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Bush Visit Ends, Africa's Ills Remain

Bush had an opportunity to propose real ways to help Africa solve some of its problems. But on issues from foreign aid to debt relief to an African arms race, the president missed his chance.
 
 
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Africa was in big trouble before President Bush's recent five-day trip to the continent, and of course it still is now. But Bush could have done more. A few platitudes about the crime of slavery, the devastation of AIDS and other diseases, doublespeak on a possible U.S. peacekeeping force in Liberia and the saber-rattle of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe did nothing to point the way toward solutions to Africa's colossal problems.

A United Nations report issued the same week of Bush's visit found that 20 African countries ranked dead last on a list of economic development rates for the world's nations. At their present rates of growth, it will take these nations a century to achieve universal primary education, and 150 years to cut poverty in half and child mortality by two-thirds.

Much of the blame for the famine, disease, poverty and corruption that seem endemic to many African countries can be dumped squarely on the backs of a long parade of African dictators, despots and demagogues. While the five carefully handpicked nations that Bush visited have stable, functioning democracies, and excepting Nigeria, have relatively good human rights records, they are aberrations. Africa's dictators have killed, maimed and terrorized their citizens, rigged or rejected free elections and systematically looted their countries' treasuries while living in palatial splendor. Their greed and dictatorial rule have locked their nations into destructive and near permanent cycles of poverty, war, disease and dependency that have become Africa's trademark.

Meanwhile, Africa's military rulers have squandered millions of their countries' meager funds on sophisticated weapons, mostly to keep themselves in power. They have turned the Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and now Liberia into killing fields.

Then there's the AIDS epidemic. Nearly 70 percent of the estimated 36 million persons worldwide afflicted with AIDS/HIV are in sub-Sahara Africa. In South Africa, more than 10 percent of the total population has HIV/AIDS. Only a tiny fraction of those with the disease have any hope of getting the potential life-sustaining anti-retroviral drugs. While Bush's pledge of $15 billion to fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa and the Caribbean is much needed, Congress has yet to cough up the money. The first dollars will not flow until the start of the next fiscal year, October 1. By then, thousands more Africans could be dead from the disease. Bush, and the African leaders who wined and dined him, made no mention of the stalled AIDS funding.

Also, Bush is asking for $5 billion to fund his proposed Millennium Challenge Account to spur development in poor nations. The hitch is that Congress must approve the funds, and even if it does, the money is not exclusively earmarked for African nations. Bush made no mention of this initiative during his Africa visit, nor gave any indication that the United States would drastically raise the amount of foreign aid it gives to Africa. Nor did Bush call on Japan and the wealthier European nations to increase their aid to Africa. According to the U.N. report, these nations could and should double their foreign aid to spur African development.

If Bush offered nothing new to African nations during his visit, why did he go? The continent is of vital potential economic and strategic importance to the United States. It contains a vast portion of the world's copper, bauxite, chrome, uranium, gold and petroleum supplies. The growing list of pro-U.S. African client states provide President Bush with reliable political allies in his war against terrorism and the fight against Muslim fundamentalism, as well as potential military bases.

Africa was also the perfect public forum the president could use to self-promote and evangelize against AIDS. This spruced up his image as the "compassionate conservative." Furthermore, Bush hoped his Africa foray would play well with African American voters. It didn't. In a BlackAmericaWeb.com poll taken during Bush's trip, nearly 90 percent of respondents said they still oppose his policies.

African nations remain firmly locked in the grip of terrible poverty, disease, war and autocratic rule. The United States and wealthy nations can help lift that grip by massively increasing investment in African agriculture, transportation, manufacturing and technology; restructuring Africa's crushing debt; encouraging greater regional integration and cooperation; condemning African nations' disastrous military arms race; and, most important, challenging African nations to establish real democratic rule. Bush's visit offered little hope that any of this will happen.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson ( Ehutchi344@aol.com) is a political columnist and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).