The man who brings rain in the dry season and makes the sun shine in the rains will be 45 minutes from Freetown. The world’s most powerful man was in West Africa over the weekend and will be back later this week when among other countries, he will be in Liberia. President George Bush is visiting Africa for the second time as President.
His first came on the back of President Clinton’s, probably the most popular US president in Africa in a generation. But then, not many saw much in that first Bush visit. President Clinton’s Africa Growth and Opportunities Act was the barometer of comparison. That was before the AGOA initiative received some flack that it crippled West Africa’s cotton market.
Another reason for President Clinton’s edge could be attributable to the notion, rightly or wrongly, that Africans are natural supporters of the Democratic Party.
Whatever the comparison President Bush’s interest and policies have been more leaned towards Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, much at the expense of Africa. A similar mistake led to left-wing governments coming to power in South America, even if under different circumstances. This took Africa off Washington’s radar, and consequently provided an empty net for China to score goals in a continent that provides an alternative source of oil. And China’s involvement is arguably more bad news than good.
Abandoning Africa, as some see it, has also made it difficult for the US to secure a permanent base for its proposed military base in the continent. But President Bush has not been a complete failure for Africa. In the last five years, America has spent $15bn in the fight against Aids, with a request before Congress to double that amount. The lion’s share of that has been pumped into Africa where more than one million people receive antiretroviral drugs as a result of the Bush policy. But his emphasis on abstinence has been criticised. A conservative he is you know, whose election bid was successful largely because of America’s Christian right.
But why visit Benin? When I mentioned that country in one of my recent articles, some-one called me and asked that I justify my huge impression about the West African country of which little is known (to him). Benin, like Mali, is one country where democracy is taking deep roots. Probably because it is French-speaking, and we Anglophones have some bloated impression about ourselves, not much is known about the country from our end.
It all started with $ 20 million in the early 1990s when the wind of change was blowing. Washington donated the amount to build democracy. It has been well spent and well goaded. In Mali for example, not once, but twice and in quick succession, an incumbent lost. Mathew Kerekou lost the presidential race to his Prime Minister Necephore Soglo. In the following election, Mr Kerekou defeated Mr Soglo.
In Benin elections are untypical of what they are in most other parts of Africa. Hardly any violence or vitriol! So I think it is reason for President Bush’s visit. The same can be said about Ghana, another country he will be visiting during his 6-day five-nation visit. But also because President John Kuffour is the immediate past head of the African Union.
Liberia is another West African nation on his itinerary, the only former American “colony”. With Britain having done tremendously in Sierra Leone, and France in Ivory Coast, pressure was brought to bear on the US president to get more involved in saving the collapse of a country whose capital is named after a former US president James Monroe. That intervention, even though it came after Nigeria had committed its troops, was lauded. But the camaraderie between Presidents Bush and Johnson-Sirleaf is very warm to say the least.
I was in Washington late last year when the Liberian president was there on an official visit. You should have seen the broad smile on her face in a meeting with President Bush who was nodding in an impressionable fashion. It had come in the wake of talk that the US was planning on setting up its AFCON military base in Africa. Many African leaders had denounced the decision, saying it undermined Africa’s drive for a standby force. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the only one so far that has offered to provide a base for the US force.
Once Abuja had denounced what many see as Washington’s Africa military odyssey, it was followed by what many saw as a move to get Liberia to not provide the base it had said it would. Nigeria cancelled millions of US dollars Liberia owed it. Adding Liberia to his itinerary is probably a way and an opportunity to square up with Nigeria and may be overtake it, in this apparent battle for the hearts and minds of the Executive Mansion. I would not be the least surprised if President Bush makes very big pledges towards rebuilding the war-battered country.
But where is Sierra Leone in all of this? Many held the view, rightly or wrongly, that Washington was not keen on Freetown when President Tejan Kabbah was in power. The current situation is an opportunity for the strengthening of the seeming friendly relationship. On that score perhaps, President Ernest Koroma should be invited to be part of the meeting in Monrovia just like President Johnson-Sirleaf was invited to Freetown during the visit last year of the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Engaging Sierra Leone is the best way of nurturing our nascent democracy. That will be the way for Sierra Leoneans to welcome President Bush in Freetown, without Air Force landing at Lungi.