US President George W Bush opened a coast-to-coast journey through Africa on Saturday by highlighting how US aid can help a small western African nation like Benin develop and save lives.
“Those dollars come with great compassion,” Bush told Thomas Boni Yayi, the president of Benin. “We care when we see suffering. We believe we’re all children of God.”
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 US 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.”
Bush is the first US 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.
“We would not be standing here if you and your government was not committed to your people,” Bush told the leader of Benin who has drawn praise from the White House for showing a commitment to the rule of law and education.
Bush is on a five-country trip to highlight America’s commitment to health and development in Africa, an aspect of his foreign policy overshadowed by war in Iraq. The image of the US has declined in many parts of the world, but remains high here in Africa.
After a quick stop in Benin, about three hours, Bush was heading to the other side of Africa to stay in Tanzania, the focus of his agenda on Sunday and Monday. Bush was also to spend time in Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.
The president’s visit comes as hotspots flared across the continent, with new crises in Kenya and Chad and systemic troubles in places such as Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Benin gives Bush the chance to tout one of the initiatives underpinning his trip to Africa, the Millennium Challenge Account. It provides US aid to countries that agree to govern justly, shun corruption, help their own people and support economic freedoms.
Benin has a five-year, $307 million (Dh1.12 billion) compact under the program. The money is designed to build up a physical infrastructure and justice system, and to spur commerce and investment.
Bush says the program exemplifies how aid should work, with democracy-driven criteria to qualify for money, and then expectations for results. He compared that to what he called the old US way for helping poor nations: “We’re feeling terrible for you – here’s money.”
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. (AP)
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