Forgotten continent Christopher visit: After years of neglect, the U.S. pays rare high-level attention to Africa.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, accompanied by Vice President and Mrs. Al Gore, went to the 1994 inauguration of South Africa's President Nelson Mandela. But that purely ceremonial trip was an exception. Since the collapse of communism, Africa has received scant high-level attention from the U.S. government.

That is why it was gratifying to see Warren Christopher in Africa. He began in Mali, then went to Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa and Angola. His trip was long-overdue: He was the first U.S. secretary of state to go to Africa in more than six years.

Mali is a Francophone West African state that in 1991 made the transition to democracy, ending a 23-year military dictatorship. Both Ethiopia and Angola are former Soviet client states. During the Cold War, Tanzania was a leading exponent of non-alignment. South Africa, for its part, was alternately a clandestine U.S. ally and an apartheid-era pariah state.

These labels may explain some of the past history, but they have little relevance today as each of those countries is battling with awesome development challenges. None of them now embraces socialism -- the bogeyman that triggered overt and covert U.S. involvement in Africa, particularly during the 1960s.

The five countries on Mr. Christopher's itinerary included some of the key players, if Africa is to prosper in the future. The irony is that, as the Hoover Institution's Larry Diamond points out, "Africa has never been more marginal in world affairs than it is today. And for the United States, it is dropping off the radar screen."

Since the days of slavery, Africans have often had a complicated relationship with the United States. During the Cold War they disliked being treated as the prize in a giveaway race between communist and non-communist nations. Today, this ambivalence continues as African governments try to strike a balance between the pent-up demands of consumerism and measured infrastructure development.

Mr. Christopher had an important mission. He had to deal with the sensitivities of the past, while focusing on the future. He also had to answer a question asked everywhere he visited: What took him so long to discover Africa?

Pub Date: 10/15/96

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