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America’s Challenge on Africa: Keeping the President’s Word

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We are pleased that President Bush visited Africa.

Most importantly, the fact that George W. Bush now knows that Africa is important to America’s foreign policy represents a step in the right direction for his foreign policy “dream team.”

“I’ll be carrying a message [that] America cares about the future of Africa,” the President declared to a group of African journalists last week, according to the Washington Post. “It’s in our national interest that Africa become a prosperous place. It’s in our interest that people will continue to fight terror together. It’s in our interest that, when we find suffering, we deal with it.”

The President was right, of course, on all three counts.

There’s no question these are perilous times for much of the African continent because it is convulsed by the two great scourges of our era: war, and AIDS.

President Bush, responding in dramatic fashion, has pledged to help resolve these crises, and, more important, he’s pledged substantial funds to give African nations the resources to make that happen.

The President said he wants Congress to commit $15 billion over five years to fight the AIDS scourge in Africa; and another $5 billion over three years to aid those countries which have progressed in instituting democratic forms of government.

The question is: will America keep the President’s word?

This is not a small question. Indeed, the importance of forging the right response to the twin crises in Black Africa can scarcely be calculated, for the ramifications of what happens in the next few years will affect the entire world.

Africa’s horrible wars, with their all too human cruelty deliberately directed against civilians, are but a mirror image of other conflicts in other regions rooted in long-held ethnic hatreds, the terrible poverty of the masses, and the pervasive corruption of the ruling class.

One factor which has made Black Africa so fertile a field for carnage is that most of its 48 countries have an astonishing number of ethnic groups—the old word was “tribes”—whose longstanding antagonisms have been stoked by widespread poverty.

That is not to excuse the atrocities. Barbarous behavior must never be excused. It is to clarify what we’re dealing with so that a way out of the turmoil can be devised.

That’s the challenge now facing the United States in Liberia. President Bush has made it clear that part of the solution is for the Liberian strongman, Charles Taylor, who’s been accused of war crimes by a United Nations-supported court, to accept the exile offered him by Nigeria. But thus far he’s not been convinced to send U.S. troops to the country to support peacekeeping efforts by a group of West African nations.

We strongly encourage the President to commit military troops and reconstruction funds to Liberia—and when he does, we will applaud his efforts.

The task ahead for this country regarding AIDS in Africa is clearer. It has to back up the President’s word. AIDS in Africa is not an “African problem.” It’s a global one.

True, there the catastrophe is starkest: 30 million people are infected; 3 to 4 million die annually; 11 million children have been orphaned by the disease; large swaths of the countries are being de-populated, adding economic calamity to the human toll.

But, as author Nicholas Eberstadt chillingly pointed out in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, outside of Africa 12 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS, and the disease is on the verge of reaching epidemic status in China, India, the Asian subcontinent, and Russia—with a potential for disaster in these more populous regions that would dwarf the calamity in Africa.

And by no means do I forget the continuing AIDS crisis here in the United States, which disproportionately affects Hispanic Americans and African Americans.

In fact, Urban League staff and a panel of experts on the disease will discuss what can be done to reduce our domestic crisis in a special meeting during our annual conference in two weeks in Pittsburgh.

That broader perspective on how vast is the reach of the AIDS’ scourge underscores the importance of making good on the President’s pledge to Africa.

Some African countries themselves, notably Botswana and Uganda, have made considerable progress in treating the infected and in educating their citizens how to protect themselves against the disease. What they lack are the dollars to buy the anti-AIDS drugs sufferers need and to fashion broader, more effective AIDS education programs.

In his last moments in Africa, at a special luncheon of the fifth African-African-American Summit, now named in honor of the late Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, the African-American civil rights activist, President Bush made a point of describing HIV/AIDS as “a deadly preventable disease … The progress we’re seeing in parts of Africa is proof that AIDS can be defeated in Africa.”

Will America keep the President’s word?

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