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Bush’s Africa Trip: Substance or Scam?

Friday July 11, 2003

Bush’s trip to Africa is being heralded by the U.S. media as if he is the Messiah who will solve all of Africa’s problems.  

Indeed it is a good gesture when a President decides to visit the continent which has never been the top agenda of the U.S. government. In fact, the United States has a historic obligation to Africa which it has failed to meet. 

For many of us, this is just another trip that is intended by the Republican administration to boost its image on compassionate conservatism and increase potential for re-election in November. We would like to believe that it is more than rhetoric, but the facts seem to prove otherwise. 

For real and substantive changes to be made in Africa, the U.S. needs to make a commitment to at least two areas: 

1. Debt cancellation 

Every year, the poorest African nations are forced to pay billions of dollars in debt servicing, paying the interest on bilateral and multilateral loans. How did this happen? Multinational institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, plus major commercial loans, have been used to buy allies in Africa. It did not matter to these countries or institutions that the leaders were not democratically elected or that the funds were not being used for development purposes. Continued lending with no accountability has resulted in enormous debts which are beyond the capability of most African governments to meet. A majority of African countries are paying more to servicing the debt than for their national health and education budgets combined. National organizations like Africa Action and the Jubilee USA Network have been calling for the total cancellation of what are considered illegitimate debts. South Africa is a good example. For decades, the White-minority led apartheid government took out loans to boost its military to suppress the majority voices of the country. Today’s democratically elected government of South Africa is burdened with apartheid debt which the IMF and the World Bank do not want to consider canceling. 

2. Funding to fight HIV/AIDS 

Africa is the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic. The entire continent has only 10% of the global population at some 800 million people. Yet 70% of people living with HIV and dying of AIDS are on the continent.  

We all saw the headlines following President Bush’s State of the Union address promising $15 billion over five years for fighting AIDS in Africa. Yet, the D.C.-based Washington Office on Africa states, “While $3 billion a year has been authorized by Congress, the president has requested no additional funds for this fiscal year and less than $2 billion for fiscal year 2004, including only $200 million, instead of $1 billion, for the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria. News reports say Republicans in the House of Representatives are planning to approve even less than the president’s low request.” 

On Thursday, July 19th, the House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee will propose the actual amount the U.S. will give to fight global AIDS in 2004. Advocates all over the U.S. are calling for the subcommittee to provide at least $3.5 billion, of which $1.7 should go to the Global Fund. 

There are many more issues of small arms and the “blood diamonds” which continue to fuel conflicts and divisions in Africa. Africa is not ridden with problems, as suggested by its image as presented in the media; it is also a continent rich with resources and positive changes and contributions that take place every day.  

The top headline topics that we see accompanying the Bush trip to Africa are Liberia and Zimbabwe. The discussions about these countries are reduced to leaders Charles Taylor and the controversial President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But the problems of Africa are a whole lot more complex than just leadership. For real and substantive changes to be made, it is necessary to examine the deep history of injustice that has taken place over the past centuries and propose changes to current policies which continue to undermine Africa’s right to development. 

Bay Area residents are proud to have been part of the history of the anti-apartheid movement. Many thought it was not a struggle that could be won, but the support of people in the U.S., working closely with people in Africa toppled the apartheid regime. We can do this again with the AIDS issue — lest we look back and regret our inaction. 

Maudelle Shirek is Vice-Mayor of Berkeley. Nunu Kidane is a member of 

Priority Africa Network of Berkeley.