After venturing to reclusive Myanmar, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pressed democratic reforms Tuesday in another place long dominated by dictators, becoming the first American in her post to ever visit the African nation of Togo.
Greeted by performers on stilts and sword-wielding ceremonial soldiers in red capes, Clinton visited Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe in his presidential palace, a Chinese-built construction of marble floors and sparkling Christmas-like lights strung from the ceiling. Paintings sat against the walls, the unfinished work of a hasty decoration.
The decadence on display, just beyond the destitute streets of Togo's capital, Lome, in some ways evoked the worst of post-colonial Africa and its rulers' all-too-common penchant for ceremonies and ornamentation while their people languish in poverty. Yet after six decades of dictatorship, Togo is showing signs of progress _ much like Myanmar, or Burma, before Clinton's trip last year _ and the Obama administration wanted to take a chance.
"Togo's national elections later this year will be an important milestone," Clinton said. "The United States will be a partner to the government of Togo as it builds on its recent democratic gains, brings dissenting voices to the table for an inclusive dialogue, increases the political participation of women, and carries out a successful constitutional reform process."
The choice of Togo isn't solely about goodwill. The West African country of 6.8 million people, tucked between Benin and Ghana, is as of two weeks ago a U.N. Security Council member. That means it may vote alongside the world's biggest powers on resolutions that could cover anything from a future Palestinian state to sanctions against Syria.
Clinton and Gnassingbe agreed to cooperate on both issues, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. Gnassingbe backed U.S. support for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks and opposition to a premature Palestinian declaration of statehood, the official said.
Clinton visited Togo on the penultimate stop of a four-country Africa swing aimed at encouraging governments to continue with democratic and economic reforms.
She led a U.S. delegation Monday to the inauguration of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first female head of state. She then traveled to Ivory Coast to meet the democratically elected President Alassane Ouattara, who took office last year after his forces finally ousted predecessor Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to cede power. She will stop in Cape Verde before returning to Washington early Wednesday.
The trip to Togo was the most unexpected. Whereas Washington has championed the ascents of Sirleaf and Ouattara, respected economists with resumes that include the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the U.S. has largely ignored Togo since it gained independence from France 62 years ago.
Details of Clinton's meeting with Gnassingbe showed an attempt to U.S. interests with a new partner, along with encouragement for democracy work in Togo that still has a long way to go.
Washington is optimistic about Gnassingbe despite his history as the military-pronounced successor of his father, a dictator who crushed opponents for almost four decades. He won a flawed election seven years ago and was re-elected in 2010 in a vote that edged closer toward constituting a free and fair multiparty contest.
Despite Gnassingbe's questionable past, Johnnie Carson, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, described the Togolese leader as one "determined to put in place a strong reform-minded government _ one that is democratic, multiparty and which opens up the country." He called the meeting an opportunity for Clinton to encourage Gnassingbe "along a reformist path, to continue to promote political reconciliation in his country and to speed on economic reforms."
The country also boasts the largest single private American investment in West Africa in over a decade: a new 100-megawatt power plant built in Lome by New York City-based Contour Global at a cost of over $200 million. Seated beside Gnassingbe, Clinton said President Barack Obama "believes as I believe that West Africa has great potential."
The message is akin to one Clinton took with her to Myanmar in November, becoming the first secretary of state to visit the Asian country in five decades. The military-led government, long among the world's most repressive and brutal, has since carried on with reforms and the release of hundreds more political prisoners. A national dialogue involving once-jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has gained momentum.
In Abidjan, Ivory Coast's biggest city, Clinton praised Ouattara's government for seeking accountability for crimes committed during the fighting that took place after the country's disputed 2010 election.
Rights groups say Ouattara hasn't done enough to prosecute members of his armed forces linked to massacres, even if he has launched an investigation and promised justice. But Clinton said the government was taking positive steps to meet the Ivorians' "need to see that the rule of law is working and that there is impartial justice."
Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have provided detailed documentation of alleged abuse by troops loyal to Ouattara. Gbagbo is being prosecuted at The Hague, and his senior officials are being pursued. But to date not a single official in Ouattara's military has been implicated despite accusations of setting villages afire, gang-raping women and executing the infirm and elderly.
"I am inspired by how quickly not only the government but the people have moved from the violence of last spring," Clinton said, praising economic recovery efforts after the war closed Abidjan's port, cut off cocoa exports and led bank accounts to be blocked.
Ivory Coast was once one of Africa's most prosperous nations, and Clinton said she recognized a "commitment that is in the air to build a better future."