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Africans Express Opinions about US Presidential Election


The U.S. Presidential election has become the subject of growing debate in Africa, where many people say the war on terror is a critical issue. Although they will not be able to vote in the election, there is no shortage of opinion among Africans about who should win next Tuesday's election.

In a noisy Johannesburg bar, a group of friends from Botswana are enjoying a heated debate over beers after work. They might not agree on the political situation in their home country, which is holding a presidential election Saturday, but most of them have similar opinions about the American election. One man, who gives his name as Lephoso, summed it up.

"I don't have anything to add but just that I hope Bush loses by a landslide," he said. "Yeah. I don't like his foreign policy."

Oddly enough, it is not President Bush's policy toward Africa that bothers him. Like many other southern Africans, Lephoso and his friend Kgiso are more upset about the war in Iraq and other aspects of the administration's Middle East policy.

Lephosi: "I think, I am of the opinion that a greater percentage of Africans, or South Africans, or people from southern Africa would like George Bush not to win the elections."

Kgiso: "Most of the people, I think they don't like Bush because of the Iraqi thing and stuff like that."

Lephoso says people are suffering in Iraq, and as an African, he understands suffering. Only one person sitting at his table appears to have a different opinion, which sparks some laughter and more debate among his friends. He says his name is Farid, and he thinks Americans ought to re-elect President Bush.

Farid: " Republican. (laughter). Bush."

McDonough: "Why?"

Farid: "He must suppress the terrorists. (laughter)"

McDonough: "And you think he'll do that more than Kerry?

Farid: "Well, I don't know Kerry, I don't know how he operates. Maybe if I know how he operates, I'll say something better. But I've seen Bush, I'm happy with him."

Many analysts believe U.S. relations with the world were fundamentally changed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And indeed, the "War on Terror" has become the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy around the world.

But in East Africa, terrorism has long been a key issue. Kenyan political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi, who heads an independent policy institute, says al Qaida has repeatedly targeted the region, starting with the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam.

"So for that one reason, terrorism, this election is of particular interest," said Mr. Ngunyi. "So we are interested in this election particularly because we want to have a government in the U.S. that has a moderate foreign policy, especially towards the Arab countries. One of the things that would happen is that at least we would not be exposed as we are right now. For instance, the war in Iraq and some kind of increase in anger amongst even our own Muslims in eastern Africa."

Mr. Ngunyi believes the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, would pursue a foreign policy that would ease anger among Muslims.

Despite the almost overwhelming focus on Iraq and terrorism, there are other issues that matter to Africa. Back in the Johannesburg bar, President Bush's lone supporter, Farid, mentions another one.

"Bush has given us a lot of money for this AIDS thing," he added. "I'm happy with that. That's one other thing."

President Bush last year pledged $10 billion over five years to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. That is one of the policies he mentions when arguing that he has done more for Africa than his predecessors.

But political scientist John Stremlau, who heads the international relations department at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, says the two candidates' stated positions on Africa are not discernibly different.

"There's not much difference between the two candidates with regard to Africa," he noted. "Indeed neither has said much about Africa, although both expressed concern about Darfur and southern Sudan. Both committed to continue the HIV/AIDS initiative. Both want to see, I think, the kind of Africa that the New Partnership for Africa's Development exemplifies."

The Partnership, known as NEPAD, sets guidelines for the development of democratic institutions in Africa.

Mr. Stremlau says with public opinion polls in the United States indicating the election is very close, African leaders are finding it difficult to plan ahead.

"African leaders, like the rest of the world, will have to take a wait-and-see attitude," he explained. "If the polls were suggesting either Kerry or Bush the likely winner, they could begin to calculate what the implications are. But now they have to hedge their bets and wait and see who wins."

Mr. Stremlau says one key difference between the two candidates is their attitude toward multilateralism and institutions such as the United Nations, an issue close to the hearts of many African leaders. Some of the leaders may have opinions on the American candidates that are just as strong as the denizens of that Johannesburg bar, but for now, like leaders everywhere, they're keeping those opinions to themselves and waiting to see what happens next Tuesday.