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African Officials Grateful for Debt Relief, Others Skeptical

Officials from poor West African countries are welcoming the promise of total debt relief from lending institutions, but opposition leaders, commentators, and ordinary citizens are more skeptical.

A top official from Benin's ministry of foreign affairs and African integration tells VOA the savings from the elimination of debt and interest payments will help fight poverty.

Isidore Monsi says it should be a first step to really helping the world's poorest countries. He also calls for more aid.

But he concludes this puts Benin back on the map, and shows that Benin matters in the world today.

The director of Burkina Faso's government national solidarity office, Francis Ouedraogo, had a similar reaction.

"I am very happy when I heard the information about the annulation [cancellation] of Burkina's debt. It is for the benefit of population and will permit to fight against poverty," said Mr. Ouedraogo.

But when news started circulating outside government halls, there was skepticism.

Burkina Faso opposition leader, Herman Yameogo, says he is less than certain savings will be used with transparency to build schools, roads, hospitals.

He says with an election coming up, savings should also go toward improving democracy, but he says this will be very unlikely.

He reacts angrily when asked whether the announcement of debt cancellation will benefit his opponent, former coup leader and long-time President Blaise Compaore, in elections later this year. Mr. Compaore has been leading efforts calling on governments in Europe and the United States to end subsidies to their cotton farmers, so Burkina's own ailing cotton sector can compete.

A journalist standing on a street filled with honking mopeds in the capital Ouagadougou also has doubts about the debt cancellation recently announced by foreign ministers from the world's wealthiest nations. He says he never saw previous efforts to give debt relief make a dent in poverty.

He says the news has made in his words "sensation," but that Burkinabes should wait and see until everything is finalized at the Group of Eight summit of leaders in July in Scotland.

Leaving his factory job, Dominique Zoungrana is also unconvinced. He says every program to end poverty has always resulted in more poverty, while government officials get fancy cars and bank accounts in Europe.

Many are also under the impression that rather than debt relief, the government is being given billions of dollars. The initiative is to erase a total of $40 billion in debt in 18 of the world's poorest countries, including Benin and Burkina Faso. It stipulates that governments must practice good governance and spend the savings judiciously.

Monday, President Bush pledged to increase aid to Africa through the multi-billion dollar Millennium Challenge Account, after meeting with five democratically elected leaders in Washington.