Africa Activists Denounce Bush’s “Malign Neglect”

Washington’s single-minded pursuit of the “war on terror” and its pre-occupation with Iraq and North Korea have pushed Africa to the margins, according to the analysis offered by a range of U.S. activist groups at a joint press briefing on January 23rd in Washington, DC.

Representatives from Africa Action, Jubilee USA Network, and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) strongly denounced what they call the George W. Bush’s administration’s “malign neglect” of the continent, insisting that Africa’s problems represent a more serious threat to long-term U.S. security interests than radical Islamist terrorism. They argued that the region’s economies, collapsing under the combined weight of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, unsustainable debt burdens, and ongoing civil wars and violence in key countries, represent permanent threats to U.S. global interests in a stable world order.

The briefing was held one week after Bush was supposed to have completed his first trip to Africa in what had been billed as a concrete symbol of his interest in the continent. Citing pressing matters at home, however, Bush put off the visit until some time later this year, a decision, according to Africa Action director Salih Booker, that drove home the “second class status” that is given Africa by Washington policymakers today.

Booker and the others charge the administration’s interest in the region is confined to its geographical proximity to the Arabian Peninsula and to its oil supplies. “The shift is really back to a cold war framework,” notes Booker. “Africa is seen as a piece of geo-strategic real estate use for its oil and as a staging area for military operations only. Washington must move African concerns from the margins of U.S. foreign policy to the center, if it is to sharpen its focus on the most destabilizing international threats and the most urgent global priorities,” he stressed.

Foremost among these is the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has already killed nearly 20 million Africans and created 12 million AIDS orphans in the region, and now represents “the single greatest global threat to human security today, far more deadly than terrorists or the alleged existence of Iraqi weapons,” argues Booker.

Africa Action and other activist groups are calling for Bush to request and Congress to approve at least $3.5 billion annually for the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria to which the U.S. has contributed a mere $500 million in the past two fiscal years.

The Global Fund, which is already running short of money to fund projects in Africa and other AIDS-affected regions, has estimated annual needs to contain what has become the worst epidemic in history at more than $10 billion a year by 2005 and $15 billion a year by 2007.

“This is the most important and inexpensive investment the U.S. can make to the future of the world,” said Booker. Despite U.S. National Intelligence Council warnings last September that the disease is poised to wreak economic and social havoc in five major regional powers–Russia, China, India, Ethiopia, and Nigeria–over the next decade, the administration has failed to devote a fraction of the resources it already has applied to its “war on terrorism.”

“Years from now, people will ask about AIDS in Africa the way they ask now about the (Nazi) Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda,” said Booker, “and the AIDS pandemic is still in its global infancy.”

Greatly complicating the ability of African nations to address the HIV/AIDS issue, according to Marie Clarke, the national Coordinator of the Jubilee Network, is the region’s huge debt burden, which requires its governments to pay out $14.5 billion per year in debt service, much of which dates from the cold war period when western-supported dictators were encouraged to borrow heavily for projects that were of little or no value to most of their citizens.

That money could be used instead to rebuild overburdened healthcare systems that have already been gravely weakened by two decades of U.S.-supported World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs, according to Clarke. “We can’t talk about fighting AIDS if we don’t talk about the debt,” she said.

The Bank and IMF have also been administering the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) program to help reduce the debt load, but even they now admit, at least internally, that HIPC support for many AIDS-afflicted African countries will not be enough to make the debt burden sustainable, let alone to provide enough funds to fight the disease.

“Millions die while our administration withholds life-saving debt cancellation,” she said, adding that the debt burden has also become “a major source of global inequality,” which feeds resentment and bitterness against the West.

While the administration has retained the rhetorical support for human rights, democratization, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts that have rendered killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of Africans in recent years, its preoccupation with security, particularly since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, has resulted in the strengthening of repressive governments and institutions in Africa, according to Adotei Akwei of Amnesty International-USA.

This has been particularly true in East Africa and the Horn where there has already been a significant deployment of U.S. troops, especially in Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, but it extends as well to the supply of military aid and training elsewhere on the continent, notably to West African oil-producing nations whose percentage contribution to total daily U.S. oil imports is expected to rise from 15% today to 25% by 2020.

“The U.S. is reinforcing the special status of the military in Africa when in many countries the military is not only above the law but is also perceived as being more accountable to foreign interests than to their own people,” said Akwei. “The U.S. is throwing most of its eggs into the basket of supporting security forces, instead of human rights, democratization, health, and education.”

Such policies, as well as Washington’s general indifference to Africa’s plight, according to the activists, are certain to compound existing problems, thus making them far more difficult to address in the future.

“U.S. disregard for Africa has become malignant, with increasingly deadly consequences for Africa,” according to Booker.