By Andrew Quinn
LOME (Reuters) - Secretary of Hillary Clinton started her West Africa trip celebrating democracy, swooping in for the inauguration of Liberia's democratically re-elected president and promising help to Ivory Coast as it recovers from a bloody post-election civil war.
She wound up the trip on Tuesday sitting in a grandiose presidential palace in the impoverished nation of Togo, talking U.N. Security Council politics with a young leader making his own tentative democratic steps after taking over from his father, once one of Africa's longest-ruling strongman.
Clinton's whirlwind trip - four countries in two days - highlighted what U.S. officials say has been a resurgence of democracy in West Africa, long seen as lagging other parts of the continent as it struggles to free itself of military coups and ethnic violence.
But it also showed that the United States is determined to step up its engagement with the region, hoping to counter growing Chinese influence across Africa, shore up ties with important oil suppliers and build tighter security ties with governments targeted by both Islamic militant groups and narcotics trafficking networks.
Clinton's stops in Liberia and Ivory Coast allowed her to both congratulate them and to urge sustained efforts to consolidate democratic gains across West Africa where Nigeria, Niger and Guinea have all held elections since 2010.
"It is important to continue the democratic process that you have embarked on, to include all voices, even dissenting ones, in dialogue," Clinton said in a news conference with Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara on Tuesday, summing up her message to the resource-rich region.
Ouattara won a disputed November 2010 vote but faced months of violent resistance from his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo. Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won a second term in November elections despite political tensions.
Both exemplify the kind of leader Washington likes in Africa: Western-oriented, committed to economic development, and firmly behind the institutions of democracy.
And both are also eager to expand security ties with the United States, part of the broader set of partnerships that Washington is laboring to build across the world and particularly in Africa, where it sees Beijing taking a more assertive role.
Clinton opened the gleaming new U.S. embassy complex in Liberia's capital Monrovia, and then drove out to the airport past the equally gleaming and arguably larger new Chinese embassy complex, a stark visual symbol of the tightening competition for influence.
"I'm convinced that we're missing an important strategic opportunity for the United States. China is taking advantage of our absence as a major funder of infrastructure and is advancing their economic and I think policy agendas across the continent," said Senator Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who accompanied Clinton to Liberia.
SMALL, POOR - AND ON THE SECURITY COUNCIL
China's influence was also clear in Togo, where Clinton held talks with President Faure Gnassingbe in an ultramodern Beijing-built presidential palace, so new the artwork was still sitting on the floor, waiting to be hung on marble walls.
U.S. officials said Clinton's trip was spurred in part by Togo's election to the U.N. Security Council, where Washington is looking for votes as it demands a tougher response to Syria's violent political crackdown and new steps against Iran over its nuclear program.
But despite plentiful trappings of dictatorship - red-caped guards wielding swords, military brass dripping with braid and tireless women carefully arrayed in rows to ululate and cheer outside - U.S. officials said Gnassingbe, too, appears moving toward reform.
After first taking control in flawed and violent 2005 elections following the death of his father, Gnassingbe was re-elected in a March 2010 poll that U.S. officials said showed some improvement.
Since then, they say, the U.S.-educated president has promised to keep pushing for more change in the country to move it out of isolation, encourage investment and win more international friends - especially the United States.
"He is determined to put in place a strong reform-minded government - one that is democratic, multiparty, and which opens up the country," said Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs
Clinton - the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Togo - discussed Syria and other international issues with Gnassingbe before emerging on the palace's imposing granite entrance to wave to the drummers, dancers and military band assembled to perform for her under hazy skies.
Clinton "made clear that the visit was indeed designed to strengthen them on the path that they're on, and try to do more together", one senior administration official said after her talks.
(Writing by Andrew Quinn)