Bill Clinton: U.S. Must Not Ignore Africa

Former president reflects on Iraq, Africa and "living with" a mistake in Rwanda.


NENO, Malawi, July 20, 2007 — -- Former President Bill Clinton said the United States is making a mistake in ignoring Africa.

"We have become so focused on Iraq ... almost no one is noticing that while all this is going on, not only is al Qaeda making a comeback ... but China is romancing all of Africa," he told reporters on a plane ride between the southern African nations of Malawi and Zambia.

Clinton has just spent a long afternoon in the sun in the small village of Neno, Malawi -- a place so remote he flew in by helicopter to avoid the crumbling rutted roads.

On his arrival, thousands of people crushed together on the side of the dirt roads, straining to catch a glimpse of the former president turned philanthropist. Many of the people he met on this day had walked for miles from the surrounding countryside.

Asked if he joined the crowd because Clinton is a former U.S. president, one young man said, "No, I came because of what he's doing for us here."

They know his name more than they know what he looks like. Some seem surprised by his stark white hair.

In Neno, President Clinton visited the site of a new hospital his Clinton Foundation is helping to build.

The foundation has also been working with a group of 1,200 local farmers, helping them form a cooperative and secure loans to buy fertilizer to grow winter wheat. By forming a cooperative, the farmers now have a mill to process the wheat and a guaranteed market for their crop.

It all sounds simple to American ears. But for a farmer named Isaac who met President Clinton today, it means the difference between providing for his family and watching them starve.

"Now things are good," Isaac said.

His family is fed.

Clinton said he was dead tired but proceeded to talk for the entire hour and a half flight to Zambia about his passions -- fighting the AIDS epidemic, encouraging development, and pondering difficult questions.

Speaking about the farmers posed a couple if those questions: "How come they're poor and I'm rich?" "Why is inequality so profound and growing?" A partial answer came when he talked about growing up in America.

"We all believed there was a predictable connection between the effort we exerted and the result we achieved," he said.

Holding court in a beige swivel chair and munching on cheese, chicken skewers and pizza, Clinton said he was surprised by the welcome he received in Neno.

Yes, he said, he did a lot for Africa when he was president. And he is doing even more now. (And by the way, he said, he will not stop this work should his wife become president).

But there is one failure that Clinton says weighs on him "all the time" -- the genocide in Rwanda.

The former president said his administration could have saved one-third of the lives lost in Rwanda if it had taken action sooner.

"We never even had a meeting," he said.

Clinton has scoured the records from that time period, trying to figure out what went wrong.

"It's hard to believe there could be that colossal a mess up," he said. "It weighs on me. But on the other hand, it's sort of a spur to activity."

Another reason to continue his work in Africa.

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