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Sept. 11 Brings Some Unforeseen Changes in US-West Africa Relationship - 2002-09-05

Following the September 11 attacks, many people in West Africa feared their region would fall off the U.S. agenda. But there are some now who argue the opposite has happened.

Many Africans watched in horror as the attacks unfolded in New York and Washington last year. As the smoke was clearing, some analysts here speculated that what would follow would be cuts in U.S. aid. America, they said, would need to focus its resources and attention on Afghanistan and would ignore Africa.

What happened instead were renewed pledges for aid to the continent.

Earlier this year, the Bush administration said it would boost assistance to Africa by $5 billion. The region has also seen visits by senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Collin Powell and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.

"I would say that if anything, America looks much more at the rest of the world than it did in a pre-September 11 environment. West Africa is no different," said Jeff Krilla who directs the Africa Division of the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based non-governmental organization that promotes democracy around the world. "I think America has been keeping an eye out for countries committed to democracy and focused more attention on those of our friends around the world. And we have a number of friends in West Africa. And as a result, I think our relationships have improved much with our friends. Those countries that are troubled countries, or democracies that are in trouble, certainly have gotten more attention as well."

One of those West African trouble spots is Liberia, where the September 11 attacks are having a roundabout but potentially significant impact.

President Charles Taylor has been under international pressure to improve his human rights record. Now, an alleged connection to the al-Qaida terrorist network has hurt his relations with a key ally, and could push him to make some of the changes the United States and other countries have demanded.

Last year, The Washington Post, reported that Mr. Taylor's government was involved in diamond deals with al-Qaida operatives. Since then, Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore has ended his strong support for Mr. Taylor, and even hosted a meeting of Liberian dissidents.

Liberian opposition leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf says the loss of support because of the alleged terrorism connection could help spur Mr. Taylor to allow some political liberalization.

"Some of the recent reports following September 11 may also have had an impact on those who would like to disassociate [themselves] from anyone who's under suspicion of being involved in terrorist activities in the sub-region and elsewhere," she explained. "I think that added a bit of incentive. And I also believe President Compaore seeks a stronger relationship with the United States. [It is] one way to be able to demonstrate his own desire to be accepted by all nations as a bona-fide African nation that submits to democracy and the new development agenda, I believed that he [thought] that dissociating himself from [Charles] Taylor enabled him to have a new image."

In the wake of September 11, opponents of longstanding governments in other parts of West Africa, such as Togo, have openly said they wish for direct U.S. intervention to bring about change. But the International Republican Institute's Jeff Krilla notes they will likely be disappointed. Mr. Krilla says that through increased economic and technical assistance in the past year, the U.S. government has shown its willingness to promote peaceful democratic change in West Africa.

But he says the change will not be as swift and dramatic as some opposition groups in the region might hope.