What would a Hillary Clinton win mean for Africa?

When it comes to matters of international justice, Hillary Clinton, Obama’s Secretary of State during his first term and 2016 presidential candidate, has gathered inspiration and insights from a diverse bunch of sources the past few decades. One of them, apparently, is former US security advisor (’69-’75) and secretary of state (‘73-‘77) Henry Kissinger. Guided by similar ideas on the role of US global leadership, Henry offered counsel to Hillary during her term as Secretary of State. We know this because she put it in her book. This is the same Henry who, back in 1976, admitted that “it is quite true that we have not given the same priority to Africa” (compared to, roughly, everything else that qualified as foreign during his term) but who, according to the journalist and author Abayomi Azikiwe, nevertheless managed to suppress national liberation struggles in ways that had a huge “impact on the continued underdevelopment and instability in existence on the African continent.” On top of that, wrote Christopher Hitchens (who saw Kissinger as a “stupendous liar with a remarkable memory”), “Kissinger’s orchestration of political and military and diplomatic cover for apartheid in South Africa presents us with a morally repulsive record and includes the appalling consequences of the destabilization of Angola.”

Of course we don’t know if Africa was, in any shape or form, on Hillary’s mind when she expressed her affection and admiration for Kissinger’s leader and mentor-ship. It doesn’t really matter either. His well-documented track record as an imperial war criminal makes her admiration for him perturbing enough. We do know (well, the journalist Daniel Bates does) that it was in Africa, more specifically South Africa, where she found personal guidance after she, and the rest of the world, found out that her husband and then-President Bill Clinton had cheated on her. She has compared her process of forgiving him with the South African post-apartheid truth and reconciliation process saying “she was inspired by the country’s former leader Nelson Mandela,” writes Bates, “and that she had to act otherwise she would remain in a mental ‘prison’ for the rest of her life.”

The parallel is interesting (if we’re generous), but instructive in her intentions on North-South relations it is not. What bonds Henry, a Republican who held office 40 years ago, and Hillary, a Democrat, is their unwavering belief (well, rhetorically at least) in US imperialism as the healthiest and most virtuous force for global development and progress, an ideal so fierce and proud that it’s immune to the most compelling doses of evidence that have challenged this stance the past decades.

With regards to Africa, one of Hillary’s successes during her role as Secretary of State, took place when she persuaded South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to sign a peace deal with Sudan. In her eyes, it signaled a victorious achievement. In those of Alex de Waal, a dodgy lie. The affair led him to conclude that  “There’s also a lesson for Africa: if Africans do not write their own histories, others will do it on their behalf. Generations of African schoolchildren will grow up believing that America was responsible for South Sudanese independence and other such myths.”

In spite of these ambiguities, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has thus far failed to ignite a substantial national conversation on how her presidency may affect the rest of the world, especially the African continent. There may be many reasons for this: American political culture’s insularity or her spin doctors’ fear that the right-wing smearing over Benghazi may flare up again.

In the main, we can expect Clinton, if elected, to reaffirm American exceptionalism. On more than one occasional, she has expressed a firm belief in the “indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order.”

As is well known, since the 1980s the US, UK, the World Bank and the IMF have played decisive roles in the destruction of local African farming and ecosystems, health care systems and other social services through structural adjustment programs, which required governments to liberalize trade, transform agriculture and cut down social spending as conditions for loans. Across the continent, poverty deepened as a result of this neoliberal transformation, taking its greatest toll on women and children, whilst the US and its corporations were cashing in. According to geographer David Harvey, it was Hillary’s husband Bill who consolidated the neoliberal trade order (which Harvey calls the “Wall Street, Treasury, IMF complex”) during his time in the White House.

Interestingly, in her public statements as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton appeared to break with that consensus. In August 2012, she showcased a stand against neo-colonial relations when she exclaimed that “[t]he days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves, leaving nothing or very little behind, should be over in the 21st century.” She also advocated for an exit of “autocratic rulers who care more about preserving their grip on power than promoting the welfare of their citizens.” A year earlier, in 2011, as reported by Pambazuka’s Isaac Odoom, she declared that “When people come to Africa to make investments, we want them to do well but also want them to do good… We don’t want them to undermine good governance in Africa.”

Let’s be clear: it is likely that all this talk was really side eyeing China, who the US see as its rival for African resources and markets. It had little to nothing to do with Africans. At least, that’s what her three tours as former Secretary of State, and her last trip in 2012, suggest.

The main goal of the latter visit, as observed by the Guardian’s David Smith, and by economist Jayati Ghosh, was to persuade African leaders that America’s “commitment to democracy and human rights” made them a far better partner than “rivals” (i.e. China), who only care about resource extraction. The irony however, as Ghosh pointed out is that “US and European companies continue to try to exploit these countries’ resources as much, if not more, not least through land and other resource grabs. “If anything”, Ghosh argues, “their concern now is that competition from Chinese and Indian (and even Brazilian and Malaysian) firms is forcing them to offer better terms for their resource extraction.” Ghosh is worth quoting at length:

In “free trade agreements” signed with developing country partners, the US and the EU regularly demand the opening up of markets, as well as extensive intellectual property rights and investment protection that favour the interests of their own large companies over poor citizens of those countries. Most “technical assistance” aid really funds the northern consultants of the global development industry rather than contributing to economic diversification and knowledge expansion in the south”.

The hypocrisy of her condemnation of Chinese trade ethics and her dogmatic dedication to neoliberal policies is anything but new. Her lashing out at China during her 2011 visit to Lusaka, for example, left Pambazuka’s Isaac Odoom perplexed about her reluctance to apply the same standards to her own country’s investment strategies and foreign assistance priorities. “One is tempted to ask”, Odoom writes, “Is China the only ‘bad guy’ in town? Aren’t some Western actors complicit of the same activities in Africa?”

As early as 2009, when Hillary made her first visit as Secretary of State, (and spoke about “the joy and energy Africans have, evidenced not just by the boogieing, but by the hard work and perseverance,”) skeptics were side-eying her affection for Africa. The tour largely centered around The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), security issues and natural resources. “In all three dimensions”, argues Firoze Manji for Pambazuka,“the focus is on providing guarantees for US corporate interests” at the cost of those of African labor. In addition to that, Some Kenyan politicians were allegedly unhappy about Clinton’s lecturing style and the emptiness of her trade promises, challenging her to improve, rather than just boost, trade with steps such as the reduction of U.S farm subsidies.

So as much as Hillary may talk about “relationship of partnership not patronage”, and of “sustainability, [rather than] quick fixes” and rhetorically commit herself to “a strong foundation to attract new investment”, the creation of “new businesses” and “more paychecks” “within the context of a positive ethic of corporate responsibility”, as she allegedly did in 2011, at the end of the day it’s about feeding the ‘Wall Street, Treasury, IMF complex’.

What Africa can expect from Hillary as President, then, is ever more extraction and exploitation, nicely packaged in the optimistic promise of sustainability, ‘good business climates’, partnership, democracy and ‘change’.

More reflections on Hillary’s Africa history here and here.

Maria Hengeveld

Maria Hengeveld writes about feminisms, inequalities, multinational corporations and economic justice; sometimes in Dutch.

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