by Salih Booker
"There’s got to be priorities,’’ George W.
Bush responded when asked about Africa in the second U.S. presidential
did not make his short list: the Middle East, Europe, the Far
East, and the Americas. A Bush presidency portends a return to the
blatantly anti-African policies of the Reagan-Bush years, characterized
by a general disregard for Black people and a perception of Africa as a
social welfare case.
Vice President Dick Cheney is widely expected to steer the younger
Bush on most policy matters—especially foreign affairs. Cheney’s
perspective on Africa in the 1980s was epitomized by his 1986 vote in
favor of keeping Nelson Mandela in prison and his consistent opposition
to sanctions against apartheid South Africa.
In Africa, a Bush White House will likely concentrate on helping its
oil industry friends reap maximum profits with minimum constraints, and
it will have absolutely no sense of responsibility for past American
misadventures, or for global problems like AIDS or refugees.
But events and activism in Africa plus grassroots pressure in the
United States and internationally could change all of that, as it did
during the White House tenure of the last Republican Africaphobe.
Ironically, those chosen to set international priorities for Bush
will likely include two loyal Black Americans, Colin Powell and
Condoleezza Rice, who will probably not deviate from the Bush-Cheney
exclusion of Africa from the U.S. global agenda.
Neither Powell nor Rice has shown any particular interest in or
special knowledge of African issues. Both have repeatedly pledged their
allegiance to a strong unilateralist view of the use of U.S. power,
based on the traditional geopolitical concepts of the national interest
held by the white American elite. Africans are invisible on their policy
radar screens, though all too visible on CNN for the Texas governor’s
"No one liked to see it on our TV screens,’’ said Bush, when
asked about genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but Clinton "did the right
thing," he argued, in deciding not to act to stop the slaughter.
Bush ignored the fact that the United States also failed to support
and indeed blocked multilateral action by the United Nations. This false
dichotomy between bilateral intervention and non-involvement is common
among U.S. policymakers.
The concessions of Bush’s team to multilateral options are likely
to be particularly scant. The need for multilateral support for peace
and security rather than continued expansion of unaccountable bilateral
military ties is one of the highest priority issues affecting Africa.
But hard-line U.S. unilateralism will likely make a bad situation
worse. When not ignoring African security crises, the new administration
will likely attempt to "delegate’’ African peacekeeping, using
this as a rationale for expanding relationships with privileged
partners, such as Nigeria, while denying resources for strengthening
In fact, we may well see a repeat of this year’s abortive effort by
congressional Republicans to cut funds for UN peacekeeping in Africa to
On two other African priority issues, however—debt cancellation and
the HIV/AIDS pandemic—public pressure has a chance to cross
traditional political barriers and make unexpected breakthroughs, as did
the struggle for sanctions against apartheid in the Reagan era.
Action on both issues currently receives at least nominal support
across party lines, as evidenced in Bush’s unexpected, though
qualified, rhetorical endorsement of debt relief in the debates.
significant action will require spending money and opposing
vested economic interests, and therefore, movement on these issues will
initially become even more difficult than it has been to date. But there
Republican skepticism of multilateral institutions has even found
some common ground with critics on the political left, as in the Meltzer
Commission’s criticism of international financial institutions and the
recent congressional resolution mandating U.S. opposition to user fees
for primary health and education in poor countries.
More narrowly, many favor debt cancellation for practical business
reasons (those with unpayable debts are unlikely to be good customers).
If debt cancellation makes it high enough on the next administration’s
agenda, there will be room for debate on policy.
Complacency, however, is more likely. "We already did debt
relief last year,’’ policymakers may disingenuously conclude,
"and now poor countries should take care of their own problems’’.
The fact that the majority of countries affected are African will
make it easy for a Bush administration to give debt relief lower
priority. In the context of a Bush presidency and a divided Congress,
breaking through the systemic American disdain for Africa will not
happen unless there are real shifts in public perceptions, comparable to
those that happened in the 1980s regarding apartheid in South Africa.
any measure of catastrophic events in human history, the HIV/AIDS
pandemic should serve as such a wake-up call. At the end of the year
2000, there are more than 25 million Africans living with HIV/AIDS—more
than 70 percent of the adults and more than 80 percent of the children
who are infected worldwide.
Almost 4 million Africans were newly infected during the year 2000.
Yet, almost no one in Africa is receiving the expensive treatments now
available to people living with HIV/AIDS in rich countries.
Pharmaceutical companies, under pressure, are offering discounts on
drugs. But they are also continuing their campaign against the
production and import of generic alternatives.
Congress approved the administration request for a little more than
$300 million in new funds for HIV/AIDS worldwide in fiscal year 2001.
Yet the scale of the catastrophe has still not struck home. Nor has the
awareness that AIDS’ unequal impact both results from and reinforces
economic inequalities, amounting to a global apartheid.
If we regard HIV/AIDS as just another disease, and those affected as
excluded from our common humanity, then the odds of making Africa a
priority in the years ahead are low indeed.
If its horrors can serve to remind enough of us of our common
humanity, then even those with the most exclusionary agendas will be
forced to respond.
the Bush administration, it will be a clear choice between black
gold and Black people.
(Salih Booker is the director of both The Africa Fund in New York and
the Africa Policy Information Center in Washington. It was transmitted
via the Inter Press Service.)