Behind the smiling faces and rhetoric about “a mission of mercy,” lies the true agenda of Pres. George Bush’s five-nation trip across Africa: keeping American interests secure.
While some American observers may be seduced by images of Bush surrounded by cheering crowds, the president who initiated two wars and presided over the establishment of torture facilities around the world, is less concerned with Africa’s economic and social ills but instead anxious about its natural wealth.
Fearful of the growing Chinese presence on the continent and eager to maintain vital supplies of oil, Bush traveled to Africa on a “charm” offensive to provide the corporate media an opportunity to highlight American-backed “success stories” in the so-called free market democracies of Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.
At each stop, Bush’s interactions are carefully orchestrated and similar: a triumphant airport arrival, an assembly of welcoming children, a hurried press conference with the nation’s leader, and a few local trips to brag about America’s so-called generosity before he is off to the next destination.
Don’t expect Bush to veer off the path to visit filthy shantytowns or destitute rural communities and see the realities of capitalist underdevelopment. His itinerary consists of state dinners, stops at shiny new factories, and meetings with audiences hand picked by the host governments in conjunction with American security services.
While the corporate media splashed newspapers and websites with photos of a beaming Bush surrounded by Tanzanian women dressed in cloth bearing his image, little was mentioned of the hundreds of women protesting his visit in the capital of Dar es Salaam.
The media has been heralding the Bush administration’s funding for the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. But, behind the scenes, Washington is more interested in finding an African base for its so-called War on Terror. Faced with vocal opposition from African powers like South Africa and Nigeria, the Bush administration has been trying to convince one of its African allies to host the so-called Africa Command (AfriCom). Currently based in Germany, this headquarters coordinates U.S. continent-wide military operations, which have become increasingly complex and widespread in recent years.
Grounded in the dual Bush priorities in Africa – securing oil sources and “fighting terrorism” – American military activities range from patrolling the strategic waters off of Somalia to training the armies of nations like Rwanda and Ghana, two of the stops on his tour.
As the UK-based Guardian confirmed, “The US has been unable to find a suitable host in Africa amid suspicion that Washington’s principal interest is to protect its oil and mining interests, particularly from Chinese competition, and that a US base could be the target for attacks and embroil the host country in the ‘war on terror’.”
The only nation to express interest so far is war-weary and cash-starved Liberia, America’s stepchild in Africa and the final stop on Bush’s itinerary. But, Bush’s team is pressing allies to accept AfriCom with reassuring words that the base is meant only to improve security and peacekeeping in Africa.
One nation that has long hosted an American military presence, Kenya, was deliberately left off of Bush’s tour. Chaos erupted in the East African nation in December when Mwai Kibaki was sworn in for a second term as president despite universal allegations the elections were fraudulent. When it appeared he would lose the vote to leftist challenger Raila Odinga, the Election Commission manipulated tallies and declared Kibaki the winner.
A faithful Bush ally in the war on terror, Kibaki was first congratulated by Washington on his victory as thousands of ordinary Kenyans protested the coup and the government responded with brutal suppression and media censorship. The U.S. administration is now talking about the need for “power-sharing” and Bush dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Nairobi for a brief meeting while he talked about doing “God’s work” in fighting malaria in Tanzania.
In the last twilight of his presidency, Bush is desperately trying to create a historic legacy which he hopes will overshadow the crimes and failures of his administration. Spreading a little of America’s vast wealth on the African continent no doubt makes great publicity, but the reality of American policy in Africa is protecting corporate interests, demanding open markets for American goods, and guaranteeing access to the oil and mineral wealth of the continent.
In a constant reminder that the world eagerly awaits his exit, Bush was faced with “Obama 08” signs in at least one stop in Tanzania.
Dennis Laumann (dlaumann @memphis.edu) is associate professor of African history at the University of Memphis.