A businesslike view of Africa

SUN JOURNAL

Policy: The Bush White House might take a more active interest in the continent than some expect.

January 15, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Based on President-elect George W. Bush's remarks during his presidential campaign, Africa might expect to win about as much attention from the new American president as Antarctica.

"While Africa may be important," Bush said early in the campaign, "it doesn't fit into the national strategic interests, as far as I can see them."

Africa, at other times, was glaringly missing from his discussions of foreign policy, and his choice of Dick Cheney as a running mate seemed to confirm a disregard for Africa, critics say. As a congressman, Cheney voted in 1986 against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa and opposed economic sanctions against the apartheid regime.

But the outlook for U.S.-Africa relations may be brighter than it first seemed, analysts say. Gone are the days of high-profile visits and the personal touch that became familiar during the Clinton administration, but they may be replaced by a businesslike, if less cozy, relationship.

"The Bush administration will push for opening markets - it will be trade, not aid," says Winston Meso, a researcher at the Africa Institute of South Africa.

In a continent desperate for foreign investment and economic growth, improved trade relations may be just what Africa needs. And the new American administration may decide it has more at stake in Africa than it had assumed. Bush's poor showing among black voters may encourage him to become more involved in issues of interest to them, including Africa, to avoid isolating himself further, experts say.

"Bush did poorly with African-Americans, and he is trying to engage that community. If he doesn't cater to their needs, he could be in trouble when it comes time for re-election," says J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"I am resistant to the notion that the Bush administration believes we have nothing at stake in Africa and that it is just one long headache," Morrison says.

If the Bush team chooses to engage Africa, there is much to occupy its time. By the end of last year, there were more than 25 million Africans living with HIV/AIDS. Violent conflicts embroil Sierra Leone, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, and political unrest continues in Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast. Many of the continent's 770 million people survive on less than $1 day.

America's main economic interest in Africa is oil. The United States depends on Central and West Africa for about 15 percent of its petroleum needs, and it may increase oil imports from Angola, Nigeria, Chad and Equatorial Guinea as drilling and exploration there expand. But some analysts warn that the emphasis on energy could spell disaster.

"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," writes Salih Booker, director of the Africa Policy Information Center in Washington, in a statement released by the center.

But other Africa specialists, like Meso, believe U.S. interests in oil could lead to more involvement in trying to broker peace in places such as oil-rich but war-torn Angola. "They might push for a settlement for no other reason [than] to exploit the reserves," Meso says.

Nigeria and South Africa, two democratic nations nurtured by the United States and considered sources of stability, could falter if they do not receive more investment from the West, analysts say. In sending her congratulations to Bush last month, South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma acknowledged "the substantial relationship that has developed under the current administration."

"We look forward to working with President-elect Mr. George Bush in taking this relationship even further in addressing issues of poverty reduction, security and peace on a global scale," she said.

In South Africa, some local columnists were heartened by Bush's decision to pick two prominent African-Americans to fill Cabinet seats guiding foreign policy: Gen. Colin L. Powell as secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser. An editorial in South Africa's Star concluded that the Rice and Powell team "is likely to mean a greater emphasis on Africa than most Republican presidents have given - but also a tougher, more businesslike approach than that of a Democrat administration."

And to the surprise of many foreign policy pundits, Powell, during a State Department briefing on Africa this month, assured foreign policy-makers that Africa would be part of the administration's agenda.

Topics that caught Powell's interest were AIDS, Angola, Burundi and Nigeria. His unexpected interest was enough to make news in South Africa. "Africa will be a US govt priority -- Powell" read the headline in Business Day.

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