Bush's African Sweep

President Bush meets a Botswanan elephant
U.S. President Bush meets an elephant in Botswana, July 10 (Photo: Luke Frazza/AFP-Getty Images).

The excitement that greeted President Bush’s five-country tour of Africa in early July was tempered with skepticism in the African press. Many commentators argued that, despite his much-vaunted aid package of US$15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS, the president had come to the continent to advance his own agenda and cement his image as a “compassionate conservative” with American voters.

A July 3 editorial in the Mail & Guardian called the visit “hard-eyed self-service posing as a mercy mission,” and The Post’s Azwell Banda (June 29) said that the president’s trip had “nothing to do with helping [Africans] resolve our many-sided problems and crises [and]…everything to do with his personal political survival in the 2004 elections in the United States.”

“Bush is going to spend a sum of money ($15 billion, to combat HIV/AIDS) surpassing any his predecessors committed to Africa, and yet he will never be liked on this continent,” wrote Gitau Warigi in The Sunday Nation (July 6).

Certainly, Bush failed to win the support of former South African president Nelson Mandela, who notably once called him a leader who “can’t think properly.” Mandela, who generally meets with visiting foreign dignitaries in South Africa, arranged his schedule so as to be out of the country during Bush’s visit—thereby depriving Bush of “a diplomatic boost that the American leader badly needs in Africa,” according to Samwel Rambaya in the East African Standard (July 10).

The trip, which began on July 7, took the president on a whistle-stop tour of Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, and Nigeria. Days before the trip began, Liberia’s worsening civil war had prompted calls for a deployment of U.S. troops in the region, and on July 7, a U.S. military team arrived in Liberia to assess conditions on the ground. As the situation in the country deteriorated, some commentators saw the issue of U.S. troop deployment as a litmus test of Bush’s commitment to the continent.

“Refusal to deploy troops would expose the shallowness of Bush’s African commitment,” wrote Business Day’s Francis Kornegay (July 7). But despite calls by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for a deployment of 2,000 U.S. troops, Bush stopped short of committing U.S. forces to the conflict while on the continent.

In South Africa, Bush also had to navigate the tricky question of whether to endorse President Thabo Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward Zimbabwe. Recent calls for increased action from Zimbabwe’s neighbors by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had prompted speculation that Bush might use his visit to urge a more active stance on the issue. But in a press conference following his meeting with Mbeki, Bush endorsed Mbeki’s views and called him the “point man on this subject.”

“It’s folly for Bush to think that he can solve Zimbabwe’s problems via South Africa,” fulminated Taungana Ndoro in the Financial Gazette (July 10). But a July 11 editorial in the Zimbabwe Independent approved that “the Americans are dangling a package of international assistance to a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, which they hope will provide an inducement to Mbeki to translate his wish list into something more practical.”

Other economic benefits that the president touted on the trip included an aid package of $100 million to East African nations for anti-terrorism measures and an increase in the Millennium Challenge Account, targeted at developing countries. But such economic aid “pales into insignificance when compared to the damage caused to Africa’s weak economies by the United States’ protectionist trade policies,” read an editorial in the Daily News (July 9).

Others criticized Bush for visiting countries whose presidents had subverted the democratic process. In Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni is campaigning for an unconstitutional third term in office, David Ouma Balikowa speculated in The Monitor (July 4) that Museveni would use the visit “to project the image that even if neighboring Kenya has made major steps toward political pluralism…[Museveni] is still held in higher esteem by the United States.”

Likewise, there was criticism of Bush’s visit to the oil-rich nation of Nigeria, where opposition parties have mounted a legal challenge to President Olusegun Obasanjo’s controversial April election victory.

“What happened in Nigeria during the recent elections is certainly not unknown to the Bush administration,” read a July 11 editorial in the Daily Trust. “The Americans...fear that any hard-line attitude on the result of Nigeria’s election may tear the country apart. And they don’t want to be responsible.”

But Bush’s African sojourn offered at least one enduring image: a photograph of the American president standing at a former slave prison on Senegal’s Goree Island, holding hands with President Abdoulaye Wade. “Recently, U.S. President George Bush was seen holding hands with a man in public and with cameras from all over the world recording it! And it was a black man at that!” marveled Yemi Toure in The Accra Daily Mail (July 15). “[A]ll kinds of energy and ideas radiate off that one picture in all different directions....So much so that it will take some time to fully contemplate it all.”  

Mail & Guardian
liberal, Johannesburg, South Africa
The Post
independent, Lusaka, Zambia
The Sunday Nation
independent weekly, Nairobi, Kenya
East African Standard
liberal, Nairobi, Kenya
Business Day
business-oriented, Johannesburg, South Africa
Financial Gazette
independent weekly, Harare, Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe Independent
opposition weekly, Harare, Zimbabwe
Daily News
pro-opposition, Harare, Zimbabwe
The Monitor
independent, Kampala, Uganda
Daily Trust
conservative, Muslim-oriented, Abuja, Nigeria
The Accra Daily Mail
independent, privately owned, Accra, Ghana