Colin Powell, the first black US secretary of state, began a tour of four African countries on May 22. He gave the continent first place on his schedule over Asia and Latin America, which are at first sight far more vital to US interests. Powell’s six-day visit to Mali, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda followed an announcement by president George W. Bush that his Africa policy would “encourage a brighter future”, an announcement clearly designed to correct the widely-held view that the new administration will disengage from Africa. According to state department officials, the main aims of Colin Powell’s tour are to find out first-hand about the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases, and to determine the views of African leaders on the wars devastating their continent. But Powell did not visit the Sudan, scene of the longest-lasting war, or Algeria, another country ravaged by civil war. And on the very day he arrived in Mali, he announced that the US had obtained a reduction in its budgetary contributions to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Mrs Gro Harlem Brudtland, head of the WHO, told delegates that the reduction “will limit our ability to address some of the newer imperatives that demand our attention”. Some of those imperatives are the need to fight yellow fever and malaria, particularly in Africa, where the UN agency is planning to establish programmes to wipe them out. The WHO is also involved in the fight against AIDS, which affects 25 million people in Africa , about 70 percent of the world total. The agency’s budget, which was already in deficit, will be severely hampered in funding those programmes as a result in this reduction. This indicates clearly that Washington is not really very worried about Africa’s health needs and that Powell’s trip is mostly a public-relations ploy.
Equally clearly, Powell’s visit to Africa can only be symbolic as far as security is concerned, although a former army chief who directed the war that devastated Iraq on a peace mission is not much of a symbol. But even as a politician in charge of a state department, Powell has less influence on US foreign policy than the conservative church groups that enjoy president Bush’s allegiance. The church groups, which have been campaigning for US military backing for John Garang, have had a large part in shaping Bush’s attitude towards Khartoum.
Certainly a visit by Powell to Khartoum would have angered the church groups and the Republicans upon whom Bush relies for support. Powell’s failure to visit Algeria may also be explained by the fact that putting an end to a war waged mainly against Islamic movements is not a high priority for church and Republican groups. If the victims of the Algerian civil war had been Christian, one can imagine Washington’s concern: Algeria would have been put on its terrorist list, and economic sanctions would have been instituted against it. But instead the US is allowing its companies to compete with French and other corporations to secure access to the country’s rich gas and oil resources.
But Uncle Sam is not really interested in saving the lives of African Christians either, unless US domestic or foreign policy considerations demand action. The Christian leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea must be wondering why Powell did not visit them, if he was really interested in establishing peace in Africa. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea are after all US allies, and played leading roles in the war against Sudan, which Washington funded. Both countries are now repairing their relations with Khartoum, mainly because they are now enemies and are anxious not to allow it to take sides.
But while Powell’s visit is on the whole a gimmick, it has one serious purpose: South Africa. The country is not only a highly influential player but also a manufacturer of conventional arms, and its leaders are sympathetic to the Palestinians. It also has a strong and successful Muslim community which provides vital links to the Muslim world. The fact that South African Muslims played a vital role in the struggle against apartheid places them in a strong position to foster those links.
The frequent visits of Palestinian leaders to Pretoria and former president Nelson Mandela’s continued dealings with Muslim countries that are not in Uncle Sam’s good books, worry both Israel and Washington. South Africa, which was a staunch supporter of Israel in the apartheid era, may well become a discreet backer of the Palestinian cause, and a secret source of arms for Palestinian freedom-fighters. Muslim supporters. Washington, which tirelessly seeks international support for Israel, will try to forestall developments on these lines. Israel will therefore figure highly in Powel’s trip to Pretoria. In that sense, the trip is not, for a change, a gimmick.