Clinton Takes Her Own Tour Through Africa

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in South Africa — one of the stops in her seven-nation trip through Africa. Guest host Daniel Zwerdling talks with the BBC's Jonah Fisher about the big issues confronting southern Africa and what role the U.S. might play in solving them.

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DANIEL ZWERDLING, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Daniel Zwerdling.

First, President Obama visited Africa. In some places he got a hero's welcome. Now the secretary of state is making her own tour. Hillary Clinton has stopped in Kenya, and today she's in South Africa. She met with President Jacob Zuma there.

The BBC's Jonah Fisher joins us now from Johannesburg.

Good morning.

Mr. JONAH FISHER (BBC): Good morning.

ZWERDLING: You know, this seems like the most attention U.S. leaders have paid Africa in a long, long time. Do you see any evidence that it's more than rhetoric?

Mr. FISHER: Well, I think the Obama administration is keen to show that it does intend to engage seriously with Africa's problems. As you mentioned, Barack Obama went to Ghana just for a short trip, but this trip by Secretary of State Clinton is a significant trip in terms of its length - 11 days long - and in terms of how many countries she's going to visit - seven countries in all.

She'll be at least touching on most of the continent's most pressing problems during this trip. And I think the real crucial test is once Mrs. Clinton is back in Washington, once this trip has ended, whether we see that continuing commitment or whether other problems take precedence.

ZWERDLING: What are a couple of the countries where the U.S. has the most potential problems ahead? And what could they do to help, you know, ameliorate them?

Mr. FISHER: Well, Mrs. Clinton will head on to the Democratic Republic of Congo, having been to Angola on the way there. Obviously the Democratic Republic of Congo has had one of the worst civil wars in Africa. The eastern part of the country is still dominated by militia groups and rebels who are fighting amongst each other. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes. So that will, I think, be quite an eye-opener for Mrs. Clinton.

But it seems like perhaps Somalia seems to have been a real focus of this trip, meeting with that president in Kenya, and also in Zimbabwe here. Those are two areas which I think that Mrs. Clinton is hoping to push things forward on.

ZWERDLING: For example, Somalia, it's been an endless civil war. There are apparently huge numbers of militants and extremists crossing the border into Kenya, almost unchecked.

What realistically could the U.S. do about that, for example?

Mr. FISHER: Well, very difficult. If you bear in mind that the man that Hillary Clinton (unintelligible) Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the Somalia president, only controls a very small part of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, you get some sense of the size of the problem there. Al-Shabab, this Islamist group which is causing great concern in Washington, is said to have links to al-Qaida. And the great fear is that Somalia, as a failed state, might act as a springboard for further terrorist activity in Africa.

So I think what Hillary Clinton was looking at, particularly in Somalia, is trying to cut off support for al-Shabab. She mentioned that she believed that Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, was funding al-Shabab, was providing it with support, and she threatened rather obliquely to take action if Eritrea didn't stop doing that.

So Somalia is one these very difficult problems which Africa has had to grapple with. It's been in a state of almost non-stop civil war since the early '90s, so it's not a problem which is going to be solved overnight. And I think Hillary Clinton is hoping that at least by cutting off support for one of the Islamist groups that operate in Somalia that perhaps the situation might calm down, and the transitional government there, which is lead by Somali president, might be able to exert more control.

ZWERDLING: And as we mentioned earlier, the secretary of state is in South Africa today. And one of the huge problems there and all across Africa is HIV and AIDS. The South African government has been somewhat notorious for doing way less than most people think it should about AIDS.

Will Hillary Clinton try to do something about that, to get them in gear?

Mr. FISHER: Well, I think what the South African government would say is that that is a policy of the past. Now, Thabo Mbeki, the previous president here who served almost two terms here, was notorious, as you mentioned, for denying the link between HIV and AIDS, questioning whether expensive Western medication was really the best way of treating this epidemic in Africa.

But we do have a new president here in South Africa. Jacob Zuma has now been in office for over two months. He's made it clear that he does respect scientific consensus on HIV and AIDS, and has indicated that he is very willing for what one would consider conventional treatments for HIV and AIDS - they are ARVs and such like - to be rolled out as quickly as possible.

We've seen - I think Hillary Clinton has given a pretty strong indication, as had Barack Obama, that the huge amount of funding which the United States through the Bush administration gave to Africa to combat HIV and AIDS throughout the eight years of the Bush administration will continue. I think there will just be less of an emphasis on abstinence from sex as a way of preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS. And we'll see probably what is something more in line with scientific opinion here.

ZWERDLING: Jonah, thanks so much.

Mr. FISHER: Thank you.

ZWERDLING: The BBC's Jonah Fisher spoke to us from Johannesburg.

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