Bush's unexpected, but welcome, attention to Africa

President Bush is to be commended for his decision to visit Africa this week. His five-nation trip - to Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana, and South Africa - will be only the third to the continent by a sitting US president. It's likely, though, that the White House and its African hosts differ greatly in their expectations for this landmark visit.

Unexpectedly, this administration has taken a real interest in Africa, not solely due to the global war on terrorism. This genuine interest was underscored by Mr. Bush's speech at the recent US-Africa Business Summit in Washington. He said many of the right things, primarily emphasizing the need to stimulate economic growth and alleviate human suffering. This combination of clear-eyed economic realism with wide-eyed idealism is typical of the administration's vision of Africa.

On the one hand, it has sought major funding increases for HIV/AIDS and education programs, and provided significant humanitarian assistance. On the other, it has expanded relationships with important - though often unsavory - petroleum-producing countries, and pushed hard for Africans to accept American genetically modified foods despite widespread skepticism about their safety. Simply put, Bush policy toward Africa often falls into either the category of charity or commerce. Understandably, many Africans believe that the issues of most pertinence to them lie somewhere in between the extremes.

Take Nigeria, one of the president's destinations and Africa's most populous country (population 130 million). Washington tends to view Nigeria mainly as a source of oil and regional peacekeeping troops. However, Nigerians instead wonder about the future of democracy in a nation increasingly divided along ethnic and religious lines. Indeed, Nigeria may well be a harbinger for a string of nations stretching along the West African coast from Ivory Coast to Cameroon, each having poor, isolated Muslim regions at odds with more favored, southern Christian and animist regions. Fault lines in some of these states are already showing, and troublemakers from as far afield as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are ready to exploit them.

Another of Bush's stops, Senegal, is much more religiously and culturally homogenous, and it faces very different challenges. With an extraordinarily entrepreneurial people and a tradition of democratic government, Senegal might have been an economic showcase in West Africa. Unfortunately, like many countries in the desolate Sahel, it is blessed with neither great natural resources nor capable economic management, and it limps along with funds generated by peanuts, fish, tourism, and salary remittances from its citizens abroad. Many young Senegalese men, seeing no future at home, can be found on the streets of Washington, Paris, Rome, and elsewhere, hustling to make a living, while their sisters at home turn increasingly to prostitution. The White House's panacea for Africa's economic ills - the vastly oversold Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) - will do little to help these people.

South Africa presents yet another set of complex issues for Bush to absorb. It is proof that a first-world economy and parliamentary democracy are no guarantees of success. Despite generally solid leadership and abundant natural and human resources, it is plagued by violent crime, a staggering AIDS crisis, a flood of illegal immigrants, and extreme racial polarization. Without effective action in combating these ills, the country faces long-term decline, a prospect that will hurt the entire region.

Solutions to Africa's problems are neither simple nor easy, but some are fairly well known to observers of the continent. On the economic front, in addition to extending AGOA, the US needs to actively help promote regional economic integration. The economic microstates that make up much of Africa are not viable alone and will only thrive through regional groupings of the sort that are being effectively built in East Africa.

The other immediate challenge for many African nations is whether they'll survive the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Bush has rightly made this a centerpiece of his humanitarian policy toward the continent, and he should continue to vigorously push Congress to appropriate the needed funding. But more than money is needed. Millions of Africans need immediate access to free antiretroviral drugs - and the White House must use its business connections to get pharmaceutical giants to bring the price of these drugs to levels affordable for African health facilities.

Finally, the US needs to give muscle to the president's promise "to help establish peace and security across the continent." This is a tall order, and one that is only marginally helped by the administration's fixation on fighting terrorism. What Africa really needs is a strong and responsive regional peacemaking and peacekeeping force, backed up by American training and logistics. Only then will we see an end to the kind of spectacle we witnessed last month when a US warship moored off Monrovia as a security precaution (for American citizens possibly threatened by that country's civil war) sat idly as Liberian civilians were slaughtered a few miles away by thugs with guns.

The president has gone out on a limb by insisting that ours is a long-term commitment to Africa. There's very little political capital to be gained in making such difficult promises. He deserves our full support and, when necessary, our constructive criticism.

Chris Hennemeyer spent the past 19 years working in relief and development in sub-Saharan Africa with Catholic Relief Services. He is now an international consultant in human rights issues in Washington.

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