In US-Africa Relations, Attitude Is Everything Clinton Met with African Ministers, Signaling Stepped-Up US Focus Oncontinent

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It's been a year since President Clinton embarked on the most extensive trip to Africa of any US president, wowing crowds and declaring a new "partnership between our peoples."

This week, it was his turn to play host, welcoming senior ministers from 50 African countries in an unprecedented discussion of next steps in the "partnership."

Like last year's trip, however, Africa-watchers describe the gathering as far more symbolism than substance. George Ayittey, a professor at American University, goes so far as to call it "public- relations fluff." But even critics like Mr. Ayittey admit that it's consistent fluff, which is more than can be said for previous administrations. And many hope that sustained symbolic gestures will spawn an atmosphere more conducive to action - such as passage of the languishing Africa trade bill or significant relief for the continent's suffocating debt, both of which the president championed at this week's three-day Africa ministerial. "Before you can have concrete steps, you've got to have a change in attitudes. And changes in attitudes frequently come with symbolism," says Constance Freeman, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. Ms. Freeman, who worked on Africa issues for 15 years at the State Department, says the Clinton administration is "genuinely captivated" by Africa. "There is a definitive commitment and resolve to move forward in expanding our relationship and to do it on a partnership basis. This is a different attitude from the past." The president's address sought to remind Americans - and businesses - why they should care about a far away, conflict- riddled continent that accounts for only a minuscule percentage of US exports. "This is truly a relationship for the long haul," Mr. Clinton told a sea of ministers and ambassadors this week. Saying Africa obviously matters to the 30 million Americans who trace their roots there, Clinton added it also provides 13 percent of US oil - nearly as much as the Middle East. And he said that investing in Africa is worth it, citing a 36 percent return on investment in 1997, compared with 16 percent in Asia and 11 percent in Europe. The president also repeated his State of the Union call to pass the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade bill Congress failed to pass last year. And he proposed a plan to speed up and deepen debt relief for Africa. The continent as a whole spends about 40 percent of its export earnings paying off debt, hindering much- needed development. …