The Clintons boarded Air Force One shortly before 6 p.m. EST for a nine-hour flight to their first stopÂ—Accra, Ghana.
For the longest foreign trip of his presidency, Mr. Clinton plans to promote U.S. trade relations with Africa.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says it's important for Americans to know that Africa is no longer a continent defined by ethnic warfare, famine and violence.
"It used to be that U.S. policy makers, when they thought of Africa at all, would ask 'What can we do for Africa or what can we do about Africa?' Today the right question is, 'What can we do with Africa?'"
Mr. Clinton brings with him a plan that forges free trade agreements with 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa that are achieving solid growth.
"If you can get them into trade, free markets privatization and the advancement of democratic institutions, it works infiinitely better," said Rep. Philip Crane, who is sponsoring a U.S.-Africa trade bill.
The plan still needs the approval of Congress. One snag is the opposition of America's textile manufacturers who warn the trade plan would largely benefit Asia, and cost jobs at home.
"It will open up Africa as a super highway for Chinese goods and other Asian goods to come through Africa into the U.S. to gain the benefits that have been offered to Africa in the bill," said Carlos Moore of the Textile Manufacturers Institute.
In keeping with the theme of pushing for a business partnership with Africa, the president is visiting countries chosen for their progress toward open trade and democracy.
Mr. Clinton's first stop will be Ghana to congratulate the democratically elected president, then Uganda, followed by a side trip to Rwanda to meet with survivors of massacres. Afterwards he will travel to South Africa and talks with Nelson Mandela, and finally to Botswana and Senegal.
Also on the president's agenda will be controversial talks with the Congo's anti-democratic leader Laurent Kabila. Albright has defended the disputed meeting.
"We will continue to press the case for freedom and human rights. And we will join with Africa's best leaders in declaring that the era of the big man who comes to power, stays for life and robs his country blind is over," Albright said.
President Clinton will be accompanied by a large contingent of black American leaders, including his special envoy to Africa, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater will also join Mr. Clinton's tour.
For Mrs. Clinton it will be a return trip. A year ago she and Chelsea went to six African nations.
It's a busy schedule, but, for Mr. Clinton, a welcome break from Washington, where he has ben under siege for two months over allegations he had a sexual affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and urged her to lie about it under oath.
Still, as National Security Adviser Sandy Berger pointed out, the president of the United States can never really get away.
"Well, you come with us," Berger joked to reporters.
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