After an intense year of diplomacy sparked by revolution and repression across the Arab world, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is taking stock this week of an entirely separate democratic advance a half-continent away in West Africa.
The region's improvements in multiparty governance and the rule of law may have been overshadowed by the tumult of the Arab Spring. It made its own democratic gains in the past two years, even if the progress came in fits and starts, and often on the back of political violence. In Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won a second term in an election that likely would have been declared free and fair, only to be marred when the opposition leader called for a boycott, forcing Sirleaf to run unopposed.
Here in Ivory Coast, the country successfully held its first transparent election in a decade, but the winner of the polling had to enlist the help of a rebel army in order to force the former president from power, after he refused to accept defeat.
Guinea also returned to democracy after five decades of strongman rule, and encouraging progress was made in Niger, where a military junta handed over power to a democratically elected government.
West Africa's democratic wave was hardly foreseen, with political scientists only a couple of years ago still referring to the region's "democratic recession." The turnaround is strengthening hopes in the United States of a new spirit prevailing and fuller partners emerging on a resource-rich continent where China is investing billions of dollars in trade and infrastructure _ and his little concern for democracy.
"We are committed to standing with the people of Liberia as they continue their important journey, reconciling political and ethnic differences, strengthening democracy and bringing prosperity and opportunity to people," Clinton said Monday after watching Sirleaf get sworn in for a new six-year term.
Clinton meets Tuesday with Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, who won a 2010 election but relied on his forces and international help to oust predecessor Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo later was extradited to The Hague to face charges of murder, rape and other crimes allegedly committed by his supporters as he clung to power.
Clinton also will hold meetings Tuesday with the reform-minded President Faure Gnassingbe of Togo, which last year held the closest thing in its history to multiparty elections, and Cape Verde Prime Minister Jose Maria Neves before returning to Washington. It is the first trip ever by a U.S. secretary of state to Togo, a nation long ignored by Washington when Togo was under the three-decade dominion of Gnassingbe's strongman father.
Sirleaf, the 73-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, represents Washington's ideal in an African leader. A Harvard University-educated technocrat, she held senior positions at the World Bank and Citibank before being elected in 2005 to spearhead Liberia's recovery from a disastrous 14-year civil war.
Yet even as Sirleaf was lionized abroad, she faced a tough re-election battle at home amid persistent unemployment. She has had difficulties stamping out graft, which she once declared "Public Enemy No. 1." And many in the impoverished country are pressing to see the fruits of economic progress trickle down to the lower classes.
Clinton lent her support in a private meeting ahead of the inauguration ceremony, where the women discussed strategies to fight corruption.
"It's one of the roadblocks to greater prosperity here," Clinton told staff at America's sparkling new, marbled embassy on a Monrovia hilltop, meant to underline the U.S. commitment to Liberia's stability.
Across town and above the stunted concrete edifices of Liberia's capital stood the nearly as new Chinese Embassy, a reminder of the Asian power's growing commercial and diplomatic clout in Africa. With diamonds and timber, and possibly even offshore oil, Liberia is typical of many African countries waiting for a surge in prosperity and a partner to share in the spoils of its increased development.
"We're missing an important strategic opportunity for the United States," warned Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., who joined Clinton in the delegation to Sirleaf's ceremony. "China is taking advantage of our absence as a major funder of infrastructure and is advancing their economic and, I think, policy agenda across the continent."
The U.S. is providing significant aid. It supports groups like the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center helping to build democratic institutions, while funding various projects to improve health, education, electricity and small companies. The U.S. Agency for International Development spent $207 million in Liberia last year, providing power to the capital and fighting disease.
But Coons, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on Africa, said Washington needs to aggressively pursue its own policy objectives, from anti-corruption and free media to religious tolerance. At a time when many in Congress are slashing aid budgets, he said the U.S. should be trying to "celebrate and lift up the countries in Africa that have chosen to make the difficult transition to democracy."
Ivory Coast is one such country. In Abidjan, life is returning to normal after a year consumed largely by war and reconciliation efforts. U.S. officials have cheered Ouattara's ascent to the presidency, even if the means were messy, and Ouattara's forces now stand accused of crimes against humanity.
At least 3,000 people on both sides died before fighting ended in April. Rights groups accuse Gbagbo's and Ouattara's supporters of carrying out wanton human rights violations. Even though Gbagbo has been extradited to The Hague, little has been done to hold Ouattara's camp accountable, and many are accusing him of "victor's justice."
U.S. officials are holding out hope that Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund economist, will deliver on his promise of accountability even for the crimes of his allies. They credit him with successfully helping reopen ports, rebuild roads, increase exports and restore much of the Ivorian economy, but acknowledge that his government will need to prove its fairness.