Kwesi Amukwah, who sells Ghanaian soccer shirts, has nothing but praise for President Bush, if only because the world's most powerful leader will pay his western African nation a visit Wednesday. "You look at a small country like Ghana," says Mr. Amukwah, "and he still thinks of us."
His colleague Yaw Asare, adds admiringly, "I like Bush because he is a bold man, when he makes up his mind he just does it." And with this an argument breaks out. Mr. Asare praises Bush's toughness in dealing with Islamist terrorists; Amukwah criticizes the war in Iraq with equal vehemence.
The row fades, and Amukwah offers another explanation for why Mr. Bush and America are so popular in Africa: it still represents the dream of a better life. "American life is better than us – we see it on TV. And there are lots of jobs, but here the economics are not good, we struggle." Asare agrees with this enthusiastically.
Looking through the lens of 2001, it might have been difficult to predict that Africa would become the place on the planet where President Bush would be voted most popular. When Bush and his Republican Party came to power in 2001, the continent was low on the list of foreign policy priorities. Many fiscal conservatives promised to end foreign aid as we knew it, and to focus American tax dollars, diplomacy, and military might where American interests demanded.
Now, as Bush is midway through a six-day, five-nation tour of Africa, it's clear the world has changed.
This week, after signing a major $700 million US development package with Tanzania, Mr. Bush heard these words from his Tanzanian counterpart, President Jakaya Kikwete: "Different people may have different views about you and your administration and your legacy," he said. "We in Tanzania, if we are to speak for ourselves and for Africa, we know for sure that you, Mr. President, and your administration, have been good friends of our country and ... of Africa."
In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, eight of the Top 10 nations that gave America the highest approval ratings were African, a reflection of increases in American aid as well as trust in its institutions and leadership. (The other two nations in the Top 10? Israel, and America.)
"The thing is, Africa basically falls outside the geopolitical attention of American foreign policy, and as a whole, it tends to be noncontroversial," says Francis Kornegay, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "So it is not surprising that you would find a positive reception for certain policies in Africa," particularly those that offer development aid.
"There will be certain pockets of protest," he adds, notably over the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East and the war against terrorists. "Bush's foreign policy is globally unpopular, and that does tend to get reflected even in Africa. But it's not a deep-seated hostility. Africa is just not at the epicenter of America's conflicts."
Bush's second visit to Africa is meant to highlight several of his policy initiatives – on HIV and AIDS, on economic development, and on military ties – that have made a marked impact on the continent. In Tanzania, Bush cemented a long-term aid project designed to reward good governance and transparency with additional aid dollars. In Rwanda, President Bush will highlight his $15 billion program on AIDS treatment and prevention.
And in Liberia, Bush will discuss the objectives of America's new military command for Africa, known as AFRICOM, which was set up to give Africa as high a priority as, for example, the US Central Command does for the Middle East, or Pacific Command gives to Asia. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has stated her interest in hosting a permanent US military base on Liberian soil.
By choosing programs that have had positive results, Bush's Africa trip has the feel of a victory lap. In Rwanda, many people appreciate Bush's fight against terrorism; a few name his antimalaria and HIV/AIDS initiatives as success stories. But Bush also benefits from the friendship Rwandans feel for Americans in general. It's a sentiment inspired as much the Clinton Foundation – and other nonprofit groups whose names Rwandans easily rattle off – as by any of Bush's own initiatives.
"America is very good at [public] diplomacy," says Gasana Mutesi, president of Amani Africa, a Rwandan nongovernmental organization that helps street kids pay their school fees. "Americans try to include themselves in the society, especially young Americans."
American popularity in Rwanda has little to do with US programs like PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Program for AIDS Research, a program lacking a distinct public face. "When his [Bush's] money did come, it came through the ministerial level," which she says made it invisible to ordinary Rwandans.
"When he makes a decision, he fulfills the mission," says Baker Gasatura, a student at the School of Finance and Banking. Mr. Gasatura remembers Bush's last visit to Africa in 2003, when the president launched PEPFAR, and takes this return trip as evidence of Bush's honesty in dealing with the continent. "A politician who is a liar doesn't come back to see if what he promised is accomplished."
Even Rwandans who are not directly affected by US aid dollars often have a favorable impression of Bush for the same quality – self-assurance – that people elsewhere often find aggravating.
"I like the way he speaks. He's so confident," says Evode Ntizinira, a student at the Kigali Institute of Education. "Whenever I am eating a meal and he is speaking, I have to stop and listen."
Bush talks, says one Rwandan, "as if he is president of the whole world," a style young people say goes beyond rhetoric to action.
To a certain extent, it is America's lack of interference in Africa that makes it more popular than other Western powers, which had large colonial holdings here. For many Africans, politics is a distant concept, while the poverty of daily life – where 300 million Africans lack safe drinking water, 3,000 African children under the age of 5 die every day from malaria, and 1 in 16 African women die in childbirth – is the focus of attention. That's why many Ghanaians will see Bush's visit Tuesday as the arrival of a benefactor.
"America gives help to Africans and that is why Bush is popular," says James Semaha, a newspaper seller in Accra. "[Americans] give aid and loans to take care of the poor and we are poor here. It is very good [Bush] is visiting because it means he has something to give. He is coming to help, not just for a visit."