, WASHINGTON, Aug 4 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived Tuesday in Kenya for the first leg of a seven-nation, 11-day tour of Africa, an AFP correspondent reported.
The trip is to be Clinton’s longest since she became the top US diplomat six months ago and her first to sub-Saharan Africa, where some had feared the continent was not an early priority for the administration.
The State Department has underlined that her visit, which comes just three weeks after President Barack Obama visited the continent, is the earliest trip by a secretary of state to Africa of any administration.
Clinton will seek to build ties with three African powers — Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — and show support for three nations recovering from conflict — Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia — while also stopping in small US ally Cape Verde.
Clinton kicks off her talks Wednesday in Nairobi, where she will address a forum of some 40 African states that enjoy trade preferences in the giant US market on the condition they uphold free elections and markets.
She will also use her Nairobi visit to confer with Somalia’s President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who last month declared victory in a months-long battle to gain control of the capital Mogadishu.
But the United States and its allies say Eritrea is still backing Al-Qaeda-inspired hard-line Islamic groups waging an insurgency in Somalia, which has lacked an effective government for nearly two decades.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, warned last week that Obama’s administration was ready to take action against Eritrea, including possible sanctions, if it did not change course.
"There’s a very short window for Eritrea to signal, through its actions, that it wishes (for) a better relationship with the United States and indeed the wider international community," Rice said.
The Obama administration said in June it was shipping urgent supplies of arms and ammunition to Somalia, whose anarchy has fuelled rampant piracy that has taken a heavy toll on the global shipping industry.
Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for Africa, said that the Obama administration was ready to offer more support to Sharif.
His transitional government "offers the best possible chance for restoring stability to southern Somalia, which has been troubled over the last 20 years by enormous violence and civil conflict," Carson told reporters.
Clinton’s trip follows a stop in Ghana last month by Obama, whose father was born in Kenya. The first African-American US president appealed to Africans to hold their governments accountable and fight corruption.
A Gallup poll released Monday found that Obama’s African roots have led to a jump in the popularity of the United States in sub-Saharan Africa, where an overwhelming 87 percent backed US leadership in the seven countries surveyed.
Yet Clinton could face tough talks in Nairobi. African leaders have been concerned that Obama is looking to extend the trade preferences under the 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act to other poor nations — including Bangladesh and Cambodia, competitors in the textile market.
US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, in an opinion piece in Kenyan newspapers, said Africans can learn from Asia by diversifying their trade and improving productivity.
Kirk said the US trade relationship with Africa should be a two-way street, with Africans also "intensifying efforts to address trade barriers affecting US exporters."
Jendayi Frazer, the top Africa diplomat under former president George W. Bush, said that extending trade benefits to other nations would hurt Africa’s poorest countries.
"Why would you even contemplate eliminating this trade preference which they haven’t yet even been able to benefit from?" Frazer, now a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told AFP.
Clinton, whose husband, former president Bill Clinton, arrived in North Korea Tuesday on a mission to try to negotiate the release of two American journalists, will focus on other African hotspots later on her trip. She will seek African pressure on Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe to improve democratic rule.
She is also set to visit a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo to highlight the plight of women hit by soaring sexual violence.
Carson told reporters ahead of the trip that Clinton "intends to encourage and push the Congolese Government as well as MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force there, to take a much more aggressive stance against gender-based violence."