing war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is counted as perhaps the largest, most devastating conflict the world has seen in some time, while the conflicts inside Sierra Leone, Sudan and the Congo have sapped countless of millions of dollars from the continent's economy, and claimed perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.
"We need to build up a leadership in Africa that will succeed in ending these bloody conflicts," Clinton said. "I intend to work hard on these things as long as I am president."