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.
As dawn broke on the day of the presidential visit, Senegalese police officers in red berets accompanied by American officials went house to house with bomb-sniffing dogs. In each house, the residents were ordered out and led to a soccer field ringed with metal cordons, where they were forcibly held without food for six hours until Bush’s safe departure, “like sheep” said 15-year-old Mamadou to a Reuters correspondent. Reporters described the normally bustling tourist destination as looking like a “ghost town,” its bright shutters tightly drawn, fishermen’s pirogues idle in the bay–patrolling US Secret Service agents with dogs and frogmen swimming through the shallows provided the only signs of life. With the island’s inhabitants safely quarantined, President Bush and the First Lady toured the old red-brick slave house. Standing over an air-conditioning vent, the President then delivered a speech to 300 or so carefully selected guests.
Describing slavery as “one of the greatest crimes of history,” he bore witness to the island’s cruel past: “At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold,” and he honored the indomitable spirit of those who had been held captive on it: “[The] flame [of justice] was seen in the darkness here at Goree Island, were no chain could bind the soul.” Meanwhile, out in the midday heat, Goree’s inhabitants required no history lessons: “All that was missing were the handcuffs,” exclaimed one resident to a reporter from Wal Fadjri. “Esclaves, esclaves [slaves, slaves],” cried another.
A US Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that the President’s security agents had wanted all islanders to be subjected to the rigorous security checks required of those who attended Bush’s speech, but Senegalese security forces opted instead to relocate them until the President had left Goree. Bush’s security chief praised his Senegalese counterparts for their collaboration and their professional manner, according to Wal Fadjri.
By early afternoon, with Air Force One taking off for South Africa, the citizens of Dakar and Goree Island, having endured several days of heightened alert and disruption, breathed a sigh of relief.
Americans learned of none of this from their media, whose coverage of Bush’s morning in Senegal focused on his “emotional speech” at Goree Island, as John Dickerson of Time put it, and his meeting with the presidents of eight West African democracies at the presidential palace in Dakar. They paid virtually no attention to the removal and detention of Goree’s residents or Dakar’s state of siege, though Bush’s cool reception was an obvious contrast with the enthusiasm expressed during Clinton’s visit a scant five years ago.
Senegal’s media, on the other hand, were full of expressions of outrage and humiliation directed largely at the US President, from market salesmen angry over lost business to Senegalese Cabinet ministers upset over loss of face from being subjected to security checks by US security officers prior to Bush’s speech on Goree Island. RTS (Radio Television Senegal), the country’s main television station, which covered the event live, summed up the feelings of many when, upon the President’s departure, it broadcast Senegalese pop star Youssou N’Dour’s “Niak foulla ak fayda,” a song about “people who lack personality and dignity.”