WASHINGTON – President Bush will find violent conflicts threatening nearly every corner of Africa when he begins a six-day visit on Saturday. But the continent's turmoil and trouble are not expected to be Topic A for the president.
Fighting disease and poverty and promoting growth, development and security will be Bush's main themes as he travels with his wife, Laura, to Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.
"There's a preference in these trips ... to put the emphasis on things that make you happy and to avoid talking about things that make you sad," said Stephen Morrison, the co-director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Africa program. "This is not a conflict-resolution trip."
It will be Bush's second trip to Africa. When he last visited, in 2003, he focused mainly on showcasing democratic advances and his administration's commitment to tackling AIDS.
In Congo, five years of fighting that came to be called Africa's world war appeared to have ended after claiming, it is now estimated, more than 5 million lives -- more than any war since World War II. But the peace was fragile and the country in ruins.
In Sudan, a 21-year civil war between the Muslim-dominated government in the north and the mostly Christian and animist south was grinding on despite some strides toward peace. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe's increasingly authoritarian rule was impoverishing the population and causing deadly unrest. Talk of a brutal civil war in Liberia, led then by dictator Charles Taylor, intruded the most on Bush's travels.
Of all those nations, the president goes back to Africa now with only Liberia emerged -- though not healed -- from its strife. There also are a host of new problems.
Of particular concern is Kenya, once viewed as one of Africa's most stable countries but now possibly on the brink of disaster. Disputed elections in December ignited fighting between supporters of the government and main opposition party that is fueled by fierce ethnic tensions.
"It's a great tragedy on the continent," Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said Wednesday. He said about a half-dozen of the conflicts in Africa are on the way toward resolution but, "unfortunately, what's happening in Kenya is a step backwards."
Hadley called for an end to violence in Kenya accompanied by a wave of humanitarian assistance and a power-sharing arrangement. "That obviously means, at some point, free and fair elections," Hadley said. He said Bush would discuss Kenya with all the leaders he meets.
Congo is threatening to explode yet again, with government forces battling those of a rebel warlord. Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis continues to deepen. The 2005 peace accord that ended Sudan's north-south conflict is feared to be in danger of collapsing, while the western Darfur region has now seen five years of atrocities by government-supported militias against black African communities that Bush calls genocide.
Sudan's strife also is spilling into escalating tensions with neighboring Chad, with both nations accusing each other of backing the others' rebellions. Ethiopia and Eritrea are on the verge of another war in the Horn of Africa, with a quarter-million troops amassed along a tense buffer zone. Fighting in largely lawless and increasingly desperate Somalia is seen as their proxy battleground.
There also is unrest brewing in West Africa. In Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region, the people remain among the poorest in the world despite the huge wealth extracted producing all the country's oil. And demonstrations against Guinea's president, Lansana Conte, who grabbed power in a 1984 coup, have become increasingly violent.
"Unfortunately, President Bush may leave Africa in worse condition than when he took office," said Mark Schneider, a vice president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "There's sort of an attention deficit problem here."
The White House insists that Bush has had a history of active engagement in Africa's conflicts and that keeping that up is an important part of the president's trip. "The trip will also be an opportunity to reaffirm the enduring commitment of the United States to bringing peace and stability to the region," Hadley said.
Tanzania, for instance, where Bush was scheduled to spend his first three nights, is absorbing refugees from its southern neighbor Kenya, and its president, Jakaya Kiwete, is the new head of the African Union. Tanzania's prime minister and two Cabinet ministers resigned last week over a corruption scandal involving a contract with a nonexistent firm supposedly based in the United States, and Kiwete dissolved the entire Cabinet as a result.
Rwanda, the site of a day visit from Bush on Tuesday, has a troubled history in the conflict in neighboring Congo, but is contributing the largest contingent of peacekeepers in Darfur. Ghana and Benin are only a stone's throw from Nigeria and Ghinea. Ghana has taken a high-profile role in mediating regional conflicts and its president, John Kufuor, is the outgoing African Union head. Bush's stop in Liberia is meant to highlight how the U.S. is helping that country get back on its feet after its war.
"There's always an unusual number of conflicts on the continent, unfortunately," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "Conflict resolution is going to be a focus of the trip."
But Africa experts say that judging by the list of countries Bush is choosing to visit, the events he's holding while there, and a preview speech delivered last week by Hadley, it won't be a primary focus.
Instead, the president's main aim is to shine a light on good news resulting from the Bush administration's involvement in Africa, from doubled development assistance to debt relief to unprecedented investments in anti-disease initiatives to a realignment of aid toward nations that embrace reform.
There's fodder there. Bush gets kudos from Africa experts for surprising them with his anti-disease largesse, which is starting to pay some dividends. Said Jennifer Cooke, Morrison's Africa program co-director at CSIS, "This is something of a victory lap."
The U.S. played a role in securing last month's cease-fire agreement in Congo, which is providing hope even as it is violated. Hadley said urging Rwanda to end any support for armed groups in eastern Congo is one reason for Bush's trip.
Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazier has been dispatched to Kenya.
Bush also recently appointed a new envoy to Sudan, as part of a fresh push on Darfur aimed at trying to speed up the deployment of a joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission.