Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Abidjan/Lome, Jan 17

Togo. All we saw was this presidential "palace", but it was a sight worth seeing.

We spent the morning in Abidjan where Clinton met with Ouattara, who is trying to stabilize things after their recent civil war. They were nice enough to drop all of the Internet security firewalls for the presidential palace so we could hook up to the web, but it was still an awfully slow connection and I wasn't able to get much out. The comms have been pretty bad throughout the trip -- in most places the blackberry didn't work, longdistance calls drop, etc. I was filing stuff through by text message for most of the day in Liberia.

Anyway after her meeting with Ouattara Clinton made a speedy stop at an NGO, where she watched kids put on a skit about political reconciliation, and then we headed back out to the airport.

Clinton was the first ever U.S. secretary of state to visit Togo, a former French colony without a lot of economic or strategic least until they were elected to the U.N. Security Council last year.

U.S. officials say they believe the young president, took over on the death of his father one of Africa's "presidents for life", was actually a budding democrat, and Clinton was here to check him out and talk Security Council.

The guy may be a closet George Washington but his palace was 100 percent dictator. Its a huge, newly built colossus, topped by a dome and all done in what looked like red granite. As we pulled up, rows of women cheered and ululated while a little military band piped up.

Inside, weirdly, they still had some Christmas lights up -- all somberly surveyed by what I took to be special presidential guards equipped with red capes and ceremonial swords. They refused to smile.

Clinton went into her meeting and we went to a hold room equipped with blazing fast Internet, cookies, and Guinness. The palace is so new that they hadn't even hung up the artwork was all sitting in the floor, waiting to go up.

After about an hour Clinton emerged and the president walked her back down the red carpeted hallways, past the guards, and out to the entryway where the women, joined by drummers and dancers, yelled and screamed. You could tell Clinton REALLY wanted to go over to say hello to them, but the whole thing looked a little complicated what with both U.S. security and Togolese security milling around so she decided just to wave.

We got back in the van and back out to the airport -- Lome doesn't seem to have much going on, but they made sure by keeping the roads clear with roadblocks manned by soldiers in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.

Clinton seemed impressed by the president, tho, so I guess he said the right things. A George Washington University graduate, apparently.

Fourteen hours home, with a refueling stop in Cape Verde.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Monrovia Jan 16

This picture does absolutely no justice to the event...but it is the only one I have on my Blackberry.

We were at the 2nd inauguration of Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf today, and it was a doozy. The local grandees were out in force and wearing the most amazing outfits -- towering headscarfs, huge sunglasses, tailored skirts in every color you can think of, slick British-style suits on the men and not a drip of sweat in sight. All them more amazing because it must have been 95 degrees and the inauguration ceremony went on for hours.

I wish I had taken more pictures -- we followed Clinton up the red carpet to the VIP area and all the people were laughing and cheering and reaching out their hands...a hilarious high fashion gauntlet, West Africa style. I'll try to find some more pictures to add.

We got in at around 8:30 in the morning. The small airport is what you might call unpretentious, and the first thing that hits you as you get off the plane is not so much the heat but a very pungent smell. It turns out (perhaps happily, given the potential alternatives) that the smell comes from the huge Firestone rubber works next to the airport compound. Firestone has been a major (if not the major) investor for decades and the airport was apparently built in part to serve its needs. Its a searing, acrid atmosphere and certainly lets the visitor know that things are a little different in Liberia.

The airport is also about an hour out of town. We convoyed in, through lush green scrub and scattered houses. Once you are in Monrovia itself things are a little more built up, but not crowded by any means. It looks, basically, like its been through the wringer which of course it has.

Clinton's trip to West Africa, the first of what she says will be her last year on the job, and her first stop was today's celebration of Johnson-Sirleaf, the only woman head of state in Africa, and a fellow champion of both development and women's rights.

I wonder (and I guess doubt) whether a male U.S. secretary of state would have made the trip, but for Clinton it was a must do: it hits all the themes that she is most passionate about, and perhaps can give a boost to a country that has seen pretty much the worst of everything.

We stopped at the foreign ministry for Clinton's one-on-one with the president, and then headed to the legislature where the inauguration was held outside. There was lots of music, lots of reading of titles, and lots of people crowded around. She took the oath and a series of celebratory cannon bursts were could feel it in your bones.

Johnson Sirleaf gave a very good speech -- about how Liberia has work to do, but has "turned its face toward democracy". Not hard to see why Clinton is a fan.

It was pretty damn hot tho..and by the time the whole thing was over I was feeling the long overnight flight and the lack of water (we'd been warned not to drink too much before the ceremony because there were no toilets beyond what were described as "Liberian porta-potties" -- not an option). I slept in the van back to the plane, and then we made the short 1 hour flight to Abidjan where we are spending the night.

More on that tomorrow