Saturday, March 22, 2008

America in Africa: Why Bush was Pounding Shea Nuts

The photo to the left (copywrite WATH, I think) is of Bush pounding Shea Nuts (which eventualy turns into Shea Butter) during his recent visit in Ghana. Ghana was one of the several stops (and this one of the many photo shoots) that Bush made during Bush’s February tournée of Africa.

Not sure how much U.S. media attention was given to this diplomatic trip, at least “positive” media coverage. I imagine not much. However, here in Bénin (one of Bush’s stops), Bush’s visit was quite a big deal vis à vis its political importance, the vast media coverage, and even what was talked about on the street by the typical Béninese. Bénin even shut down its sole international airport for several days, and extended a runway in order to receive Air Force One, if only for a couple hours (I’m told Cotonou didn’t have sufficient hotel capacities to lodge all of the President’s numbered traveling support staff overnight).

Such a warm welcoming, however, is probably indicative of how momentous an occasion this was for many Béninese. Many seem to see this visit, which is the first time the country has ever been visited by a current U.S. president, as affirmation that Bénin, led by President Yayi Boni, is emerging as an African Nation that is stable, veritably democratic, and economically competitive. Distinctions are all the more noteworthy when they are compared with the recent histories of many of Bénin’s West African neighbors.

Yet, as I listened to my shortwave radio throughout the time of Bush’s visit and heard opinions and reports coming in from across Africa, it seemed to me that most of the sub-Sahara—not just Bénin—looked favorably upon Bush’s visit. According to Pew Research, 8 of the top 10 world countries that give America the highest approval ratings are African.

Interestingly, some of this pan-African enthusiasm comes from many Africans’ approval of the President’s self\-assured (never mind sometimes misled?) demeanor and policies—he’s a man that doesn’t just talk, but takes action. But personal motivations aside, there are in fact very good reasons for Bush’s approval ratings in much of Africa. During the course of Bush’s presidency, American aid to Africa has increased threefold, into programs combating Malaria, AIDS, and corruption, among others. Bénin for example, has received millions of dollars (through the President’s Millinium Challenge Corporation initiative) to restructure, render less corrupt and more competive, its port in Cotonou. In the diplomatic world of many worthless words, America has also been one of the most aggressive international actors actually pushing for action in Darfur.

The realist will respond that the U.S. has its interests in Africa, too. Bush, at the end of his unpopular term, certainly was in need of some positive PR. Many are saying that the President’s visit to several West African countries (Bénin, Liberia, Ghana) were prompted my expectations that the U.S. will soon be reliant on this region for 25% of its oil imports. One correlative of the President’s war on terror has been increased friendliness and aid to certain Northwest and Eastern African countries proximate to the Arab-Islamic world. And then there is the raising of support (and the securing of a location) for AFRICOM, which beginning in 2008 will be the headquarters overseeing all U.S. military, diplomatic, and developmental operations in Africa.

Bush’s presidency has left no lack of cannon fodder to be fired back at him concerning the economy, the War in Iraq, and several big domestic issues. Yet I—and apparently many Africans— think the last 8 years have been encouraging for U.S.-African policy.