Friday, February 22, 2008

Back From Africa

In 1864, Dr. Davis Livingstone, who had captured the imagination of the British with stories of his explorations in central Africa, returned to the continent to seek the source of the River Nile. Months passed into years with no communication from the explorer. Finally, after seven years of silence, public pressure to find what had happened to Livingstone became overwhelming. An expedition of 2,000 men, financed by the New York Herald and led by the British-born, U.S. Civil War (Confederate) veteran turned journalist, Henry Stanley, set off into the interior of the “Dark Continent” to solve the mystery. Eight months later, in a tiny village on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, Stanley greeted the man he had been sent to find with the question, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

George Bush first visited Africa July 7-12 2003. He had “lost” seven months from the original timetable for the visit – January 2003 – because of the March 2003 Iraq invasion. Africa’s security problems in 2003 were largely intra-national, albeit the repercussions spilled across national boundaries. Why did he go to the five countries selected in 2003? Good question, considering what was going on.

By the time Bush began his trip, the worst of the fighting in eastern Congo – where Bush did not go – had ended, largely because France sent approximately 1,000 soldiers into eastern Congo to suppress the Congolese rebels and foreign guerrillas that used this area as their base camps. The French deployment breathed life into the cease fire arrangement brokered by South Africa.

French troops were also on the ground in Cote d’Ivoire along with British soldiers in Sierra Leone while U.S. warships stood off the coast of Liberia as that country’s autocratic president, Charles Taylor, came under pressure to step down and go into exile.

Senegal was in the limelight as the first sub-Saharan country to accept counter-insurgency training by U.S. personnel under the Clinton Administration’s Africa Crisis Response Initiative. This was the one country on the trip itinerary with which the U.S. had a military connection.

Nigeria, always tumultuous because of the great economic disparity between those who benefit from its oil and those shut out, was also sharply divided between the Islamic north and the Christian/animist south. The U.S. interest here was (and is) oil.

Of the five countries visited, Botswana was the harbinger of one of the more frightening “security dangers” looming on the horizon – a country collapsing not from the weight of or the result of arms but from disease – in Botswana’s case, HIV/AIDS.

On his just completed trip, Bush visited Benin, Ghana, Liberia (under a democratically elected president), Rwanda, and Tanzania. The latter two countries abut nations being torn by civil strife. Tanzania’s neighbor Kenya – a steadfast “ally” of the U.S. against al-Qaeda in Africa – has been wracked by violence stemming from a rigged election in late December. Rwanda remains susceptible to incursions from dissidents still using east Congo as a base area – just as happened five years ago.

What is striking about this trip is that none of the countries are military “power houses” even in African terms. On the other hand, the trip was billed as one that would highlight administration successes. Military “successes” on the continent would be hard if not impossible to find, given what is happening (still) in Sudan, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Somalia, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria as well as the strife going on in those nations mentioned in the paragraph above.

In fact, some pundits see the trip as more of a morale boost for the president than a trip that will strengthen the U.S. hand on the continent. One thing is for sure: no one will ask, as Henry Stanley did in 1871, “President Bush, I presume?”

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