At Large

Bush Out of Africa

The president's proposed July trip will do much more harm than good.

By 6.12.03

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The White House has not yet announced it, but it has set aside time in July for President Bush to visit Senegal, Nigeria and South Africa, and possibly add a stop in East Africa as well. The State Department, however, thinks he should be more judicious in choosing which countries to visit, although Condoleezza Rice and the National Security Council, and, most likely, Karl Rove think the trip is just fine. So let us state firmly now that the State Department is right, and Condi and her colleagues are wrong, and that Bush's proposed African adventure will do more harm than good.

To understand why you must first know something about Africa. Many heads of state there are rogues or worse, and should not be encouraged. Meanwhile they excuse or ignore one another's misbehavior, no matter how odious. There was a particularly egregious example of this last week: A U.N. war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone issued an arrest warrant for one of Africa's great monsters, Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia. The warrant had been drawn up three months earlier, but the tribunal waited until Taylor was out of Liberia before making it public. There was no chance, of course, that he could ever be arrested in Liberia. He is protected there by psychotic gunmen and thugs.

Consequently the tribunal asked Ghana to seize Taylor while he attended a conference there with other African heads of state. Taylor, in fact, sat next to South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, one of the African leaders Bush plans to visit. Ghana, however, declined the tribunal's request, and instead provided Taylor with a police escort to the airport and then a jet to take him home after his speech. No one at the conference even mentioned the tribunal's warrant.

So the African leaders behaved shamelessly, although you must not think that Taylor, who, among other foul deeds, pioneered in the use of child soldiers, is an exclusively African creation. Rep. Donald Payne (D - N.J.) and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and most recently, Pat Robertson, have been among his champions. Robertson's "700 Club" made the astonishing claim that Liberia was threatened by its Muslim neighbors. Robertson had entered into a gold-mining partnership with Taylor's government.

Indeed Africa has long been ripe for plucking. African leaders and their American associates have found many ways to make a buck. Nelson Mandela, when asked recently why the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria were so mutually supportive, even though they really didn't like one another, said the reason was obvious. Mbeki and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, he said dryly, are "business partners."

Mandela, who is above reproach himself, did not expand on this, and he really didn't have to. The word on the Mbeki-Obasanjo connection is getting around. For starters, the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian has reported on an oil deal between South Africa and Nigeria that was arranged by Mbeki and Obasanjo, but had no known benefits whatsoever for ordinary South Africans or Nigerians. At the same time there was, as there so often is these things, an American connection.

The company that won access to the Nigerian oil after the two presidents intervened was the misnamed South African Oil Company; it is registered, in fact, in the Cayman Islands. The U.S.-based Camac Group has a 75 percent interest in the company, and while it is unclear who owns the remaining 25 percent, they most likely are politicians. The Mail & Guardian also reported that before the company moved to the Caymans, and was still registered in South Africa, many of its shareholders and directors had "African National Congress connections."

The Camac Company, meanwhile, is headed by a Nigerian-American, Kase Lawal. He apparently got his first big break in the oil business in 1989, when he met Rilwanu Lukman, who is now Obasanjo's special adviser on the oil industry. Lawal's introduction to South Africa, however, came courtesy of the Clinton Administration. In 1996, it placed him on a U.S.-South Africa bi-national commission.

In 1999, Lawal's Camac Company reported revenue of $114 million. In 2000 revenue reached $571 million, and in 2001 it rose to $979.51 million. Black Enterprise magazine said that Camac was the largest black-owned business in the United States. The increase in Camac's profitability, though, appears to have come about at the expense of ordinary Nigerians. The Cayman-registered company was awarded the right to "lift" 55,000 barrels of oil a day in Nigeria in 2000, and 120,000 barrels a day in 2001. And the dollar value of this, the Mail & Guardian said, was roughly the same as the increase in parent-company's Camac revenues.

