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
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-
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
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
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-
continent that accounts for only a minuscule percentage of US
"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
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
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-