As President Bush visits Europe this week, he is up against a continent brimming with hostile public opinion. But while Americans have grown used to being condemned as global bullies, at least one region has people looking to them for salvation.
For many of the young people who take to the streets in protest in Lome and other blighted, overlooked capitals across Africa, only one distant power seems great enough to defeat the local forces of tyranny: the U.S. military.
“Tell George Bush to send us guns,” young protesters screamed last weekend in Lome, capital of Togo, where the dictator of 38 years had just died, only for his son to succeed him by military appointment within hours.
“We need American troops to deliver us from this regime,” young men shouted.
America’s export of democratic ideals, along with the hard-core rap music and imagery that has suffused African youth cultures, has made it seem like a beacon to Africa’s downtrodden — or at least better than France, former colonial ruler and lasting influence in much of West Africa.
That was evident amid the tear gas and riots in the former French colony of Togo, when thousands protested against the military’s appointment of Faure Gnassingbe as president. Young people, many in American-branded jeans and baseball caps, begged Western journalists to send the message that they wanted the U.S. Marines to come in stop a new dictatorship from blossoming.
That was before pressure at home and abroad elicited a pledge from Gnassingbe late Friday to hold presidential elections within 60 days, and matters may yet be resolved peacefully.
Calls in Ivory Coast, Congo
Similar pro-American sympathies have been noticeable in other places wracked by civil war, ethnic hatred and disease.
In Ivory Coast, where pro-government mobs attacked French families last year and clashed with French peacekeepers, any foreigner could win immunity and cheers simply by producing an American flag — or even a red-white-and-blue car air-freshener. Demonstrators waved posters appealing to Bush for help.
The French, whose soldiers, traders and technocrats are still deeply engaged in West Africa, get the blame for much that goes wrong here. The United States keeps a much lower profile. French criticism of the Iraq invasion only adds to Washington’s luster. So while the educated classes of Africa debate the rights and wrongs of U.S. policy, at street level Americans are often seen as knights in armor who would surely ride to the rescue if only they knew how bad things were.
As U.S. troops rolled into Baghdad in 2003, many people of eastern Congo, 3,000 miles away, were being slaughtered in ethnic massacres. Over and over, frightened Congolese were heard demanding American intervention.
Months later, rebels descended on Monrovia, Liberia, a country founded by freed slaves returned from America. Deposed President Charles Taylor finally agreed to step down — but not until U.S. troops arrived.
The 100 soldiers who joined a West African peacekeeping force were the first U.S. military mission on African soil since 10 years previously, when the killing of 18 U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia, doused any American appetite for further African interventions.
Yet many Somalians say the American troops are still the only ones who can deliver their city from warlords and drug-addled gunmen.
Hatred toward France
In the former French colonies, the call for American firepower usually comes in the same breath as vitriolic hatred for the French — delivered in French, the lingua franca inherited from colonial times.
During the demonstrations in Lome (pronounced low-MAY), Togo’s beach-front capital, protesters confronted journalists shouting, “Are you French? If you are, we will kill you.” A French radio journalist was doused with gasoline but escaped unharmed.
Few listened to the funeral dirges and electronic anthems droning out of state radio in ceaseless homage to the dead president. In neighborhoods full of restless, unemployed youth, Busta Rhymes and DMX blared from a distant boom box, near a mural honoring slain rapper Tupac Shakur.
“People are hungry and dying here,” said a 24-year-old calling himself LL Cool J, after the American rapper.
“The young men are looking for guns,” he said. “All we need are guns and the proper training.”
In a country where security forces routinely kick down doors to punish those critical of the government, nearly all those interviewed refused to give their real or full names.
On the shady campus of Lome University, a 22-year-old named Carrie said: “It’s up to the international community to give us weapons.”
Her friends looked on in frosty silence, except to hush her. Students say the Gnassingbe regime often planted spies among them to monitor dissent.
“Striking and demonstrating isn’t doing us any good,” Carrie persisted. “We need guns to properly fight the government.”
Political violence held no attraction for at least one Togolese — 20-year-old Keith, who had tight dreadlocks, a silver earring and a skull-and-crossbones tattoo on his meaty shoulder.
“Every time we fight the government we die,” he said. “Man, I don’t even like the word ’guns.”’