George W. Bush’s recent tour of Africa was a series of campaign photo opportunities dressed up as a diplomatic trip. If it were a musical, it might have been called Compassionate Conservatism Does Africa. But beneath the compassionate exterior, the Administration’s primary interests in Africa–oil, minerals and military access–were hidden in plain sight. Not only did Bush preview his trip at a speech to the Corporate Council on Africa, but his foreign policy team is headed by Condoleezza Rice, a former board member of Chevron, a firm whose activities in Nigeria continue to draw harsh criticism from international human rights monitors and local community activists.
Try as Bush might to focus on his AIDS plan or his alleged concern for Africa’s impoverished millions, press exchanges during his sojourn kept coming back to two issues–White House use of phony information about Iraq’s alleged pursuit of uranium from Africa and a possible US peacekeeping role in Liberia–that highlighted the realities of US involvement with Africa. As New York Times correspondent Eric Schmitt revealed in a July 5 dispatch, the Pentagon has been trolling for access to new facilities throughout Africa, seeking to expand military ties or secure basing arrangements in Djibouti, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Senegal and Uganda, for starters. These deals in the making have frequently been greased with increases in military aid. US military assistance to the continent is not dramatically higher than it was under Clinton, but it is much more sharply focused on countries that offer access to oil (Nigeria and Angola) or access to military facilities for use in the war on terrorism (Eritrea, Djibouti and Kenya).
Bush’s stated willingness to allow US forces to participate in a multinational peacekeeping effort designed to drive Charles Taylor from power in Liberia would have far more resonance if his Administration were ready to pursue policies that would prevent the emergence of the next generation of Taylors. But that is hardly the case. As the President set off for Africa, the State Department announced plans to cut off military aid to nearly three dozen countries–including several on the President’s itinerary, such as Botswana, Senegal and Nigeria–if they did not sign “impunity agreements” indicating that they would never refer a US citizen for prosecution to the newly operating International Criminal Court. During his visit to Washington in early June, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni–who was on Bush’s African itinerary–signed such an agreement, apparently in exchange for $200,000 in military aid. Arms were twisted and words exchanged at every stop on the President’s trip to get other African nations to fall into line. South Africa was the only nation that refused to cave in to pressure from Washington.
While Bush was taking his compassionate conservative show to countries ravaged by civil wars fueled by small arms, the US delegation to a United Nations meeting on that very subject was hard at work trying to water down a plan to curb the flow of those weapons. At the first meeting on this topic in summer 2001, the Bush Administration pushed to remove a plank put forward by the African delegations calling on UN member states to avoid arming nonstate actors such as terrorists and rebel groups. The Pentagon and the CIA didn’t want to give up the possibility of arming the Afghan warlords, or future UNITAS, or whoever might serve US interests in some future conflict, so the plank was removed. This year, the US approach was more subtle but no less resistant to any action to curb the flow of small arms. A key member of the US delegation was Bob Barr, former Newt Gingrich acolyte, current NRA board member and opponent of gun control on any continent.
While Bush & Co. worry about oil, terrorism and WMDs, most people in Africa struggle with the more immediate threats of AIDS, debt and conflict. Now that Bush has returned with his vacation pictures, we should demand an agenda of rebuilding, reconciliation and re-engagement with Africa based on four building blocks: a fully funded AIDS program at $3 billion per year, with the bulk of the money going through the Global AIDS fund; a multibillion-dollar development initiative, paired with a moratorium on Africa’s illegitimate debt; full participation in efforts to curb the transfer of small arms to African conflict zones; support for UN initiatives to broker peace agreements and put well-funded peacekeepers in Africa’s major conflict zones, from Liberia to Congo; and an initiative to strengthen civil society and the media to serve as watchdogs on undemocratic governments and international institutions operating in Africa.
This is a substantial agenda, but if we don’t start making demands now, we will end up ten years hence applauding yet another US President for the simple act of setting foot in Africa. It’s time to start setting higher standards.