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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs this week on a trip that will take her both to Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, and on a visit to the continent’s elder statesman, 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
While Clinton’s public focus will be on Africa’s democratic achievements and economic potential, the trip also underscores US security ties in the face of an array of growing threats – from Islamist extremists to narcotics cartels.
“The security threats are becoming much more visible and in some ways more dangerous than they were before,” said Jennifer Cooke, the head of the Africa programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“There are big global issues on the table, and the US does not have the kind of finances available to mount splashy new economic initiatives in Africa.”
Clinton’s trip – potentially her last as America’s top diplomat – began yesterday in Senegal, and continues on to South Sudan, where she will be the most senior US official to visit since the country declared independence in July last year.
Further stops include Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and SA, the State Department said.
Clinton is expected to highlight US programmes on development, education and HIV/Aids – long the backbone of US engagement with Africa – as well as US economic interests in a continent whose rich resources and enviable growth rates have drawn rival suitors China and India.
She will also likely emphasise projects for women and girls, one of her central themes.
But Clinton’s visit is also part of a US push to broaden security partnerships with key countries such as Uganda and Kenya – ties that are growing fast despite sometimes serious US concerns over democratic governance.
Obama laid out his policy for Africa in a speech in Ghana in July 2009, saying the US stood ready to help African nations as they work to improve governance, fight corruption and resolve regional conflicts.
His speech led to widespread hopes on the continent that the first US president with African roots would follow through with policies to help achieve those goals.
But his administration has not launched major new initiatives such as the Bill Clinton-era trade pact that granted tax breaks to African goods, or President George W Bush’s Aids initiative of 2003, which committed billions of dollars to the fight against HIV/Aids on the continent.
“Africans will always see Obama as one of our own, so we are reluctant to criticise,” said Mwangi Kimenyi, a Kenyan academic and director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “But it turns out our expectations for the president were a bit overrated and unrealistic. He could have been more courageous and done more.”
The White House in June released a policy paper on Africa, repeating its commitment to strengthening democracy and spurring economic growth, but lacking a single signature project that could cement Obama’s Africa legacy. Instead, attention has focused on Africom, the unified US Africa Command that the Pentagon established in 2007. It is playing an increasingly important role as the US pumps resources into training African militaries.
Washington has reacted with increasing alarm as militant groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab, Nigeria’s Boko Haram and al-Qaeda’s African wing based in the vast Sahel region open new fronts to advance Islamic extremism.
Concern over the Sahel has spiked since March, when a coup in Mali opened the door to al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in the north of the country, leading some analysts to say the lawless region could become an “African Afghanistan”.