White House

Obama walks in George W. Bush’s footsteps in Africa

Women wearing skirts with the face of U.S. President Barack Obama rehearse their singing ahead of welcoming him for his planned meeting with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, outside State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Women wearing skirts with the face of U.S. President Barack Obama rehearse their singing ahead of welcoming him for his planned meeting with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, outside State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania AP

President Barack Obama often notes that he inherited a world full of problems from predecessor George W. Bush, from a Great Recession to unpopular wars. It’s not meant as a compliment to Bush. When it comes to Africa, though, Obama also inherited Bush’s policies. On that, he has little choice but to salute his predecessor.

As Obama will be reminded Tuesday in Tanzania, Bush set something of a humanitarian standard for the aggressive efforts he took on the continent, first pushing through a massive program to help AIDS patients that’s saved perhaps millions of lives, and then with a personal commitment that continues today.

Making an official visit to Tanzania, Obama will find Bush there with former first lady Laura Bush. Bush is on his third trip to the continent since he left office four years ago, this one taking him first to Zambia to help refurbish a clinic as a part of the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon campaign against cervical cancer, then to Tanzania, where Laura Bush is hosting a first ladies forum to empower women in Africa that’s sponsored by her husband’s institute.

First lady Michelle Obama will join in at the first ladies event. Also, in a last-minute addition to the Obama schedule, President Obama and former President Bush will join at a wreath-laying event Tuesday morning at the site of the fatal bombing at the U.S. Embassy in 1998. They aren’t expected to make remarks.

Rather than drawing a contrast with Bush as he does on many other polices, Obama and his advisers seek to connect Obama to Bush’s record in Africa.

“President Bush deserves enormous credit for that. It is really important. And it saved lives of millions of people,” Obama said aboard Air Force One en route to South Africa.

“The United States has really done wonderful work through the (anti-AIDS) program started under my predecessor, President Bush, and continued through our administration,” he added in Cape Town.

The keystone of Bush’s record was the 2003 creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, aimed largely at Africa.

In the decade since, it’s spent $44 billion fighting AIDS, including $7 billion in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, according to the State Department. When the president’s program was created, AIDS was rampant in sub-Saharan Africa and fewer than 100,000 people here were taking anti-retroviral drugs. Today, more than 2 million are taking the drugs.

In February, Secretary of State John Kerry said the program had saved “maybe 5 million lives.” Former President Bill Clinton said in April that in his trips to Africa he’d “personally seen the faces of some of the millions of people who are alive today” because of Bush’s programs.

“Actually, (Bush) surprised me and he actually surprised Africans, who don’t expect much from Republican presidents,” said Mwangi Kimenyi, the director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington. “And if you look at the AIDS programs, major AIDS programs . . . these are creative programs that came under President Bush.”

Bush traveled extensively in Africa, visiting five countries in 2003 – Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria – and five more in 2008: Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia. After the second trip of his presidency, an exuberant Bush invited 200 people to the White House for a slide show.

By comparison, Obama visited one country in sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana, for less than 24 hours in his first term, and he’s visiting three countries on this trip, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.

Bush helped broker peace in warring Sudan, and he proposed creating the Millennium Challenge Corporation – a foreign aid agency that’s primarily helped Africa – and a pair of programs to combat malaria and AIDS/HIV.

Obama has continued two of Bush’s biggest successes: the Millennium Challenge Corporation – which has approved more than $8.4 billion in programs worldwide in agriculture, transportation, water supply and sanitation, education and other areas – and the AIDS relief programs.

Some anti-AIDS activists accuse Obama of reducing money for the AIDS program. The White House says Obama has increased funding for overall global health programs as he looks to turn the initiatives into a comprehensive approach to health. Obama himself chafed at the criticism, telling reporters on this trip that he couldn’t get as much money out of a Republican-led House of Representatives as Bush did.

“Given the budget constraints, for us to try to get the kind of money that President Bush was able to get out of the Republican House for massively scaled new foreign-aid programs is very difficult,” he said. “We could do even more with more resources. But if we’re working smarter, the amount of good that we can bring about over the next decade is tremendous.”

On Sunday, Obama tried to forge his own agenda in Africa in a broad speech, pledging that the United States would do its part, not by offering a handout but by partnering with African governments and private companies to lure businesses to the continent. He promised “a new chapter” in U.S.-African relations.

“I think everything we do is designed to make sure that Africa is not viewed as a dependent, as a charity case, but is instead viewed as a partner; that instead of chronically receiving aid, it is starting to get involved in trade, get involved in production, and over time is going to be able to feed itself, house itself and produce its own goods,” he said. “And that’s what Africa wants.”

The most ambitious proposal is a $7 billion program to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Obama also pledged to continue a program he started to help farmers produce new technologies.

Still, African experts say Obama’s overall long-term strategy is still a work in progress.

“President Bush . . . you could actually sense a real enthusiasm when he talked about Africa and his African trips and his African initiatives, and you don’t quite get that now,” Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “And I think this is President Obama’s opportunity to kind of reignite not only himself but Africans and the U.S. bureaucracy.”

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