George Walker Bush, 43rd president of the United States, got a bad rap for the unnecessary war he started, for his ‘cowboy’ diplomacy and the 2008 financial market crash that happened in his watch. But there is more to the Bush presidency. President Bush was great in his support of Africa and this has not been duly acknowledged. He was, analysts say, more supportive of African countries than even President Bill Clinton who enjoys tremendous goodwill on the continent. Bush’s record is, so far, also better than Obama’s.
President Bush did not go to Africa with sanctimonious speeches; he did something concrete. He brought relief and joy to thousands of HIV/AIDS sufferers through his multi-billion dollar President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PERFAR) which provided $15 billion in US aid in its first five years. President Obama regards this as “one of his crowing achievements”. President Bush also provided funds to combat malaria and other diseases, helping to save millions of lives. At the last count, over $44 billion has gone into promoting various health projects in poor countries. Strangely, Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, proposed to cut funding for the PERFAR in one breath, while promising the world an “AIDS-free generation” in another.
According to Eric Goolsby, coordinator US Global Aids: “In 2012 alone, PERFAR directly supported nearly 5.1 million people on antiretroviral treatment — a three-fold increase in only four years; provided antiretroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV to nearly 750,000 pregnant women living with the disease (which allowed approximately 230,000 infants to be born without HIV); and enabled more than 46.5 million people to receive testing and counselling.”
History will honour Bush as a humanitarian president. He did more for Africans than any recent US president. Secretary of State John Kerry recently claimed that the US investments in global health have saved over five million lives.
Trade between Africa and the United States improved in bounds during his tenure. In August 2002, he signed amendments to AGOA, known as AGOA II that expanded preferential access for eligible sub-Saharan African countries. In 2004, Bush also signed the AGOA Acceleration Act of 2004, which extended preferential access for imports from eligible sub-Saharan African countries through September 30, 2015, and broadened and clarified textile-related provisions in the act.
He helped to end the wars in Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Congo and was instrumental to arresting the genocide in Darfur. The former president gave tremendous support to the peace effort between North and South Sudan, and in January 2005 a peace treaty was signed between the warring groups.
Africa owes a debt of gratitude to Bush for its current relative debt-free status. He worked to grant debt relief to poor and highly indebted African nations. The US media and even most of the leaders of the African-American communities under-appreciate the ex-president’s work in Africa, for Africans.
President Jimmy Carter, who himself has done much to foster African development, is among the few who are bold enough to publicly count this statesman as an Africa lover. At the dedication of Bush Presidential Library on April 25, 2013, he thanked Bush for his “great contributions” to Africa.
Carter added that Bush “increased development assistance to Africa from the time he came into office until the time he left from $1.4 billion to more than $9 billion. That’s an increase of 640%. That is development assistance. He established a PERFAR program. There were 50,000 HIV sufferers in Africa being treated when he came into office and when he left, two million. I will let you figure the percentage on that. And now at his new institute he has a program called Pink Ribbon and Red Ribbon and this will save women in Africa from cervical and breast cancer. And that is again something that is dear to my heart and I know it means a lot to millions of people in Africa. So, Mr. President, let me say that I am filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you made to the most needy people on earth.” Interestingly, President Clinton has also recently started to appreciate Bush’s work in Africa. He not only applauds President Bush for passing PERFAR; Clinton was frank in acknowledging that “no president of my party could have passed that through congress… I have personally seen the faces of some of the millions of who are alive today (in Africa) because of it… I like President Bush”. On his part, President Obama reminds the world that “because of the commitment of the Bush administration and the American people, millions of people’s lives have been saved”. Obviously, it would appear that history has started smiling in his direction.
Since leaving office in 2009, Bush has kept a dignified low public profile. Apart from his Presidential Library, his major public engagement is the sponsorship of hospitals across Africa for women and children, starting from Zambia. When he took the bow from the White House, his approval rating in the United States was only 40%, falling to mere 35% in March 2009 as the economic crisis continued. But in recent months, Americans have started to take a second look at his presidency and legacy. His public approval rating has inched up to 49%, according to polls conducted by Gallup last June. Although, this is still below the 87% he enjoyed after the 9/11 attacks, it is surely looking up.
While Americans’ opinion of Bush has improved over time, Africans need to show more love for a man who has demonstrated his fondness for the continent in concrete terms.