20 minutes with Bill Clinton - up against 'big poppa'

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Former US President Bill Clinton has been travelling around Africa with his daughter, Chelsea, visiting Clinton Foundation projects. He spoke to the BBC's Komla Dumor about Obama's legacy in Africa and the growing influence of China.

I met Bill Clinton in Zanzibar. The interview took place in a small open park near the Indian ocean. As I waited, I recalled the comments of one of my former schoolmates, a big Texan who worked in the Clinton White House.

When I told him I was going to interview his ex boss he exclaimed with: "Hoss! You're going up against big poppa."

Find out more

Bill Clinton and Komla Dumor
  • Watch Komla Dumor's interview with Bill Clinton on Newsnight on Monday 12 August at 22:35 on BBC Two
  • Our World: Clinton in Africa will be broadcast on Friday 16 August at 23:30 GMT on BBC World News.

Mr Clinton's people had offered 20 minutes.

Around 4pm without much fanfare the 42nd president of the United States walked across the street from a hotel where he had been having lunch. Under the watchful eye of his Secret Service detail he strolled up to me and shook my hand.

Mr Clinton is a tall man, 6ft 2in (1.88m). He has aged considerably, carries much less weight than during his presidency. He is now a vegetarian and has had some well publicised health issues.

But his sharpness of mind was immediately evident. We stood there for a moment sizing each other up. He held me by the hand and started speaking.

In 2010 Ghana beat the USA in a football match at the World Cup in South Africa. Bill Clinton was there, he remembered the game. He talked about players and moments that I had long forgotten. He was not happy with the outcome but conceded:

"You guys deserved to win."

Bill Clinton

  • Born William Jefferson Blythe in Hope, Arkansas, on 19 August 1946
  • Studied at Georgetown University and spent two years at Oxford University
  • Married Hillary Rodham in 1975
  • Elected to the White House in 1992
  • In November 1995, became the first US president to visit Northern Ireland
  • Re-elected as president in 1996
  • After leaving office set up the William J Clinton Foundation to promote and address international humanitarian causes

So, what about President Obama's record in Africa? The president has been criticised for what some call an incoherent Africa policy.

Would Obama leave a lasting legacy for the continent like George Bush's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) or Bill Clinton's African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)?

"I think he does have a good legacy," says Mr Clinton, "but I do think when he took office our economy, the wheels were coming off. He had to wind down a war in Iraq. Then he had to deal with how to bring down the conflict in Afghanistan.

"He's had one or two other things to do, but I do think that he cares about Africa and I'll be surprised if he doesn't spend quite a bit of time on it in his last three years."

So is America playing catch up - with China usurping America as the preeminent power in Africa? According to research by the Financial Times, the Chinese banks offered loans of at least $110bn (£69.2bn) to governments and firms in developing countries in 2009 and 2010, more than the World Bank.

Bill Clinton meets Rwandan President, Paul Kagame Mr Clinton spoke of his support for President Paul Kagame of Rwanda

"On everything but healthcare," says Mr Clinton. "If you look at it, what America invests, both in the public funds like PEPFAR and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and in the investments made by the Gates Foundation, and the work that we do here. What the United States does in trying to build infrastructure for healthcare dwarfs what everybody else does.

"I don't believe we spend enough money on basic economic growth initiatives. So I won't argue that the Chinese are going to get a lot of good will.

"I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing for America if African countries appreciate both what we try to do to help their kids stay alive and what the Chinese do to give them better infrastructures and I think that we've got to try to create a future that we can share with the Chinese, not one where everything is a zero sum game."

The clock was ticking and I could see Mr Clinton's handlers out of the corner of my eye - 20 minutes goes quickly.

Hillary Clinton Clinton says he does not know if his wife will run for president in 2016

I moved on to human rights and his bold support for Rwanda and its President Paul Kagame.

The Kagame government has been accused by the UN of backing some rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government has denied these claims. Among Rwanda's strongest defenders, Bill Clinton:

"Well first of all... the matter has not been fully litigated," says Mr Clinton.

Start Quote

I didn't know if I had one more race left in me the last time but I thought the president was getting a raw deal and I was glad to try to help him”

End Quote Bill Clinton

"Secondly it's complicated by the fact that the section of Congo near Rwanda is full of people who perpetrated the genocide, who spurned the president's offer to come home and not go to prison and you can't get around the fact that the economic and social gains in Rwanda have been nothing short of astonishing under Kagame, and he says he's going to leave when his time's up.

"So I understand that there's some people in the human rights community who believe that every good thing that has happened in Rwanda should be negated by what they allege that they have done in the eastern Congo."

It was over. At least officially.

We got up and we started to stroll along the promenade.

"What if," I demanded, "there was another race for the White House in 2016, with Hillary?"

Watch the Newsnight film in full

He laughed.

"If I knew the answer I wouldn't tell you. Happily I can be honest, I don't know... I'm for whatever my wife wants to do.

"I didn't know if I had one more race left in me the last time but I thought the president was getting a raw deal and I was glad to try to help him, but whatever happens there I'm going to keep doing this. This is what my job is. I love this job, I love doing this foundation work."

It was time to say goodbye. I thanked him and he walked on to the crowd of people who gathered to watch us. We had been talking for close to an hour.

Watch Komla Dumor's interview with Bill Clinton on Newsnight on Monday 12 August at 22:35 on BBC Two

Our World: Clinton in Africa will be broadcast on Friday 16 August at 23:30 GMT on BBC World News.

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