President Bush's Africa Trip

New York Times

July 7, 2003

American presidents do not travel to Africa often. President Bush's five-day, five-nation visit, starting today, marks a significant step in America's deepening relations with the continent. For too long, Washington and other Western capitals treated Africa as if it were condemned to war, poverty and preventable epidemics. Mr. Bush understands that Africans are entitled to a better future, and that America can help them achieve it.

Turning that vision into reality will take more than whirlwind tours and inspiring speeches. Mr. Bush must press Congress to provide ample financing for his multiyear AIDS and development initiatives. He should also speak plainly with African leaders about steps they themselves need to take. More than 11 percent of the world's people live in sub-Saharan Africa. Their future depends on how well their countries handle the intertwined problems of H.I.V.-AIDS, ethnic and civil conflict, corrupt and abusive government and economic growth too feeble to provide jobs for rising populations. In each of the countries Mr. Bush is visiting — Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria — one or more of these issues belongs high on the agenda.

Senegal is a strong democracy, though plagued by a low-grade separatist insurgency in the Casamance region. Despite this, Senegal has set a healthy example in a deeply troubled neighborhood and has participated in efforts to negotiate peace in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia.

South Africa has one of the continent's most developed economies and biggest H.I.V.-AIDS problems. President Thabo Mbeki is sub-Saharan Africa's most prestigious leader. But his failure to confront the AIDS pandemic has caused public health damage at home and hurt efforts elsewhere to overcome the stigmatization that undermines effective prevention and treatment. If Mr. Bush can persuade Mr. Mbeki to follow a more enlightened course, America's AIDS assistance programs will save more lives. Mr. Mbeki has also failed to do all he should to help resolve the crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has clung to power through repression and fraud.

Botswana is blessed with mineral wealth, a relatively small population, vigorous democracy and enlightened environmental policies. But it is cursed with Africa's highest H.I.V. infection rate, with two of five adults affected. In contrast to Mr. Mbeki, President Festus Mogae has worked hard to contain the disease. Even more energetic steps could be taken, modeled on the anti-AIDS campaign led by Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni. By mentioning AIDS in almost every speech and carrying the campaign into every village, Mr. Museveni has gone far to destigmatize the disease. That has helped reduce the infection rate by two-thirds, a remarkable life-saving achievement. Mr. Museveni's leadership would be far more impressive if he permitted opposition parties and free elections, a point Mr. Bush should insist on.

The Bush visit concludes in Africa's most populous country, Nigeria. President Olusegun Obasanjo has been a consistent opponent of military dictatorship, but his first term as an elected civilian ruler was extremely disappointing. He has failed to crack down on corruption and army human rights abuses, neglected the economy and done little to heal dangerous religious and ethnic divisions. Now Mr. Obasanjo has become actively involved in efforts to bring peace and a transitional administration to Liberia. Yesterday the Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, said he would accept Nigeria's offer of safe haven. Mr. Bush needs to tell Mr. Obasanjo that he would be a more credible advocate of good governance abroad if he did more to practice it at home.