The Real Reasons for Hillary Clinton's Africa Trip

A single scene in the movie Dave, a political comedy about an imposter in the White House, probably does the best job of summing up most American political trips to Africa. In his first appearance, halfway through the movie, a dour-looking Ben Kingsley, playing the vice president, appears in the Oval Office bearing fertility beads from Togo and a giant hat from the people of Burundi. He had been sent on an extended tour through the continent by a president determined to strip him of all power and influence. "They know hats in Burundi," the president responds. Africa is a punch line. It may be a place where do-gooders can make a difference; it's just not where the big dogs make their mark.

But the Obama administration is putting Africa front and center this summer, hoping to demonstrate that the continent will no longer be sidelined in American foreign policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched down in Nairobi on Tuesday night, kicking off a seven-country tour of Africa's major capitals. That comes on the heels of Obama's address last month in Ghana, which, as administration officials keep telling us, marks the earliest and biggest commitment of U.S. diplomatic attention to the region of any modern presidency.

On the surface, there's reason to take them at their word; Hillary Clinton has long been outspoken on causes like development, health, poverty, and gender violence. Plus, far from doing a diplomatic happy tour, she has chosen to visit some of the region's most volatile hotspots. But will words translate to actions, or is this just about image control for the administration? Here is an unscientific survey of Clinton's objectives at each stop on the trip.

Country: Kenya
Purpose: Strategy

The United States has an interest in keeping Kenya stable, so Clinton has a good deal on her plate in Nairobi. For one, it's an important base from which to watch war-on-terror investments in the Horn of Africa, where U.S. and Kenyan forces jointly guard the Indian Ocean coastline. While in Nairobi, Clinton is meeting with Somalia's beleaguered transitional government, giving her an opportunity to address the most terror-prone area on the continent. But the biggest thing Clinton will be tackling there is a continentwide economic conference, which puts the spotlight on the African Growth and Opportunity Act, legislation passed under Bill Clinton that expanded the number of tariff-free goods sub-Saharan countries could export to the United States. Kenya is an economic engine in eastern Africa, even if its industries are not world-class, which means its political and economic success matters to Clinton. The country has already exploded once in recent years; unless its two-sided government of unity—jokingly called the government of impunity—learns to work together (Clinton admonished it to cooperate yesterday), it could do so again.

Country: South Africa
Purpose: Strategy
This is a getting-to-know you venture. South Africa is the top superpower on the continent, but relations were strained between Washington and Johannesburg under the country's former president, Thabo Mbeki, and it's still unclear how closely the new president, Jacob Zuma, will hew to his predecessor's line. One of the biggest splits was over Zimbabwe; American officials wanted Mbeki to take a more pro-active role, while Mbeki wanted the United States to stay out of his backyard. Clinton will probably try to bring up Zimbabwe, but it remains a touchy subject under Zuma. Instead, he'll want to talk about South Africa's economy, which is in its first recession in more than a decade. With riots on the streets over his failure to deliver on promises to the country's poor, Zuma may hope to capitalize on improved relations with the United States. That bodes well for Clinton.

Country: Angola
Purpose: Pure strategy

After years of bitter distance (prompted by Ronald Reagan's intervention during the civil war on behalf of anticommunist forces), Washington has developed a budding relationship with Angola this decade, spurred mostly by the discovery of massive unexploited oilfields. Angola is now the top oil exporter in Africa, with all the familiar trappings: concentrated oil wealth, trouble with democracy, and a 48 percent unemployment rate. With American oil companies set up there, the U.S. is now investing in the country in the form of business and military support. But that calculation might be hurting America's image in the rest of Africa, where criticism has mounted over the American friendship with President José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has held power for more than 30 years. President Bush's oft-stated concern for human rights and democracy in Angola was seen on the continent as little more than a pretense, since he never followed up his words with actions. That may differ under Obama, but it probably doesn't rank high on Clinton's list of objectives for this particular trip.

Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Purpose: Strictly public relations
There's no doubt that the issues Clinton will address in the DRC are near and dear to her—and, in fact, there's probably no one better qualified to address them. She is obviously offended enough by the abysmal human rights and sexual abuses around Goma to speak forcefully about the need to combat them. But, in the end, the issues surrounding Congo's decade-long civil war are much too big to be tackled with a good speech. For one, even though the U.N. force in the Congo is the largest in the world, it's never been adequate to contain a grab for power that has pulled in forces from at least two neighboring countries and countless militias. With $27 trillion worth of goodies under the ground in the Congo, unless she's willing to put a fortune on the line, Clinton won't be able to make President Joseph Kabila do anything.

Country: Nigeria
Purpose: Strategy, but we'll only hear the PR

It would be impossible for Clinton to go to Nigeria without at least mentioning the country's endemic corruption problem (which landed it at the bottom of Transparency International's global ranking) and the increasing unrest in its oil-rich Niger Delta region. In public, she'll talk about investment opportunities, emphasizing Nigeria's importance as a regional partner to soothe relations (Nigerian officials claim they were snubbed during President Obama's Ghana trip). But an important reality remains: of the $38 billion worth of goods the United States imported from Nigeria last year, all but $70 million was in oil. While Clinton's pressure on the corruption, good governance, and development fronts is likely sincere, she knows it will likely fall on deaf ears. This, like with Angola, is essentially another oil-state visit.

Country: Liberia
Purpose: Strictly PR

This is the one real feel-good stop on the tour. Liberia has been an ally of Washington more or less since it was settled by American freedmen in 1822. Clinton will celebrate the first female president on the continent, although the world's honeymoon with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is ending as corruption in her administration becomes apparent. Still, Clinton is looking to bolster the continent's only female leader, and hammering home a complaint about corruption probably won't rank high on Clinton's to-do list.

Country: Cape Verde
Purpose: Strategy

This one was generally off the beaten path, seen as a stable, democratic success story in Africa—as evidenced by its recent upgrade from the least-developed to a medium-developed ranking on the U.N.'s development index. Mostly it's known as a stopover point on shipping routes. But it is also a good strategic spot from which to watch the Gulf of Guinea, where trouble spots like Nigeria are located. Clinton will likely just ratify her relationship with President Pedro Pires.