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August 15, 2009

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Presidents past and present follow Hillary around Africa

THEY followed her every step of the way. From Kenya to Cape Verde, the personalities and policies of the last two United States presidents -- Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and the current one, Barack Obama -- dogged Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton through an 11-day tour of Africa.

At times during the grueling, seven-nation journey Clinton abandoned her legendary steeliness.

She simmered in anger in Congo's capital at being asked about her husband's thoughts on an international financial matter -- then brimmed over with empathy for Congolese victims of rape and malnutrition. She drew howls from Republicans back home for comparing a contested Nigerian campaign to Bush's tight election victory in 2000. And she won over Liberian lawmakers by recounting how Obama lured her into his administration after her bruising loss to him in 2008.

The Africa tour was intended to showcase some of Clinton's pet projects -- women's rights and empowerment, food security and development -- as well as cement her return to center stage in the Obama administration's foreign policy apparatus after a sidelining elbow injury and nagging questions about whether her diplomatic role had been eclipsed.

But her husband, Bush and Obama were often along for the ride.

Bill Clinton, whose private foundation is actively engaged in Africa, and Bush, who pumped hundreds of millions of dollars of US assistance into African health programs, are wildly popular in most of Africa. And Obama's African heritage has made him a point of pride not only in Kenya, his father's birthplace, but across the continent.

"I haven't been with so many former presidents for quite some time," Clinton joked during a round-table meeting with Nigerian political leaders in Abuja. She could just as well have been talking about her husband, Bush and Obama.

Clinton herself gave off mixed messages, alternating warm support for Africa's leaders with stern reproaches against corruption and conflict.

She acknowledged her full plate of concerns in Liberia yesterday.

"The most important part of this trip were the relationships we have built, the commitments that we have discussed, the problems that we have honestly explored," she said. "We have not shied away from raising the difficult problems that exist and stand in the way of the people of Africa realizing their potential."

But back home, the image of an angry, animated Clinton may linger as the most memorable from her trip.

"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" she replied incredulously when a Congolese student asked her for "Mr Clinton's" opinion about proposed loans to the Congo.

"My husband is not secretary of state; I am," Clinton snapped. "If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband."


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