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The Implications of Powell’s Africa Visit

Opinion by James W. Harris, The Perspective (Smyrna, GA), 4 June 2001

Now that he has visited Africa in his official capacity as the first black US Secretary of State, there seems to be serious doubt amongst many Africans as to whether Colin Powell really came away from this trip understanding their dismal plight.

With the dreaded AIDS/HIV virus threatening to wipe out entire communities on the continent, one would have hoped that he was taking something substantial there to supplement the Bush Administration’s meager pledge of US$200 million in early May towards United Nations Gecretary-General Kofi Annan’s appeal for a global fund to fight the disease.

But secretary Powell’s non-commitment to use his influence to persuade giant US pharmaceutical companies to reduce the costs of AIDS drugs for the impoverished Africans is highly disappointing. What is even more disappointing is his persistent argument that the United States government does not develop these drugs, which he said, are manufactured by private corporations that invest hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is where he is missing the point because no one is saying that drug manufacturers are not entitled to some sort of profits—but profits at the expense of real human lives? What Africans were trying to make Mr. Powell and the Bush Administration to understand is that for the sake of humanity, they must use whatever power they currently have to save as many lives as possible, especially in Africa, where the disease is most devastating.

If the Bush Administration really believes Africa is important as secretary Powell mentioned during his recently ended visit, then why are they less willing to commit themselves to ensure that AIDS is somehow brought under control there? Is it because the lives of Africans are less important than the lives of unborn babies in the US that President Bush and his conservative friends have vow to protect? It must be! Because it is clear, given their action, that the US administration is more interested in protecting the huge profits of pharmaceutical companies than helping to ease the sufferings of Africa’s AIDS victims.

As Mr. Powell himself acknowledged during his visit, AIDS/HIV is truly a pandemic and nations have to attack it at the highest levels, beginning with the right kinds of political leadership. But when he says the right kinds of political leadership, exactly what does he mean? Obviously, he means the kinds of political leadership that will bow to the whims of Washington in protecting the short and long- term interests of American multi-national corporations.

His praise of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s leadership in tackling the disease head-on in his country must go far beyond just words and the $50 million which secretary Powell gave on behalf of the US government. Uganda and other impoverished countries must be given more assistance in fighting AIDS if such a contribution is genuinely intended to make a difference.

If he did learn anything from his visit, it is that Africa is capable of solving its own problems provided that the US provide the leadership in restoring calm to the continent. Such a leadership must be seen in the context of helping to rid the continent of despots who are usually opposed to democracy, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with it, but because they want to plunder those countries for their own selfish gains. This is where Mr. Powell and the US need to provide the moral leadership.

As the result of this visit, Mr. Powell should now be in the position to confidently stress to black Americans the need for them to take serious interest in Africa. Despite years of colonial exploitation, Africa still remains one of the world’s richest continents in terms of natural resources.

He should therefore encourage African Americans to visit the continent as often as they possibly can, not just for the fun of it, but in order to find a way to bridge the ever-widening gaps (political, economic, cultural, etc.) between them and their African kins. This also means that African Americans must develop a new kind of outlook towards Africa—the kind of outlook that will compel them to invest on the continent and be financially rewarded for their efforts. After all, the quality of labor in Africa is as good as those found in any other developing countries, such as, Singapore and Taiwan, to name a few, if not better. All that Africans are asking for is the opportunity to compete.

As one of Liberia’s earlier settlers, William Burke, who happened to have been a freed slave of US Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee, wrote sometime in the 1850s, Persons coming to Africa should expect to go through many hardships, such as are common to the first settlement in any new country. I expected it, and was not disappointed or discouraged at any thing I met with, and so far from being dissatisfied with the country, I bless the Lord that ever my lot was cast in this part of the earth. He then went on to say the Lord has blessed me abundantly since my residence in Africa, for which I feel that I can never be sufficiently thankful. Such is the nature of the continent.

It cannot be denied that Africa’s continuing instability is the main reason why people are shying away from it. But hope cannot be lost. Based on the fact that a few countries in Africa, like, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, are again moving towards democracy, things should hopefully get better if these nations can remain stable.

But to remain stable, these countries can no longer afford to make the same stupid mistakes as in the past. Present leaders of these nations must be willing to peacefully give up political power when their respective constitutional terms end, thereby passing on the mantle to another generation. They must resist clamping down on the press, persecuting their citizens, engaging in corruption, or selfishly plundering their countries like Liberia’s Charles Taylor.

As for Mr. Powell and the US, they should actually do more than just espouse democracy which itself has come under strong challenge because of the apparent disenfranchisement of blacks in Florida . They must begin to put it into practice at home by ensuring that everyone's vote really does count in the next US presidential elections irrespective of race. The corrupting influence of corporate dollars on the American political system must also be brought under check in order for the people to restore faith in their government.

While democracy overall can be said to be the best form of government yet put together by man, the capitalist economic system to which it is inseparably linked, does a whole lot to undermine it. By putting Politicians in their pockets, businesses functioning under the capitalist system can influence the outcome of any given election depending on how much money they are willing to contribute. This kind of practice, neatly disguised in America, makes one to believe that indeed, democracy is capitalism. In the eyes of many Africans, the latter is too exploitative since it is purely profit driven without regard to the general welfare of society.

Africans truly don't care whatever system it is as long as their basic needs—food, clothing, shelter, among others—are met. Because of their past experiences with other forms of dictatorships, Africans are more likely to choose democracy over any other form of government because it at least encourages everyone to participate. It still isn't a perfect system but it has arguably been more stable compared to others over the years.

The secretary must be commended, though, for being somehow frank with Africans when he said that money is a coward, it is not going to go where it is not going to be safe. People don't invest money in places where the money is going to be wasted, or there is such a level of corruption or it is such an undemocratic regime that you cannot count on returning your investment.

Newly emerging democratic governments in Africa will do well to understand exactly what he meant—that no US money would be invested there until the countries are reasonably stable and free. On the other hand, Mr. Powell and the US too need to know that Africans are weary of big corporations continuously exploiting their natural resources without fully compensating them. A way must be found to balance the two as this may be the biggest challenge facing African leaders in this new millennium.