President Clinton’s trip to Africa marks the first state visit by a U.S. president to that continent. During a stop at a school in Uganda, Clinton offered regrets about past relations between the United States and Africa. From the slave trade, to Cold War strategies, to preoccupations with most of the world other than Africa, “the United States has not always done the right thing by Africa,” Clinton said. While he never explicitly apologized for any of the offenses, he did say that “perhaps the worst sin America ever committed about Africa was the sin of neglect and ignorance.” How very true.
In the days of colonial America, the main concern with Africa was how many more slaves could be packed on ships for the nightmare voyage to the New World in chains. Whether the president should apologize for past American sins has been passionately debated. While Clinton never came close to apologizing, he did acknowledge slavery’s evil.
During the Cold War, the United States was more concerned with maneuvering Africa as a political pawn against the Soviets than the welfare of Africa’s people. An America-friendly leader, regardless of how that person came to power, or what methods he used to remain in power, were irrelevant. The result was continued support for autocratic leaders who used every means possible to keep themselves in power, no matter what the human cost.
It was Clinton’s last admission – of the United States’ “neglect and ignorance” of Africa – that holds the most potential for the future. If Clinton simply took advantage of the situation to offer a meaningless national mea culpa without any real plans for how to change the situation, then his words were a waste of breath. If the entire world is to cross the “bridge to the 21st century,” then that means assisting nations long relegated to the back of the newspapers, as well as people’s minds.
Given never-ending global interdependence, it is impossible for the United States, as well as the rest of the world, to continue to ignore Africa. It is a continent full of problems, some the lingering result of Western colonial policies of subjugation, others self-induced. But it is also a continent that holds a tremendous wealth of natural resources. The potential for a new chapter in Africa’s history is restricted only by the limits imposed by the lack of global help. A key determinant of that help rests on the will of American policymakers. It is time to help Africa begin a new era.