Why Africa Has Become a Bush Priority

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Into Africa: On his first trip to the continent, Bush is focusing on oil and national security

It is too easy to cast President Bush's Africa tour this week as little more than a PR exercise. The President will be dispensing gifts on his five-day sweep through Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria, — financial aid, money to fight AIDS and trade agreements to support good governance — that may help soften his Administration's negative international image. He may even be poised to commit troops to Liberia to help prevent yet another catastrophic African fratricide, a substantial expansion of military humanitarian peacekeeping of the kind for which he had once sharply criticized his predecessor. But while AIDS, trade, investment, democracy, development and the moral obligation of preventing mass bloodshed may dominate many of the speeches, Mr. Bush is first and foremost a national-security president. His agenda in Africa remains grounded in his priority of defending the realm, and the increased U.S. engagement in Africa is driven by two familiar strategic concerns: Oil and terrorism.

al-Qaeda eyes Africa

Consider Africa through the eyes of an al-Qaeda planner: The movement long ago made excellent use of failed states such as Sudan and Somalia as safe havens to nurture a network of operatives that eventually stretched as far down East Africa as Malawi, and which has struck more than once with devastating effect. But the U.S. has sharply stepped up its intelligence operations in East Africa and has stationed 1,500 Marines in Djibouti as a rapid-reaction force. While East Africa is now a known theater of operations, West Africa offers a broad new range of opportunities — as Osama bin Laden pointed out in February, when in a taped message he singled out Nigeria as a country ripe for "liberation" by his followers. Nigeria could be fertile ground for al-Qaeda — half the population is Muslim, antagonistic to its own government over issues such as corruption and enraged by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Islamist challenge there is growing, with provincial governments instituting Taliban-style Sharia law, and the political system increasingly in crisis. The country is in the grip of a general strike, and five people were killed in riots in Lagos Monday.

Nigeria is the most powerful state in a heavily Muslim region, and although the Islam practiced in the Francophone West African countries such as Senegal has typically been far more moderate and tolerant than the model exported by the Saudis, even in these countries anti-American anger reached new peaks with the Iraq war. President Bush is almost certain to face angry demonstrations on a number of stops during his Africa stop, and Al-Qaeda will be hoping to use that same anger to gain a foothold in West Africa.

For Washington, however, the region's importance is not simply that al-Qaeda may be trying to expand there; it's that West Africa is slated to become an important supplier of U.S. energy needs. America already imports about as much oil from Africa — principally Nigeria and Angola — as it does from Saudi Arabia, but the African share of the U.S. market is slated to almost double over the next two decades as U.S. companies move to exploit the high-quality offshore deposits in the Guinea basin. Last year, alone, they invested some $10 billion in the region, and that level of investment is expected to be maintained for years to come, making West Africa a region of increasing strategic significance in the U.S. national security framework.

West and Central Africa have been plagued by deep-rooted ethnic and political instability that has sustained brutal conflicts across a number of the region's borders, most of which were drawn by the European colonial powers during the 19th century to deliberately bisect traditional nations and kingdoms to create divided colonies which could be more easily ruled from abroad. Once these colonies became independent, control of the state typically meant control over the natural resources coveted by Western importers, making state power the primary economic prize over which generals, demagogues and warlords competed — and control over those resources often fueled further repression and war. The problem confronting most peacekeeping missions in the region is that warfare has often become a source of livelihood for thousands of young men for whom the civilian economy provides few prospects.

Because Africa's wars have a habit of spilling over borders and destabilizing entire regions, peacekeeping will be a hot topic in Administration's discussions over Liberia with Nigeria and in particular South Africa, which boasts the continent's most powerful military. The President will also be looking to greatly expand intelligence cooperation against al-Qaeda with his hosts in Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa.

Enter the U.S.

The need to expand the U.S. security presence in Africa — the administration is already discussing creating skeletal military bases in North and West Africa to complement the Marine facility at Djibouti and expand U.S. capacity for rapid reaction to crises — may tip the Administration in favor of committing some resources to a Liberia mission. Britain did its bit by sending troops to its former colony in Sierra Leone and staying there until the rebellion was crushed; France did the same for its former colony in Ivory Coast; and now there's pressure on the U.S. to tackle the problem in Liberia, a state that is something of an American creation.

But African peacekeeping isn't easy. On the one hand, the British experience in Sierra Leone showed that a relatively small force of well-trained and organized troops can quickly put to flight much larger rag-tag rebel armies. But political institutions in Liberia are weak, and in a region where war has become a way of life for so many young men, it may have a nasty habit of recurring. And as he's pressing the case for more action against al-Qaeda and regional warlords and demagogues (primarily Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe), President Bush is likely to hear growing calls from African leaders for help in the Congo, currently Africa's bloodiest and most intractable conflict.

The U.S. needs African help in stopping al-Qaeda gaining a foothold on the continent, and in protecting what may become increasingly important energy interests in the West African region. And that has prompted it to engage more actively with African leaders and problems, offering aid and promoting cooperation and good governance. Given the strategic concerns, however, good governance may fall down the priority list. Good governance requires transparency, accountability, the rule of law and democracy. But the war on terrorism has reinforced a tendency to reward high-handed authoritarianism when its perpetrators are targeting U.S. enemies. There'll be no complaints, for example, about Malawi's decision last week to ignore its own courts in order to expedite the extradition of five al-Qaeda suspects to the U.S. And good governance has been an exceedingly rare phenomenon in nations that subsist primarily on exporting oil.

Still, while the problems of democracy and security in Africa may once have been contemplated from a polite distance, President Bush's trip may usher in an era in which the twin U.S. concerns of energy and terrorism increasingly compel Washington to embrace some of Africa's problems as its own.