- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

ACCRA, Ghana. — “How’s Africa?” a colleague asked. My response was straight, no chaser: “I don’t know how all of Africa is doing, but my visit to Ghana was fantastic, insightful.”

President Bush won’t have it that easy. Many black Americans view his five-nation visit as travels of endearment, for votes in 2004. How else, they say, to explain his first stop: Senegal’s Goree Island, where, slaves were “said” to be held captive before they were shipped off to Americas? Others suspect he wants to appeal to the Great White Hunter instincts. How else to explain his photo-op in the Mokolodi Nature Reserve in Botswana? Still others say the president merely wants to put a lock on the gay vote by personally selling his HIV/AIDS initiative in Africa.

Really now?

The overwhelming majority of blacks didn’t vote Bush-Cheney in 2000 and, while I haven’t had a tete-a-tete with the president, I suspect he knows blacks aren’t going to go hog wild Bush-Cheney next year because he nation-hopped in Africa this year. The president is a cowboy-boot-wearing, city-country-city American — but he’s no cowpoke. And his travels there are not some assignment a la how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation.

Africa, with all its distinguishable pockets of peace, potential and travails, plays an important role in global realities. To name two: no peace in North Africa, no peace in the Mideast; violence and civil strife in West Africa, potential problems with and for our trading partners.

This fiscal year, 60 percent of the nearly $2.2 billion the United Nations earmarked for peacekeeping efforts will be set aside for operations in Africa. Four missions will be in sub-Saharan Africa alone — Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. One major problem, though, is that these multinational missions produce mixed results. For example, the U.N. peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo was created in 1999. Yet, because of the continued genocide, the Security Council just last month bolstered forces, approving a French-led, rapid-deployment force of 1,400 troops. It is the costliest of the new peacekeeping packages for the new fiscal year, at more than $608 million.

Will that money win Mr. Bush any brownie points back home with blacks or homosexuals, or, for that matter, any other constituency in the 2004 national elections? Hardly.

American politics is not as diverse as Africa’s — ethnically, racially or religiously. Few things are distinctly black and white. What might work for black Republicans in Washington, D.C. could prove a turnoff for black Republicans in, say, rural Georgia. And what might turn on Republicans in San Francisco and the Left Coast, could get Mr. Bush a cold shoulder in the Bible Belt.

While many blacks listen to Jesse Jackson, some are smart enough to toss the salt shaker over their shoulder afterward. A Ghanaian, interesting enough, told me that. “Jesse is here a lot,” he said, pointing to a photograph on the wall of his establishment and then punctuating his remarks with a double-shoulder shrug.

Indeed, like the working poor in America, the working poor in Ghana are struggling just the same — despite the odds.

The malaria and HIV/AIDS epidemics are real. Millions of people in Africa are dying and living in fear of dying. In some nations, the high HIV/AIDS rates are taking a toll on military forces. How can West Africans send their own troops to aid in the unrest in Liberia or elsewhere if their troops are sick and dying? Or at risk of getting sick?

The billions of dollars President Bush has proposed spending on the African-Caribbean HIV/AIDS initiative — and which Congress continues to debate the worthiness of — are not Monopoly dollars. They are real. They will not solve the problem, but they will help. For example, the U.S. Defense Department has helped the Ghanaian military forces with an intense HIV/AIDS prevention program.

Malaria, by the by, is consuming Africans and African dollars. Of the 1 million people killed each year by malaria, 90 percent are in Africa — with children being the hardest hit. A staggering 40 percent of the public-health dollars spent by African nations is spent fighting malaria. Meanwhile, many areas are desperate for electricity, plumbing and clean water — in 2003.

Still, you know what another significant problem is? Perception and stereotypes.

During my visit last month, I was one of three U.S. journalists who met with members of the Ghanaian Journalists Association. And you know what we were asked? Not how is America. Or what do we think of Jesse Jackson or George W. Bush. These journalists weren’t even interested in the New York Times-Jayson Blair scandal — and one of the writers in our group is affiliated with the New York Times.

Someone asked us a loaded question: Why is it that pictures of Africans always have flies on their faces?

How’s Africa? Struggling, as America is, to save itself from itself.

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