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West Africa Holds Positive View of US

The region of West Africa includes some of the poorest countries in the world. As a result, many in this vast area look to the United States as the great hope of the future for economic prosperity and democracy. The United States has shown its interest by increasing its presence in the region. Most recently, it built a $90 million diplomatic facility in the Ivory Coast despite the ongoing civil violence there.

In the midst of a civil strife here in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, a crowd of protesters cheered recently as they saw the sign "Presse Americaine" on a car pulling aside to park along the road. A welcomed response, but not a surprising one considering the United States' increased presence in West Africa.

The U.S. State Department has been spending millions of dollars to upgrade embassies and other buildings to accommodate an increasing number of employees in the region. It recently spent more than $90 million to build a new facility in Abidjan. And, in Sierra Leone, the department spent more than $50 million to build an embassy complex there.

American oil companies also have been expanding operations here to take advantage of the region's offshore oil reserves.

At a recent demonstration by a pro-government group in downtown Abidjan, a man who identified himself as Charles said he thinks a more active involvement by the United States is necessary to help West Africa thrive.

"I want to call on President George Bush and say that we have been happy here in Cote D'Ivoire because he has been re-elected. And talk about this international intervention by the United States in Cote D'Ivoire, we do expect it," he said.

He said he and other students are planning on forming a group to show their support for America's drive for increased democracy in the region.

"This man here, is pro-American," he added. "And, this man here, is also pro-American. All of them here are pro-American. We were thinking of creating an association called 'Why We Love America.' We are just waiting for the situation to be calm before we set up that association."

A trip across town to talk with members of an opposition group, known by its French acronym RDR, finds similar pro-American sentiments. A man guarding opposition headquarters told VOA that he admires the way the Bush administration handles its relationships with other countries.

"We have to say the world needs a policeman," he explained. "So for us, George Bush has to be the policeman of the world. If there is something wrong in Cote D'Ivoire, if we can have the help of the USA, we will be happy because we think alone we cannot save our country."

In Dakar, Senegal, Moustafa Diob says the United States' fight against poverty and other issues that plague West Africa are key to the region's future. But he does have some reservations about the way the United States distributes money to poor countries.

"This is a big paradox: that all that money they are spending somewhere else, and you will notice that some people are so poor that they have to sleep outside," he noted. "This is a big problem and sometimes I do not understand why this can happen."

Despite several positive impressions of the United States in West Africa, some people question the Bush administration's policies in the region.

Some critics, such as representative Edward Royce, a Republican from California who is chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Africa subcommittee has pointed out that the United States is dealing with governments who have never experienced democracy. He warned that the United States has to be careful to pressure governments to abide by democratic principles.

He and others claim the White House's search for more secure sources of oil may be causing it to deal with some of the most troubled and repressive regimes in the region.

However, U.S. government and energy industry officials defend their strategy in the region, saying it is a sensible way to reduce American dependence on Middle East oil, particularly if it's accompanied by aggressive efforts to promote economic development and governmental reform.

Some groups, such as the activist organization Global Witness, have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of oil companies, which they say use bribery to gain access to West African oil. They fear the Bush administration will put its oil interests above development and tolerate such practices.

Potential trouble spots include Equatorial Guinea, where officials confiscate oil payments and violate human rights "with impunity," according to the U.S. State Department; Angola, where oil financed three decades of civil war and which has billions of dollars deposited in offshore accounts; and Nigeria, where poverty deepened dramatically while officials squandered billions in oil revenue.

Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution in Washington says that the United States, despite what critics say about its interest in oil, has also shown some concern about civil conflict in the region. Particularly because of recent evidence that shows a link to terror. But, he said, more has to be done.

"It is not clear that the United States has done all that much for West Africa," said Mr. O'Hanlon. "There have been times when we have been fairly indifferent to the civil conflicts that have engulfed Liberia and Sierra Leone and other countries in that vicinity. We were not principle parties in stopping those conflicts."

Mr. O'Hanlon said that while President Bush is espousing values and visions that appeal to West Africans, he said that he is not convinced that the positive attitude toward the United States will be maintained in the long term unless more is done to lift the region out of poverty and political corruption.