Before he set out on his African safari last month US president Bush again proved his ignorance, saying that "Africa is a nation that has many diseases." His other gaffes in Africa were far more serious. His five-state tour from July 8 to 12 took him to Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria, although three of his four nights were spent in a luxury hotel in Pretoria, the South African capital, under tight security.
His visit to each country lasted for a few hours. For instance, he spent a total of six hours in Senegal but a mere 15 minutes at Goree Island, a notorious gateway for the slave-trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Island’s inhabitants were chased out of their homes for the duration of his visit for "security" reasons. Bush made a half-hearted attempt to express contrition for slavery, with an eye on African-American votes back home, but few can have missed the point that, in contrast to his few minutes a slave house that is now a museum, he found a whole hour for a game reserve in Botswana.
The Senegalese were not amused by the visit of the great white chief. People had been rounded up several days before Bush descended: 1,500 of them by July 7; some have still not been released. Perhaps the government had to show the Americans that they were serious about security. Even so, no Senegalese security personnel were allowed near Bush; 700 American security personnel took over Dakar, the Senegalese capital, with their dogs and fast cars. All roads into town were closed a day before Bush arrived; people were prevented from going to work and even hospitals. Children were not allowed to attend school because it would have been impossible to prevent their parents from picking them up. All the trees – some more than 100 years old – lining the route that Bush was to take from the airport were cut down. Were there ghosts in the trees that the Americans were afraid of? US air force planes buzzed overhead throughout the night of July 7, before Bush arrived, disturbing the peace of town.
Bush was ostensibly on a "compassionate mission", dispensing largesse and bringing "democracy" to a continent ravaged by AIDS, tribalism, ethnic conflict and poverty. He also vowed to "fight terrorism". In the US, law-abiding Muslims and their organizations have been targeted in a campaign that has been described as state-sponsored harassment and intimidation. Tens of thousands of Muslims have been expelled or forced to flee the US since September 2001. In Africa the so-called fight against terrorism will mean giving carte blanche to oppressive regimes in countries where hard-won freedoms and human rights will be sacrificed for Bush’s "anti-terrorism" bandwagon.
Bush’s US$15 billion anti-AIDS programme, which is to concentrate primarily on 12 African and two Caribbean countries, has been hailed as a major advance in the fight against a disease that is killing about 7,000 Africans daily. This will be disbursed over a period of five years, provided the US congress approves such appropriation. What has been left unsaid is that it will benefit only two groups: the ruling elites in recipient countries, especially those that toe America’s line, and American pharmaceutical companies that have refused to lower prices for medication to help people who have AIDS. Africa has also been ravaged by the oppressive policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under the Structural Adjustment Programme.
In the seventies Africa was a net exporter of goods, with a healthy surplus; since the IMF imposed its disastrous SAP, African countries pay more in debt-repayments each year than they receive in aid. The net result has been the impoverishment of people and societies, on a continent that is not resource-poor by any stretch of the imagination. Severe poverty has contributed to the spread of AIDS and made treatment more difficult.
Bush is also looking for new supplies of oil; Nigeria currently provides 16 percent of American oil needs. There are also oil reserves elsewhere: Angola and Mozambique, for instance. In Angola, until a few years ago, Jonas Savimbi led a CIA-financed civil war that killed tens of thousands of people. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) American multinationals have continued to finance civil and tribal wars in a scramble to secure the natural resources of this rich country. For Bush and the American multinationals, Africa is the last untapped continent.
While his trip was hailed as a mission to provide a healing touch, the Americans antagonised their hosts by their crudities. As well as insulting their hosts by refusing to allow African security personnel to approach Bush, the Americans brought their own food, drinks and even chairs. Presumably African chairs are not clean enough for Bush to sit on. That might explain why he spent a grand total of three hours and fifteen minutes at Kampala airport, where the Ugandan warlord-turned-president Yuweri Museveni received the president of the "sole superpower" to be given instructions before the visitor flew out to Nigeria. Three of the five countries that Bush visited – Senegal, Uganda and Nigeria – are Muslim-majority states, and Muslims consider dogs to be najas (unclean), yet the Americans did not care about such niceties and had their dogs sniff everyone before they could approach Bush.
While Africa’s rulers bowed and scraped, Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, had a better idea: he refused to meet Bush because of Bush’s crude behaviour and aggressive policies. Mandela made himself "unavailable". One can only applaud his good sense.