The images in the press of the recent presidential tour of Africa were eye-catching, perfectly composed photo-ops; President Bush bending down to gaze into the eyes of a young AIDS orphan in Uganda, warmly embracing President Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria. Had the photographers trained their lenses a little off to the side, they would have revealed some less-heartwarming scenes.
In Senegal, for example, the President’s first stop, the capital city was in lockdown mode. In the days leading up to Bush’s arrival, residents of Dakar reacted furiously to the severe measures being taken for the presidential visit. US Secret Service men were turning up in hotels and nightclubs, and residents complained of being kept awake by the steady roar of US Army helicopters circling over Senegal’s capital city. Phone service was disrupted because US security required 400 phone lines. And most outrageous, on the Saturday night prior to Bush’s visit, Senegalese security forces, collaborating with their US counterparts, rounded up and detained over 1,000 people “suspected of criminal links,” reported the Agence France-Presse. By Monday night, the eve of Bush’s arrival, Dakar was totally shut down, and major roads in and out of the city were closed.
On Tuesday Dakar’s citizens woke up to a city paralyzed, its buses running empty, its bustling markets eerily silent. In La Place de l’Independence, the city’s financial district, trading was closed. At Cheikh Anta Diop University, students protested Bush’s visit and with it the suspension of national exams.
The presidential plane landed at a deserted Senghor International Airport. In the terminal, a group of Senegalese journalists who’d been told to arrive at 4 AM surged forward to join their American colleagues surrounding presidents Bush and Wade. They were quickly forced back by a member of Bush’s security team; Michael Pelletier, the US embassy’s cultural attaché, was quoted in Senegalese newspapers Le Sud and Wal Fadjri screaming at the assembled local reporters, “Get back in your pen, or no journalist is leaving the airport, I’m counting to three!” And so for the rest of his tour of the continent, the President limited reporters to two questions, and only from American reporters.
On the way from the airport to the presidential palace, where jubilant crowds of thousands had lined the streets to cheer the entrance of President Clinton in 1998, Bush’s motorcade sped by buildings ordered shut and small numbers of spectators, many of them staring impassively, arms folded. A Senegalese activist reported that trees, some more than a century old, had been cut down everywhere the President was scheduled to pass.
In a tour of Africa seen by many as an attempt to mollify African-American voters ahead of next year’s presidential election, Bush’s most important set piece came on that first day when, accompanied by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, he visited historic Goree Island. The Unesco World heritage site off the coast of Senegal was the last that millions of slaves saw of Africa as they were held in wretched conditions before being shipped to the Americas. The island’s approximately 1,500 inhabitants play host to thousands of visitors annually and have warmly received such dignitaries as President Clinton and Pope John Paul II in recent years. Bush’s visit will be remembered for different reasons.