Bush Does Better in Africa

Is George Bush the first president to give Africa the attention it deserves? Given Bush's poor standing among African-American voters, such a claim sounds strange. Nine out of ten African Americans voted for Bush's opponents in the last election -- and are likely to do the same in the next. But while Democrats are the party of African Americans, Bush is proving that the Republicans are the party of Africa.

Bush's interest in Africa, the poorest region of the world, is profoundly surprising -- and not the least to Africans who realize that America's war on terrorism has distracted attention and money from the region's pressing problems of civil war, HIV/AIDS and chronic under-development. Yet Bush's engagement in Africa may well overshadow in significance the other foreign activities of his presidency.

How is this possible? Won't Bush be best remembered for his pursuit of terrorists? He is, after all, the President who overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan. He invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein. He called for the spread of democracy in the Muslim world, giving tacit encouragement to dissenters in Egypt and Pakistan -- the most important American client-states, whose de facto military dictators are truly puppets of Washington.

Yet Bush's most publicized -- and dubious -- actions on the world stage may prove his most ephemeral. Afghanistan and Iraq may return to their historic arc no matter Bush's insistence that freedom is another name for the casual tyranny and relentless chaos of a failed state. Bush's promotion of what he calls "democracy" is likely to be a spectacular failure if only because the president is committed to defending those dictators that do his bidding or at least pretend to. And Bush's war on terror, if it continues to prove inconclusive, will be ultimately discarded, replaced by a more pliable concept such as "peaceful co-existence."

Bush's interest on Africa, by contrast, may contain the seeds of a significant legacy -- by virtue of his decision to give Africa the most sustained attention by any president since James Monroe nearly 200 years ago imagined re-colonizing parts of the "dark continent" with freed slaves.

In the 1800s, the U.S. generally ignored sub-Saharan Africa, merely observing Europe's dominance over the region. The U.S. played a small role even the de-colonization of Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the creation of dozens of independent black African nations helped fuel the civil rights movement.

During the Cold War -- the period of fierce rivalry with the Soviet Union, from the late 1940s until the end of the 1980s -- U.S. intervention in sub-Saharan Africa was destructive and largely concerned with limiting Soviet influence in the region. Americans respected and even pandered to Europe's need to continue its economic exploitation of Africa.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. lost all strategic interest in Africa. War raged throughout the sub-continent and the U.S. did nothing. Inaction proved most shameful in Rwanda, where some have argued that with a small show of soldiers on the ground in 1994, the U.S. could have prevented the massacre of hundreds of people. Less famously, the U.S. failure to intervene in Liberia led to the bloody collapse of this former colony of American slaves. To be sure, the U.S. sent troops to Somalia, but poor planning led to a humiliating scene of a dead American soldier dragged through the streets of a Somali city.

Neither the first President Bush nor President Bill Clinton ever found a reason to engage Africa that went beyond empty rhetoric. To be sure, Clinton visited Africa (the first president ever to do so) and remains popular with Africans. But Africa suffered on Clinton's watch, falling further behind the rest of the world in almost every measure of health, education and wealth.

The story is different under the second President Bush. He has called for increased funding to fight AIDS, and his visit to Africa in July 2003 underscored his desire to integrate Africa into his war on terror. Despite scant evidence of Al Qaeda operatives at work in the sub-Saharan, the region is now blithely described as "the new front in the war on terror" by no less an authority than the august New York think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bush needs victories in his terror war, hollow or substantial, and Africa provides him with a stage to play out his gloomy fantasies. By forging links with African leaders, Bush hopes to show that his obsession with battling terrorism isn't misplaced but is essential to improving global security. His recent de-militarization deal with Libya's President Muammar Gaddafi illustrates the public-relations gains Bush hopes to enjoy from his African alliances.

Gaddafi is a North African with deep ties, fueled by his country's money, with sub-Saharan African leaders. While mainly viewed as an Arab and Islamic nationalist, Gaddafi has never held sway over Middle Eastern oil kingdoms. But his influence is great to the south with oil-poor black African nations where Muslims and Christians uneasily share power. Gaddafi's deal with Bush, the most internationally reviled American president in modern history, gives Africans a fresh reason to re-consider their low opinion of America's president.

The U.S. role in resolving the civil war in Sudan may give Africans -- and Bush's domestic critics -- another reason to consider Bush worthy of the name "African president." A country essentially split between Arab Muslims in the north and black Christians in the south, Sudan won independence from the British in 1956 and has seen civil war for nearly its entire history.

Sudan is an immense country that sits across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and borders both Egypt and Libya to the North. But the country, while dominated by an Arab elite for generations, stretches into central Africa and borders the Congo, Kenya and even Uganda.

As a bridge between Islam and Christianity, Sudan is a flashpoint for conflict -- and a test case for the how Bush administration plans to peacefully manage tensions between these two antagonistic religions in other parts of the world (most notably in Middle East).

Prior to 9/11, President Bush identified the Sudan conflict as perhaps his top foreign policy objective. He selected a former U.S. Senator, John Danforth, to reconcile Sudan's warring regions. Danforth's appointment was announced only days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and was thus immediately eclipsed by these events.

Yet Bush's commitment to resolving the Sudan war endured, if quietly, because right-wing Christians objected to the Arab practice of taking their black southern brethren as slaves. While slavery is not widely practiced by Arabs in Sudan, the practice persists and created the basis for an unlikely alliance between African-Americans, such as Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, and the Christian Right.

Secretary of State Powell is central to Bush's efforts to end Sudan's civil war and to forge a power-sharing agreement between Arabs and Christians, northerners and southerners. News reports out of Khartoum, Sudan's capital, suggests that Powell and the Americans are on the verge of engineering a breakthrough. In African terms, the resolution of the Sudan war would be a huge achievement, providing hope that Muslim-Christian relations, badly strained in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, can be eased.

Sudan is also crucial for another reason: The country began to export oil in 1999 and it holds substantial supply of oil, mainly in its southern zone. Sharing the oil wealth is probably the most vexing question in the negotiations over ending Sudan's civil war.

President Bush prefers to cite altruistic motives in assisting Africa, but oil is the chief reason for his engagement in the region. African countries, notably Nigeria and Angola, already supply an important share of America's imported oil. The African share is growing, too. New supplies are coming on stream from Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Sudan and other African nations.

The needs of Big Oil did not go unnoticed by President Bill Clinton, but following 9/11 -- and the backlash against the U.S. dependence on Saudi oil imports -- the political importance of finding Arab alternatives grew. Through an accident of geology, it turns out that the best hope for reducing American reliance on Saudi (and Iraqi) oil lies with African oil producers.

For Bush, Sudan represents a potential trifecta. By creating a peace out of one of Africa's most intractable wars, he satisfies his Bible-thumping domestic supporters, ignites hope among African-Americans and delivers a victory to his globalist oil friends, who can now pump Sudan's oil without fear of being accused of abetting either warriors or slavers.

Then there is a fourth prize for Bush in Sudan: a victory in the war on terror. In the early 1990s, Sudan gave refuge to Osama bin-Laden and his gang. President Clinton even ordered an attack on the country in 1998, vainly trying to kill bin-Laden. Al-Quad is long gone, but by creating a peace in Sudan, Bush will gain what he wants the most in an election year: another chance to say he's making the world safer, despite the costs in American lives and dollars and despite the evident instability around the world that his policies and actions are generating.

Sudan, then, is one of these obscure places that Americans scratch their heads over and wonder about all the fuss. But then Iraq once fit that description, too.

G. Pascal Zachary served in 2003 as Ghana director for Journalists for Human Rights, a media training group based in Toronto.


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