In a country teeming with resources the world covets, United States President George Bush sought on Wednesday to soothe African fears about American interests on the continent. He said the US is not aiming to make Africa into a base for greater military power or a proxy battleground with China.
The desire for Africa’s vast raw materials — oil, gold, diamonds, minerals, crops and more — has a long and often violent and exploitative history.
That is especially true in Ghana, a tropical, resource-rich nation on the shores of West Africa, the first place in sub-Saharan Africa that Europeans arrived to trade, first in gold, then slaves, and now the site of a new offshore oil discovery.
So it came as little surprise that Bush’s talk about how US generosity has made strides against disease and poverty encountered some skepticism here about the underlying American agenda. Some of those questions arose during Bush’s appearance with Ghana’s leader at Osu Castle, once a hub of slave-trading and now the seat of government.
With no prompting at a news conference, Bush sought to deal with suspicions about the creation of a new US military command dedicated to Africa.
Nations such as Libya, Nigeria and South Africa have expressed fears the plan signals an unwanted expansion of American power on the continent or is a cover for protecting Africa’s oil on behalf of the US.
Bush said Ghanian President John Kufuor bluntly told him in private that ”you’re not going to build any bases in Ghana”.
”I know there’s rumours in Ghana, ‘All Bush is coming to do is try to convince you to put a big military base here,’ ” Bush said. ”That’s baloney. Or as we say in Texas, that’s bull. I want to dispel the notion that all of a sudden America is bringing all kinds of military to Africa.”
Instead, Bush said the new command — unique to the Pentagon’s structure — was aimed at more effectively reorganising US military efforts related to Africa under one hierarchy, and to strengthen African nations’ peacekeeping, trafficking, anti-terror and other efforts.
For now, the administration has decided to continue operating Africom out of existing US bases on the continent and directing it from Stuttgart, Germany. Bush said ”we haven’t made our minds up” about whether to ”develop some kind of office somewhere in Africa” as a headquarters. But war-wrecked Liberia is the only African nation that has offered to host it.
Kufuor said Bush’s explanation ”should put fade to the speculation”.
On China, Bush insisted ”we can pursue agendas without creating a sense of competition.” Still, he made his argument clear: that the US is the better and kinder partner, because it aims to improve African lives while nations like China focus on commercial opportunity.
In an indirect swipe at Beijing, Bush suggested African leaders set standards such as the employment of African workers or keeping value-added processes on the continent for countries seeking to do business here — and promised the US would meet them.
”I just will tell you that our policy is aimed at helping people,” the president said.
But there is no question that US economic interests matter here.
On energy alone, a fifth of US oil comes from Nigeria. Ghana’s oil discovery last year matters, even if it will not rival that.
Jennifer Cooke, an authority on Africa for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Bush’s altered approach to foreign aid — in which assistance is restricted to nations that embrace free markets, fight corruption and invest in education and health — is in part a counter-argument to China’s formidable presence.
Beijing is making investments and forging relationships that have drawn some controversy here, but also enough applause to create concern in Washington.
Ghana was the first African nation to receive a Millennium Challenge Corporation compact, one worth $547-million over five years to expand markets for crops.
”China has a major focus on infrastructure and Africans appreciate that very much about the Chinese engagement,” Cooke said. ”And so this is a way, I think, of trying to do things differently in ways that matter to Africans.”
For his part, Kufuor had no criticism for China, saying its products are ”quite competitive” and its system bound to turn more democratic.
”I can assure you our nations are not succumbing to dictates and impositions, not from China nor elsewhere,” he said. ”So as far as we are concerned, so far, it’s all right with China.”
Bush also came to Ghana — ”the front-row, straight-A student of Africa”, as White House spokesperson Tony Fratto put it — because it is the kind of story he likes to promote. It is a stable, relatively well-administered democracy that has largely avoided ethnic clashes and played a busy peacekeeping role on the continent under Kufuor’s leadership. Ghana also has cut its still-persistent poverty and is
known for media freedoms.
But it is still dependent on foreign aid, including millions each year from the United States. ”Mr President, Africa salutes you for these gestures of goodwill that are impacting the lives of many ordinary persons on the continent for the better,” Kufuor said at a lavish dinner for Bush and about 500 other people.
From Ghana, Bush will fly to Liberia on Thursday and then back to Washington. He also has visited Benin, Tanzania and Rwanda. – Sapa-AP