Obama and Bush meeting in Tanzania places president’s record on Africa under fresh scrutiny
While George Bush remains deeply engaged with Africa, his successor as president has been ‘rather detached’ from the continent
US president Barack Obama and former president George W Bush yesterday attended a memorial for the victims of the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters
US president Barack Obama has ended his African tour with a rare show of unity with his Republic predecessor George W Bush, a man he warmly praised for his legacy in Africa.
America’s 43rd and 44th presidents met in Dar es Salaam yesterday for a wreath laying ceremony at a monument to the 11 victims of the 1998 embassy bombing. White the two leaders didn’t speak together publicly, they exchanged pleasantries and left partisan politics at home, concentrating on philanthropic and trade ventures in Africa.
Mr Bush is in Tanzania on a two-country tour with his wife Laura, promoting the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon campaign against cervical cancer, which is sponsored by a charity in his name.
Meanwhile, Mr Obama has left the continent with pledges of a new “partnership” with African governments, the announcement of a major energy investment plan and some generous words for Mr Bush on his record in combating poverty in Africa during his presidency.
“I think this is one of his crowning achievements,” Mr Obama said, of his predecessor’s $15 billion President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar). “Because of the commitment of the Bush administration and the American people, millions of people’s lives have been saved.”
Obama’s record on Africa has come under fresh scrutiny this week, and some of the comparisons with Mr Bush have been less than complimentary.
Mwangi Kimenyi, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research centre, said Mr Bush had “surprised Africans. They did not expect him to be so focused on African issues”.
His support for the fight against Aids and his setting up of the Congress-funded Millennium Challenge account – after heavily lobbying from U2’s Bono, among others – meant “he has a very good place in history. He is in a class with Bill Clinton,” Dr Kimenyi told The Irish Times.
In contrast, he said President Obama – whose father was from Kenya – had been “rather detached” from Africa. “Funding for health programmes was lower than during Bush’s time”, policies had been “uncreative” and “he has not really focused on Africa as a priority”.
The president’s trip this week indicated “he has woken up to the realities of an emerging Africa, but whether he will continue to show serious commitment is not clear. I would have hoped that he would have been more engaged over the last four years and it is hard to understand why he simply just ignored Africa. We can only hope that this will change but I cannot be over-optimistic,” Dr Kimenyi said.
Mr Obama has been keen to emphasise a new approach to the continent, stressing trade more than aid. He also rejected negative comparisons regarding development spending, saying “we are serving four times the number of people today than we were when Pepfar first began” because of reduced costs and greater efficiencies.
“We’re not taking that money out of global health. What we’re doing is putting it back in to tuberculosis and malaria.”
For his part, Mr Bush is planning to deepen his engagement in Africa through his philanthropic work over the weekend he visited a farm in Zambia, part-funded by USAID, and a refurbished health clinic.
His wife Laura Bush – who shared a platform with Michelle Obama yesterday at a summit on African women – is also involved in the charity.
The Bushes’ visit cements their relationship with President Jakaya Kikwete, who won a second five-year term in 2010. Mr Bush visited the country as president in 2008 and since then Tanzania has become an important economic and counterterrorism ally in east Africa.
Mr Kikwete was the first African head of state to meet Mr Obama at the White House, and yesterday the US president toured the Ubungo power plant in Dar es Salaam providing a focus point to his launch of a $7 billion “Power Africa” initiative.
The plan aims to shine “light where currently there’s darkness” by doubling access to power on the continent.
Tanzania has enjoyed economic growth of 7 per cent in the past two years after introducing a raft of business-friendly policies, and courting not only the US but also China.
While the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party has been power since independence, Mr Kikwete’s approach is in marked contrast to the country’s founding president Julius Nyerere who preached socialism and self-sufficiency.