Bush Begins Africa Trip

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[Africa: President's Tour]

President Bush arrived in the West African nation of Benin Saturday morning, the first stop in a five-nation trip to Africa which also will include stops in Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.

Benin's President Thomas Yayi Boni thanked President Bush for the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid aimed at fighting poverty, malaria and HIV/AIDS in Benin, but he also asked for help for Benin's struggling cotton exports.

President Bush said he chose Benin to start his six-day Africa tour because its leaders were determined to fight corruption and were careful to make sure U.S. aid dollars were properly spent.

"This is such a good lesson, one of the reasons I've come here, sir, is that leaders around the world have got to understand that the United States wants to partner with leaders and their people, but we're not going to do so with people who steal money, pure and simple."

First Lady Laura Bush stood by her husband's side as the Benin's president inducted him into the National Order of Benin, giving Bush a sash, medal and lapel pin to match his own.

"I stand here by your side as a friend, a believer in your vision and a partner in your willingness to confront the disease and poverty that affect mankind," Bush said to President Boni. "We would not be standing here if you and your government was not committed to your people."

"You mentioned some of the money we're spending with you, but those dollars come with great compassion for your people. We care when we see suffering," Bush said.

At a news conference later, the question of U.S. help for Benin's cotton industry was raised. President Boni said it was tough for his country to compete with Asian cotton producers because of their superior infrastructure and with U.S. cotton growers because of government subsidies.

President Bush said the United States is willing to make concessions as part of the World Trade Organization's Doha negotiations that would help Benin, but that Benin's best strategy might be to develop industry to turn its cotton into products instead of exporting the raw cotton.

Boni said that until Benin gets international help in building its electricity, water, communication and transportation systems it will be difficult to expand manufacturing. Bush suggested Benin might turn to OPEC and other groups for public-private funding for the infrastructure.

The United States has given Benin $307 million in a five-year grant to fight poverty, part of Bush's Millennium Challenge Account, which provides aid to countries that practice democratic principles and sound economic policy.

The trip -- Bush's second to the continent and his wife's fifth -- will largely focus on the United States' aid programs, which include initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS malaria and poverty.

On Sunday, Bush will be in Tanzania to sign a compact with that government through which the United States will provide a $698 million Millennium Challenge grant.

Also in Tanzania, Bush will attend a roundtable on another of his administration's programs, Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. His administration lauds the program as the "largest commitment ever by any nation for an international health initiative dedicated to a single disease."

Bush said Thursday that he has requested $30 billion over the next five years for the program.

PEPFAR has helped produce a "dramatic increase in anti-viral drugs" and there is a "significant" number of people who are being exposed to U.S. programs for AIDS prevention, said Joel Barkan, a senior associate for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

However, Barkan said the program remains controversial because fewer condoms are being provided now than under President Clinton's administration and because the United States does "virtually nothing on sex education."

The program is "largely pursued through faith-based initiatives (and) it is not clear whether the AIDS prevalence rates are coming down," he said.

From Tanzania, the Bushes will travel to Rwanda, where they will meet with President Paul Kagame.

The United States has provided nearly 7,000 Rwandan troops with training, and spent more than $17 million to equip and transport Rwandan troops for service in Sudan, according to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

Years of violence in Sudan's western Darfur region have killed roughly 200,000 people and displaced at least 2 million. Nomadic Arab militias -- allegedly allied with the Sudanese government -- have targeted pastoral black Africans. On Thursday, Bush reiterated the United States' characterization of the conflict, saying, "In Darfur, the U.S. will continue to call the killing what it is -- genocide."

From Rwanda, the Bushes will travel to Ghana and then to Liberia.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is on the Africa trip, will veer off to Kenya on Monday to support efforts to reach political conciliation there.

The country erupted in ethnic violence after its December 27 presidential vote, in which incumbent President Mwai Kibaki keep his post. His opponent, Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga, blasted the results, saying the election was rigged, and he and his supporters declined to recognize the election as valid.

Violence has dropped as former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan mediates talks between the two groups.

Bush's trip to Africa is "basically an effort to celebrate successes," Barkan said. Most Americans picture Africa as the "continent of gloom and doom," and what the president is saying is that the bigger picture is one of "making progress.

"He's quite right in that regard."

However, the analyst added, "The question might be asked why he's not going to a number of countries," in particular the regional powers of Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria.

"If election in Kenya had gone well," he said, "I'm sure Kenya would have been included. That's not possible now."

As for South Africa, Barkan said public sentiment there toward Bush probably affected his decision not to visit. Also, he said, the country has been skeptical  about Africom, an African military command that the Bush administration said last year it planned to establish.

Visiting Nigeria, Barkan said, would give legitimacy to the leadership of Umaru Yar'Adua, who won the country's presidential election last spring. International observers were sharply critical of the election, and his main opposition parties are challenging the outcome.


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