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Friday, February 22, 2008

Bush’s exit will better US foreign policy towards Africa





















US President George Bush has just made his last hooray lap in Africa, swinging through five countries — Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia — promoting economic development and fighting HIV/AIDS.

This likely being the last visit to Africa as leader of the most powerful nation on earth, Bush is keen to be remembered as the president who cared about Africa, who stood with the African people in the hour of need. On balance, he did more than his predecessor Bill Clinton in highlighting the fight against HIV/AIDS, by giving billions of dollars towards treatment and advancing the research on the illness in sub-Sahara Africa. The US has spent $15b fighting HIV/AIDS since 2003, and President Bush has pushed US Congress to increase the allocation of dollars. Today, thanks to Bush’s unwavering focus on fighting HIV/AIDS, more than one million people in sub-Saharan Africa have life-saving anti-retroviral drugs.

However, elsewhere on the continent, especially on the issue of democracy, security and stability, President Bush slept at the helm, slumbering on while Africa burned. It should be noted that his tour of Africa did not include those countries currently experiencing the most turmoil. Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Chad, and recently, Kenya, did not feature on the President’s itinerary. It was pathetic, almost comic, to hear Bush stumble on his words trying to explain why, after naming the genocide in Darfur, America then stood idly by while more people died. The excuse that it was not advisable to send American troops to “another Muslim country” was at best a slap in the face to the people of Darfur, at a time when others are asked to join America’s war on terror; a naked hypocrisy that blatantly says: “your life is not worth the life of an American.”

The reality is simply that the Bush government could not afford to move into Sudan because it was simply too afraid to upset the government of Sudan, which was busy courting China to carry out oil exploration in the country. Already drawing fully one-fifth of its oil from Nigeria, America is scrambling to find other stable sources of oil, and Sudan happens to have a large untapped reserve. By tip-toeing around President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s government, George Bush hoped to wrest control from China of the lucrative oil deals. That has not exactly happened, but with enough diplomacy, America is still salivating at the possibility of being rewarded some of Sudan’s oil concessions.

America’s quid pro quo attitude towards Africa was crystallised in its reaction to the post-election violence in Kenya. Although Jendayi Fraser was dispatched at the start of the bloodletting that saw over 1,000 dead and more than 250,000 Kenyans displaced, the lingering view is that had America spoken much more forcefully about the need for a compromise, the chaos could have been largely averted.

On Monday, further exposing his disengaged attitude toward Africa, Bush dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Kenya—something he should have done from the beginning. More importantly, having alighted on Sunday for a visit in Tanzania, how much would it have taken for Bush to personally drop in on neighbouring Kenya for a one-hour chat with Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki, and deliver America’s insistence that Kenyan leaders must straighten out the post-election mess, and that America would not have it any other way? Such a visit would have underscored the important role that America can still play in engendering peace and democracy in Africa. Sadly, Bush chose instead to go to Rwanda to pay respect to the genocide memorial (nothing wrong with that) while ignoring the potential of genocide among the living.

During his visit, Bush pushed hard for the establishment of Africom, the US military’s new command for Africa, which he argues will help fight war against terror and drug traffickers. Really? What about pursuing errant African leaders who recklessly play fast and loose with the lives of millions for the pursuit of personal fortunes? How about using such a military muscle to clean up some of the worst offenders of human rights in the neighbourhood?

Bush’s general lack of interest in world affairs (other than Iraq) and specifically toward Africa is the reason many are keenly following the current US presidential campaign in which two of the three remaining contenders—Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—are speaking of a different kind of world, a world where America will attempt to reassert its moral authority on world affairs.

Bouyed by the possibility of a new America in world politics, the youth of America who have in the past been relegated to bystanders, and ignored by mainstream politics, is saying loudly that it wants change now. And so with cell-phones and computer savvy, American youth have almost single-handed lifted Barack Obama, a relatively unknown junior senator from Illinois, into a political movement during the primaries. Whether or not he wins or loses the Democratic Party nomination in the summer, Obama has already injected a new conversation into American foreign policy: never fear to speak to your enemies. Such a new attitude, regardless of who wins the November presidential election, can only mean better outcome in America’s foreign policy towards the African Continent.

Anything will be better than Bush’s shut-eye approach that has seen African largely ignored for the last eight years, something his five days of visit did not change.

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