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Africa should beware of Bush bearing gifts

2003 July 8
by Paul Vallely

 I am not one of nature’s cynics. Indeed some have said I am a bit too gullible to be a journalist. When I was a young reporter on The Times, one of the paper’s most legendary figures, Louis Heren – who had risen from cockney copy boy to deputy editor – took me out to lunch. He wanted to pass on a tip that he’d had from an even more legendary American journalist when he was Washington correspondent. “When you are interviewing someone,” he said, “you need always to keep in the back of your mind the question: Why is this lying bastard lying to me?'”

Perhaps the years have changed me. But somehow it requires no effort to bring Mr Heren’s maxim to mind when it comes to wondering what the US President George Bush is up to on his five-day tour of Africa, which begins in Senegal today.

I seem to be out on a limb here. Everyone else is giving loud hurrahs for Mr Bush’s pledge of $ 15bn (pounds 9bn) of increased assistance to combat Aids and promise to treble development aid to the continent. Unlikely converts to the George Bush fan club, including that ace bullshit detector, Bob Geldof, are saying they detect “the beginnings of a historic change towards Africa”.

So why am I so suspicious? In part because even with the increases, America is still the world’s stingiest donor, dedicating only 0.12 per cent of its national income to aid – less than a third of the EU’s percentage. The whole of Africa still gets less US aid than Israel and Egypt. And much of the money has to be spent on American goods and services. Moreover, aid is contingent on “eligibility criteria” which promote democracy, human rights, anti-corruption strategies and the private sector – and also require recipients to “do nothing to undermine US interests”. Beware of geeks bearing gifts, as the old Romans almost put it.

But there is more. To curry favour with the Republican party’s growing African-American constituency, Mr Bush begins his tour today on the island of Goree off the coast of Senegal, which was once a centre of the slave trade. Millions of Africans bound for American plantations passed through its crowded cells. Goree is, in effect, Africa’s holocaust museum. It is the symbol of a system built on injustice. The bitter irony is that in many ways nothing has changed. For the relationship between the United States and Africa is still characterised by unrestrained power, deep injustice and unequal exchange – only now the slavery is not physical but economic and passes under the euphemism of “trade”.

Mr Bush will this week no doubt be much on his soapbox to lecture Africans on the virtues of open markets and fair trade. He will brag about America’s flagship Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. Under it, African garment and textile exporters are provided with duty-free access to US markets.

The trouble is that most of the products in which Africa has an advantage are excluded. Take peanuts. Senegalese farmers face tariffs in excess of 150 per cent to export to the US. And African textile-makers have to use imported US yarns and fabric. According to the International Monetary Fund, these protectionist loopholes cost African exporters about $ 500m a year.

There are other strings. The “concession” is conditional on African governments opening their markets to US investors, enforcing US intellectual property claims and lowering their trade barriers for US goods. This is unequal trade at its most insidious.

All of these so-called concessions – together with all the increases in aid – are wiped out by Mr Bush’s double standards in subsidising US producers to the tune of a record-breaking $ 200bn a year. In 2002, America’s 25,000 corporate cotton farms reaped a harvest of $ 4bn in government subsidies, three times the total amount of US aid to Africa. Because the US is the world’s largest exporter, Oxfam estimates these subsidies lowered world prices by about one-quarter.

Cut to West Africa and you see the consequences. There, US subsidies cheated 11 million small cotton farmers of $ 200bn in lost income in 2001. In effect, some of the globe’s poorest people are competing against the world’s richest treasury.

Given all this, why is Mr Bush even daring to show his face in Africa? And why is he trying to hide his nakedness with the fig leaf of increased aid? After all, this was the man who, in his presidential campaign in 2000, said that Africa “doesn’t fit into the US national strategic interests”.

The answer, as ever these days, is 11 September. On the one hand, the “failed states” of Africa are seen as a potential breeding ground for Islamic terrorism. On the other, there is oil. US petroleum production is decreasing and its consumption is rising. African oil is of the “sweet” low-sulphur variety which is good for cars. By 2005 it is estimated that between 15 and 25 per cent of US oil will come from Africa – close to the proportion now coming from the Middle East. And, apart from Nigeria, none of the Africans are members of the nasty Opec cartel.

So pay no attention to that recent Christian Aid report which showed how oil concentrates power in the hands of elites, encourages irresponsible spending, chokes other economic activity, fuels poverty, impedes democracy and makes conflict more likely. With the friendship of America, Mr Bush insists, “Africa will rise and Africa will prosper”. All I can say is: “Thank God for Louis Heren.”


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