President Bush talks war and peace in Africa

February 16, 2008 3:26:30 AM PST
President Bush is visiting Africa, pushing peace on the unstable continent. Bush said Saturday that while his trip to Africa is focused on success stories and not the conflicts roiling nearly every corner of the continent, his administration is actively engaged in resolving the turmoil there.

"When you herald success, it helps others realize what it possible," the president said. "This is a large place with a lot of nations and no question not everything is perfect. On the other hand, there are a lot of great success stories and the United States is pleased to be involved with those success stories."

On a five-nation journey, Bush is highlighting America's commitment to health and development in Africa, an aspect of his foreign policy overshadowed by war in Iraq. The image of the U.S. has declined in many parts of the world, but remains high here in Africa.

After a three-hour stop in Benin, Bush flew to the other side of Africa to stay in Tanzania, the focus of his agenda on Sunday and Monday. Bush, who also was visiting Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia, said he would address African trouble spots in his meetings with African leaders.

"We've been plenty active on these issues," Bush said.

The president's trip comes as conflict flared across the continent, with new crises in Kenya and Chad and systemic troubles in places such as Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. During a news conference with the president of Benin, Bush specifically mentioned U.S. efforts in Kenya and Sudan's Darfur region.

Bush said he "had a tough decision early on as to whether to send troops to Darfur." Once he decided not to, a decision he said was guided in part by recommendations from groups working in Darfur that he did not identify, Bush said "there's not a lot of other avenues except for the United Nations and peacekeeping."

He said he hopes to shine a spotlight on the need to speed up the deployment of a joint African Union-U.N. peacekeeping force to Darfur while in Rwanda on Tuesday. Bush intends to thank Rwandans for contributing the largest contingent of troops so far to that mission.

In Kenya, where he is dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday to peel off from his entourage for a quick trip to Nairobi, Bush said he thought it would send a strong message to have her impart his views.

"The key is that the leaders hear from here firsthand U.S desires to see that there be no violence, that there be a power-sharing agreement that will help this nation resolve its difficulties," the president said.

Bush is the first U.S. president to visit Benin, one of Africa's most-stable democracies. The nation has many political parties, a strong civil society and press freedoms, yet is one of world's poorest countries, severely underdeveloped and corrupt. The 2006 elections were nearly derailed when the government ran out of funds to finance its election machinery. Voters stepped in, raising cash, loaning computers and using motorcycle headlights to illuminate ballot-counting centers.

Thomas Boni Yayi, the president of Benin, reiterated his commitment to battling corruption.

"Your fight against corruption is visible and easy for the people to see," Bush said. "Leaders from around the world have got to understand that the United States wants to partner ... but we're not going to do so with people who steal money, pure and simple."

Benin gave Bush the chance to tout one of the initiatives underpinning his trip to Africa, the Millennium Challenge Account. It provides U.S. aid to countries that agree to govern justly, shun corruption, help their own people and support economic freedoms.

"My trip here is a way to remind future presidents and future congresses that it's in the national interest and the moral interest, for the United States of America to help people," he said. "I reject the old-style type of grants."

Benin has a five-year, $307 million compact under the program. The money is designed to build up a physical infrastructure and justice system, and to spur commerce and investment. Yet the program has had trouble, too. The flow of money has been slow and many countries have struggled to get their projects going, prompting criticism in Congress.

Benin is also one of 15 African countries targeted by a Bush effort to reduce Malaria, a disease that is spread by infected mosquitoes. Malaria kills more than 1 million people a year - many of them under five years old - mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Bush's effort - part of a trend of global outreach and awareness - is built around getting medicine, insecticide and mosquito-stopping bed nets to millions of people.

The president and his wife, Laura, landed in the West African nation on a muggy day, walking off Air Force One onto a red carpet. They were greeted with a military salute by troops in camouflage uniforms and berets, men in purple shirts blowing lively tunes on horns and signs of appreciation for U.S. aid to the nation.

One placard read: "Beninese people will remember forever."

At Cadjehoun International Airport, the president of Benin read a several-page greeting and presented Bush with the Grand Cross of the Order of Benin on a maroon and gold sash. The two leaders joked as more decorations were pinned on Bush's suit. One adornment fell off after an exchange of kisses with their wives, and Bush had to retrieve it from the floor.

Referring to the grand order, Bush said: "I gratefully accept this on behalf of the American people. I stand here by your side as a friend, a believer in your vision."