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Bush Trip to Emphasize US Strategic Interests in Africa


Over the next week, President Bush will visit five African countries - Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia. Observers say the trip is about a number of strategic issues, including regional conflicts and military and security cooperation. From Washington, reporter William Eagle reports.

Analysts say the president’s visit to Africa includes several stops that emphasize the United States’ strategic interests. One is Rwanda.

J. Peter Pham is the director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Virginia.

He notes that in 2007, the US government gave Rwanda more than $160 million in development aid and $7 million in military aid.

Pham says Kigali may also participate in AFRICOM, the new US Africa Command of the US Department of Defense. AFRICOM leaders say it will help 53 countries build regional security and crisis support capacity.

"Rwanda is a major contributor to UN peacekeeping efforts in Africa," said Pham. "It took the lead in Darfur. [It was] one of the first countries to put boots on the ground with the Africa Union mission and now the UN African Union hybrid mission. What AFRICOM will bring to a country like Rwanda…is helping train the trainers…helping build up Rwanda’s capacity to contribute to African security. "

"In the case of Rwanda, they are very interested [in AFRICOM] because of their own experience with the genocide. They are interested in getting involved in that type of crisis response [effort] in Africa so when something happens, they are not waiting for years on end for a force to be cobbled together. They want to develop their capacity. One of their weaknesses is they do not have...a core of career non-commissioned officers who are the backbone of their military. We are helping to train that core for them."

Rwanda is also a key player in helping bring peace to the eastern Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s the site of fighting between Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, and Hutu militias driven into exile from Rwanda after its civil war and genocide more than 10 years ago.

Stephen Morrison is the co-director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The US has been very engaged in trilateral security negotiations over the last two years with the DRC, Uganda and Rwandan defense chiefs," says Morrison. "Rwanda is playing ball [cooperating] with us in drawing down support for Nkunda, who has [contributed to instability] in the Kivus."

President Bush will also visit Tanzania, another strategic partner in Africa.

Analyst Stephen Morrison says crises are spreading in the Horn of Africa and among Tanzania’s neighbors, including Chad. It is inundated with refugees from the fighting in the Darfur region of neighboring Sudan. The Chadian government has also been fighting militias trying to topple the administration of President Idriss Deby. Another of Tanzania’s neighbors, Kenya, has been beset by protests and violence since disputed elections several weeks ago. Instability there has paralyzed trade routes throughout East Africa.

According to Morrison, "The new leadership of the African Union is President [Jakaya] Kikwete of Tanzania. And the Tanzanians are taking hits: They are seeing their [capital] Dar es Salaam, flooded with redirected [commercial] traffic [from Kenya]. They are seeing shortages. They are seeing migration into their territories. They are being called upon at the leadership level to bear a lot of responsibility for trying to push back, particularly on the Chad and Kenya crises, which are fully on the table for the African Union leadership."

Analyst Stephen Morrison says it’s likely that the post-election crisis in Kenya will be discussed on President Bush’s trip.

"It’s inevitable, particularly in Tanzania, [to] engage with President Kikwete about…the crisis in Kenya," he says. "I think you can also make the same argument in Ghana, where President Kufuor was just the head of the African Union. He’s just retired and was deeply engaged in the early phase of the Kenyan crisis. [As for President Paul] Kagame in Rwanda, [President Bush] is going to countries where the leadership has taken or is positioned to be very much front and center in making decisions on this."

Analyst J. Peter Pham says Tanzania is also seeking US help in monitoring its borders through the State Department’s Terrorist Interdiction Program. Under the initiative, the United States provides Tanzania with help in a number of areas, including surveillance, training, communications equipment, and access to information.

He says, "The US is in a position to help them beef up those types of things they want to beef up for their own internal self-defense. And that aids us in our greater struggle to contain extremism in the region."

Pham says geopolitical interests also play a role in President Bush’s trip to West Africa.

He says he expects AFRICOM to be discussed in two countries President Bush will visit. He says Ghana is active in regional security, has successfully made the transition to democratic elections and has had many years of economic growth and stability. He says it’s also the site of the Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Center and a safe place for American personnel.

Ghana is also part of the Africa Partnership Station - a US-led program to provide maritime security training. Threats to the Africa include piracy, oil smuggling and human trafficking.

But it’s Liberia that has expressed interest in hosting AFRICOM. The country is headed by Africa’s first elected female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Pham says Liberia, which is recovering from years of civil war, is not often seen as an economically or politically viable venue for the US command, especially when compared to Ghana.

"President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has done a great service to her country being a democratic leader," he says, "raising its profile in the international community. But, she has not tackled internal reform..."

"For example, she is ruling with a constitution written for [former dictator] Samuel Doe. The only thing keeping Liberia from becoming Doe’s dictatorship is that she is not a dictator…. She theoretically could be and it would be constitutional. [Also] they have a dozen and a half different police forces in Liberia. You can’t begin to talk about cooperating with regional security until you have a rational scheme for security forces in own country. Any [such] scheme would eliminate a dozen or more police forces [meaning] a dozen or so chiefs who would no longer [retain their powers]...I think that is a message she will be receiving privately on this trip – not publicly, but privately."

But Pham says Liberia, which was founded by resettled American slaves nearly 150 years ago, is considered a symbol of the US government’s commitment to Africa.

“We have to be actively engaged in Liberia,” he says, “to have credibility while discussing our long-term engagement in Africa. And we have to be engaged in Africa for the long term for strategic reasons.”

Since the end of the civil war five years ago, the United States has contributed about $750 million toward Liberia’s reconstruction and development. It’s also supporting the training and development of the Liberia’s new armed forces.

President Bush is expected to be well received in the countries he visits, where he will highlight the benefits of his administration’s engagement in Africa.

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