On March 23, 1998, U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton arrived in Accra, Ghana, to begin a six-country, 12-day visit to Africa, the most extensive journey to that continent ever undertaken by a U.S. leader. He went with high hopes, hailing “the beginning of a new African renaissance.” In retrospect, however, it seemed that the visit might instead have provided grounds for scrutinizing more carefully the premises upon which U.S. policy toward Africa was formulated.

The visit began on an upbeat note with enthusiastic crowds assembling to offer their greetings. The president, in turn, seemed genuinely eager to improve trading opportunities between the U.S. and Africa. The African growth and opportunity bill was being debated in the U.S. Congress with the object of promoting his aim, and his slogan “Trade Not Aid” underlined his determination to replace the discouraging feelings of dependency on the part of the Africans with a dynamic and mutually partnership.

To that end Clinton initially targeted a handful of countries deemed to have already demonstrated reformist tendencies–countries in which progress had been made toward a more democratic form of government, toward the establishment of internal security, and toward economic recovery and the elimination of corruption. These, henceforward, would be the criteria upon which further opportunities for profitable cooperation with the U.S. would depend. Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda in particular were singled out as fulfilling these requirements and also because they were led, it was thought, by men of a younger, pragmatic generation with whom the U.S. could do business. Further, there was also South Africa, a nation that had set an example of magnanimity and renewal.

Yet even for the most optimistic observer, there were discernible obstacles to the fulfillment of this well-intentioned plan. In the first place, all the countries on which the president focused attention had been, and still were, heavily dependent upon foreign aid for whatever economic progress they had made. In addition, discussions that took place in a meeting with East African heads of state, held in Entebbe, Uganda, forced Clinton to revise fundamentally his interpretation of what constituted progress toward a democratic form of government. Multiparty democracy, which he had taken as his aim, was conspicuously absent from the countries singled out for approval. Nor, to the dispassionate observer, was there much evidence that a multiparty system had provided the best recipe for internal political stability elsewhere in the continent. In South Africa too, the highlight of his visit, Clinton had to review his plans when Pres. Nelson Mandela made it clear that trade was no substitute for aid in countries as poor and as lacking in natural resources as were those in Africa.

The outbreak of hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia on May 6 inscribed a powerful question mark against the president’s faith in the good intentions of the pragmatic young leaders who were to bring in a new era of cooperation in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The rebellion that began shortly afterward, with the support of Uganda and Rwanda, in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo raised yet further doubts.

The question then arose as to why President Clinton, whose intentions were patently sincere, assumed that the African leaders with whom he was dealing were at one with him in his aims. One explanation was the information that had been supplied to him. U.S. policy in Africa since the time of the Cold War had been bedeviled by the phenomenon immortalized by the novelist Rudyard Kipling as the “Great Game.” In the late 19th century, British attitudes toward Russian intervention in Asia had been coloured by the reports of official, semiofficial, and private adventurers enjoying the thrill of clandestine operations beyond the frontiers of India and not infrequently embellishing, if not actually inventing, accounts of Russian machinations and the vacillating loyalties of local chieftains.

These activities were repeated in Africa during the Cold War by Americans of a similar cast of mind. As a result, an opportunistic power seeker such as Jonas Savimbi was regularly described as “pro-Western” and supplied with arms to conduct a profoundly damaging rebellion against the self-styled Marxist government of Angola. Similarly, the unscrupulous “pro-Western” Mobuto Sese Seko was helped to become president of Zaire and oppressor of his people as a “bulwark against the spread of Communism in Tropical Africa.”

Even before the Cold War had ended, the exponents of the late-20th-century version of the Great Game had discovered the wellspring of a new series of plots against the interests of the West in the Muslim governments of Libya and The Sudan. Thus accused, the Muslim leaders’ not- unnatural reaction had been to conform more closely to the character defined for them by their opponents. In this situation of heightened tension, the readiness of the presidents of Uganda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia to give assistance to the rebels against the Sudanese government may well, whatever their underlying reasons, have been represented to U.S. policy makers as reinforcing the reformist and pro-Western character currently attributed to them.

These considerations reveal the need for a reassessment of U.S. policy toward Africa. If, as President Clinton clearly intended to demonstrate by his visit, the U.S. is eager to help Africa overcome the constraints that poverty, corruption, and political instability have imposed on the continent’s development, it is necessary to understand and give priority to the genuine needs and aspirations of individual African countries rather than using them as pawns in a geopolitical power struggle.

Kenneth Ingham is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Bristol, Eng.