BUT RETURN NOW TO BUSH'S proposed Africa trip, and why Condi and her colleagues are misguided. Certainly Bush should visit Senegal. Senegal is a Muslim country, but its president, Abdoulaye Wade, has been forthright in condemning terrorism. Just after 9/11 he convened a conference on anti-terrorist action with other African leaders. Wade merits a visit from an American president. Meanwhile whether Mbeki actually merits one, too, is irrelevant. His business dealings, his refusal to condemn the corrupt and brutal regime of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, or his bizarre theories about AIDS are all incidental. Mbeki is the most prominent head of state in sub-Saharan Africa, and so it would not do for Bush to ignore him.

Which leaves us now with Obasanjo and poor suffering Nigeria. There is no good reason for Bush to go there, and one very good reason why he should not: Nigeria, the world's most populous black country, with some 120 million people, is well on the way to becoming another Zimbabwe, a corrupt, autocratic one-party state. A visit by an American president would be seen as a sign that the U.S. neither knows nor cares, and, in fact, approves. Ordinary Nigerians, who, a recent Pew poll found, think more highly of the U.S. than any other Africans, deserve better than that.

Nigerians are entirely cynical about their supposedly democratic government, and they keep hoping for something better. They know the national elections in April were a sham, marred by massive bribery, intimidation and campaign murders. (Bribery and intimidation are old stories in Nigerian elections, but the murders were a first; using the Army to stuff and deliver ballot boxes was also a first.) According to the government's count, Obasanjo won 62 percent of the vote, while Muhammadu Buhari, his principal challenger, got only 32 percent, although the figures were a bad joke. International observers at African elections tend to look at the bright side of things, but this time even they were appalled.

The observers from the European Union, for example, said the election lacked "credibility," and that they had found "widespread election fraud in 13 states." But observers, no matter how conscientious, are always limited in their ability to get around, and Nigeria has many thousands of polling places, often deep in the bush, in 36 states. Obasanjo's People's Democratic Party, or PDP, swept to victory in nearly all of them. Party chairmen did not make even a pretense at fairness. In Bayelsa State, for example, where Obasanjo is widely and whole-heartedly despised, he got 100 percent of the vote.

PDP candidates for the Senate and House, meanwhile, did almost as well. If, by chance, their local chairmen failed to deliver, and a candidate from the opposition All-Nigeria Peoples Party won a majority, a new set of figures would be announced in Abuja, the capital, proving he had lost. This is how the new president of the Nigerian Senate, for instance, was able to assume his high office.

So Nigeria slides toward one-party rule, just like Zimbabwe, and, just like Mbeki, Obasanjo continues to excuse Mugabe. But even more tellingly, as many Nigerian democrats now recall, Obasanjo once wrote a monograph, "Constitution for National Integration and Development," in which he discussed his theory of government. Opposing political parties, he wrote, are not appropriate for Africa; Africa should have one-party states.

AND NOW LET US LOOK for an American connection in Bush's proposed visit.

The White House has set aside July 7 to July 15 for the president's trip. This would allow him to address the Leon H. Sullivan Summit, just as he did when the Summit, once called the African-African American Summit, met in Washington last year. This year it will meet in Abuja, beginning on July 14. If you want to attend it will cost between $3,500 and $7,000, depending on how you fly.

At the Washington meeting Bush blessed with his presence last year, Obasanjo received a Sullivan award for his political leadership. David J. O'Reilly, the chairman of ChevronTexaco, received a Sullivan award for his corporate leadership. Andrew Young, once the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and later the mayor of Atlanta, was, and still is, chairman of the Summit. Jack Kemp -- yes, that Jack Kemp -- was vice chairman.

Young is close to Obasanjo, and he has business interests in Nigeria. At the same time, even though he keeps his headquarters in Atlanta and not in Washington, he is also a registered lobbyist for Nigeria, reportedly at $1 million a year. In addition, Young is on the ChevronTexaco payroll, and while Mr. O'Reilly is no doubt terribly distinguished, we may assume that helped him get the award.

Anyway that's the way it goes with the American connection, and there's really nothing personal about it; it's just business. Meanwhile the White House will neither confirm nor deny that Bush intends to visit Nigeria, much less turn up again at the Summit, but it is devoutly to be hoped he does neither.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.