No, President Bush didn’t make it to Johannesburg, a reflection of his disregard for summitry — or, as his critics charge, his administration’s disregard for the rest of the world. Secretary of State Colin Powell did attend and took the flak for it. But what may be missed in the din is the Bush administration’s surprise interest in Africa, which he once declared did not fit “the national strategic interests” of the United States. Now, evidently, it does.
Following the Earth Summit, Powell travels to Angola as it emerges from a devastating civil war, and Gabon, becoming one of the highest-level U.S. officials to visit the West African country.
In a quirky high-profile tour this summer, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill traveled the region with U-2 singer Bono — while carrying on a debate about the usefulness of foreign aid to Africa.
And in June, Bush announced that he himself will travel to the continent in 2003. His administration has been involved in conflict resolution in the Sudan, while trumpeting initiatives on combating AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and massive starvation in the southern African region. To some, this appears a radical shift in thinking.
“I think that the expectations greeting the Bush administration were very low,” says Gilbert Khadiagala, professor of African Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Most Africans thought Africa would fall off the map.”
Powell is certainly part of the reason it did not. Despite the president’s seeming indifference upon entering the Oval office, Powell made his first visit to Africa in May 2001. With his second trip in two years, he’s keeping pace with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who traveled to the continent four times.
But the war on terror is what has really propelled the continent back into the limelight. The initiatives under way and countries of special interest reflect two main motivations: shoring up oil supplies from non-Middle East sources, and targeting possible bases for terrorists.
Beyond that, Bush initiatives in Africa are the subject of debate: Some analysts say the policy is “businesslike” — devoid of the symbolic flourish of President Clinton but more practical. Others say they ignore the massive development and humanitarian needs of a continent torn apart by conflict, disease and historical injustice.
In West Africa, oil is the prize
Powell’s visit to Gabon will focus, publicly, on a major conservation project. In Angola, he will highlight national reconciliation efforts in the wake of a decades-long war that devastated the country. The United States is supporting disarmament of all parties in the conflict.
But analysts generally agree that the driving force behind the courtesy call in Gabon and Angola is to secure oil sources in the run-up to a possible conflict with Iraq.
The United States is the main customer for crude oil from Gabon and Angola, located on the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf of Guinea — an area that as a whole produced more than 4 million barrels a day in 2000, which is more than Iran, Venezuela or Mexico. In return, U.S. companies sell large quantities of oil exploration and drilling equipment in the region. In some of these countries, most notably Nigeria, U.S. companies are deeply involved in production and refining.
The visit has a dark side, however. As with many of the oil-producing states, human rights and income distribution are abysmal in Gabon — about half its population lives in dire poverty.
Powell is to meet with President Omar Bongo, who has been in power since 1968 and introduced multiparty elections in the country only in 1991, though few would describe it as a full democracy.
“He’s not known as a democrat,” says Khadiagala. “Gabon is one of the most corrupt governments in Africa.... It is normally not a country that you’d want to be associated with.”
Angola, meanwhile, is preparing for reconstruction following a war in large part fueled by the United States during the Cold War. Though oil is again the most obvious motivation for the visit, activists now hope that Powell will announce a much-needed program to help the country recover.
“The country was destroyed by war, a war perpetuated under President (Gerald) Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush senior…” said Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington-based non-profit advocacy program for Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. “The U.S. owes Angola big time.”
Oil supplier Nigeria is a major strategic partner for the United States, and U.S. officials reportedly are courting the governments of Sao Tome and Principe, also located on the Gulf of Guinea. According to local press reports, the Pentagon has requested an “upgrade” for military access to the countries. The Oil Policy Initiative Group, which includes Bush administration officials, key legislators, the oil industry and other U.S. investors argues not only for greater focus on these oil resources, but for the United Sates to establish a U.S. military homeport in Principe or Sao Tome, to secure oil and transport routes as the United States depends more heavily on Africa for supplies.
Focus on conflict
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration also has poured diplomatic resources into achieving peace in the Horn of Africa, particularly Sudan, after first threatening to attack it for allegedly harboring terrorists connected to Osama bin Laden.
The war there pits the Islamic, Arab-dominated government in the north against rebels seeking greater independence for a southern population of Christians and animists. Since it started in 1983, the conflict has killed 2 million and displaced 4 million more, while destroying much of the country’s infrastructure.
Jumping into long-running efforts led by Kenya and Tanzania to negotiate a deal between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, U.S. special envoy for peace in Sudan John Danforth has played what he calls a “catalytic” role — trying to press existing peace efforts forward. Danforth has been instrumental in negotiating a cease-fire, winning vows that civilians would not be targeted and getting cease-fire monitors on the ground. The two sides are as close to agreement as at any time since talks began in 1989.
White House interest in Sudan appears to come from a convergence of forces. Pressure from conservative U.S. Christians pushed the administration to move Sudan up the agenda even before Sept. 11 because of persecution of Christians in the country.
Although Sudan is still on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, the government was helping the United States gather information on Osama bin Laden prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. Bin Laden had lived in Sudan from 1991-1996. The Sept. 11 attacks — which prompted Bush to divide all countries into friends and foes — evidently pushed Sudan’s government to be more cooperative, offering key financial information and making al-Qaida arrests.
And again, oil is in the equation. Resolution of Sudan’s civil war could pave the way for the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Khartoum, opening the oil-rich south of Sudan to U.S. firms. The country began exporting oil in August 1999, through a consortium of U.S. competitors — Malaysians, Chinese and Canadian firms.
Setting aside the motivation, Danforth’s efforts have won plaudits from such groups as Human Rights Watch, which said, “The Danforth peace mission had resulted in major steps towards improving the human rights crisis in Sudan.”
Machiavellian or humanitarian?
This week, as Powell visits Africa, the administration is doing its best to burnish its image, arguing that the administration has demonstrated concern for Africa. While it is more convinced that “partnerships” and free trade will solve the problems of the developing world, the White House has highlighted an increase in aid to Africa.
On the battle against AIDS, the administration has trumpeted its $500 million pledge for the AIDS epidemic over the coming three years. Some critics concede pleasant surprise that Bush highlighted the problem. But they also accuse the president of cynically repackaging already existing aid and of diverting money from other programs needed to combat diseases such as tuberculosis.
Some 25 million people are already infected by HIV/AIDS in Africa. The United Nations estimates that Africa needs $10 billion a year to halt the AIDS epidemic.
USAID recently announced more aid for an impending famine in southern Africa, which now threatens some 13 million people. The United States has pledged just under 500,000 tons of food, about half of the what the World Food Program believes is required.
Meantime, while the Bush administration champions free trade, its support for massive subsidies to U.S. farmers in the latest farm bill will make it difficult for African farmers to compete.
It’s all spin, according to Bush critics: “What I don’t see is a constructive approach on Africa. I see bizarre moves and Machiavellian alliances,” says Fletcher of TransAfrica. “There is not a substantial increase.”