Someone very important is visiting Africa, specifically five countries including Tanzania, Rwanda, Benin, Ghana, and Liberia. He is the president of the United States of America. The hassles of hosting a U.S. president are bad enough. His people take over your whole country and make our normally inefficient states go into overdrive and our egregious first ladies and their husbands go into overkill to show their hospitality. We never knew many of them could bend their knees until they were leading cleaning troops across the capitals in preparation for Clinton’s visit in 1998 from Kampala to Accra!
I will never forget seeing President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda being a perfect gentleman with a spread umbrella for Hillary Clinton. In Accra, Jerry Rawlings and his wife went out of their way for a few hours of stopover.
But with Bush it is not just the ridiculous security and obsequious protocol laid on by our presidents that concerns me. African hospitality knows no bounds. Remember, some of our chiefs and kings were so friendly that they parted with ancestral lands and traded away ablebodied young men and women for as little as mirrors, umbrellas, and walking sticks! Whatever our rational concerns though, the officials in the five “chosen” countries will be beside themselves to give him a reception he will never forget. To them, it is a major diplomatic and political coup for the U.S. president to be visiting their countries. It shows their “ungrateful” citizens how very important these leaders are.
Strive for Five
I can easily explain why four of the countries were on the itinerary. Tanzania remains one of the most peaceful countries in Africa. Save for the mess in Zanzibar and the reactionary victimization of dissenting citizens under the previous regime, it remains a decent state with a government that everyone wants to befriend. With Uganda now becoming less fashionable and Kenya inflicting enormous injury on itself, Dar es Salaam is indeed living up to its name as a place of peace.
Rwanda, meanwhile, is probably the best governed and effective state in Africa today (I don’t mean most democratic). Rwandan President Paul Kagame has won the grudging respect of reluctant neighbours and the admiration of outsiders for creating a place where you see real value for aid money and other “investments.” It also enjoys the political and diplomatic dividends of guilt-tripping westerners for their actions and inactions prior to, during, and after genocide in 1994.
In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah is turning in his grave that the country he built on radical nationalism has become a desirable executive tourist destination for western presidents. Ghana has had a prolonged 50th anniversary magic effect only punctuated by the unfortunate defeat at the hands of Cameroon this month in the Africa cup. You cannot go wrong with Ghana as a steady gentleman country.
As for Liberia, its historic links to the United States is flaunted by its elite without any sense of irony. In the post-Charles Taylor era, it has regained fashionability in the U.S. establishment. Bush is therefore bound to receive the warmest of receptions in Monrovia, a city created for freed U.S. slaves but whose elite has had no qualms about recreating plantation power relations against fellow Africans and behaving as the missing U.S. state on the west coast of Africa.
But Benin, I do not know why Bush is going there. Maybe to balance the Anglo-French divisions and remind a waning Paris that there are no no-go areas anymore. But maybe he wants to get close enough to Africa’s sleeping giant Nigeria without entering it, given the uncertainties surrounding the federal administration after last year’s rigged elections. Unlike in Kenya, where the protagonists are at least trying to dialogue even in the absence of much good will, in Nigeria the disputants are all in court. And so far the courts have been overturning some of the “topped-up” victories for the ruling party. What is the point of President Bush arranging to dine with a Nigerian leader who may not be there by the time you arrive or the week after you leave?
Why Africa, Why Now?
The U.S. president’s visit is obviously packaged to showcase “America working with Africa,” hence the concentration on HIV/Aids programmes supported by the U.S. government through bilateral grants and NGOs. There is no doubt that the Bush administration has given considerably more money than the Clinton administration, so loved by both African–Americans and Africans. However this generosity is dampened by the insistence on giving money to anti-condom groups and like-minded religious organizations. But HIV/AIDS is not the only threat that Africa faces and to which Bush has turned a deaf ear for the past seven years. He is ideologically opposed to the Millennium Development Goals. He has remained more belligerent than his predecessors on global climate change. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, he still believes he can bomb countries into democracy. This approach has strengthened the hands of many dictators and legitimized further militarization and regime change politics especially in the Great Lakes region. Bush may want to be remembered by his few good policies. But the consequences of his bad policies are just too many and will outlast him. Some of these bad policies have caused irreparable harm. In spite of my reservations, what kind of African would I be to say that a visitor is not welcome? And a visitor as important as George Bush? He is welcome to enjoy his stay and our hospitality. We are also hoping that the next president of the United States will not behave like a settler landlord of the world who treats the rest of us as illegal tenants. This is a shared world, and the United States must learn to inhabit it with the rest of us in peace, solidarity, and respect for all things big and small. Therefore the next president need not be asking why the rest of the world hates America. Rather he or she needs to be more introspective and ask: can America love the world enough to live in it peacefully and in justice with the rest of us?