Bush: Africa vital to US strategy; trip faces last minute glitch

( dpa )- US President George W Bush Thursday said Africa is "vital" to US strategic interests as he prepared to depart on a six-day, five-country trip to the continent.

But a last minute domestic political crisis over Congressional renewal of a terrorism surveillance measure that expires on Saturday could delay the journey, Bush said just hours after mapping out US economic and political policies for Africa.

Bush was to visit Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia starting Saturday, and he vowed to make stops in all five countries despite a potential delay.

He also announced he would send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to Kenya to help mediate the explosive political situation, where post-election violence has threatened the stability and economic well-being of a country that has been a shining light of development and democratic progress in East Africa.

"There must be an immediate halt to violence, there must be justice for the victims of abuse, and there must be a full return to democracy," Bush said.

Bush pledged continuing US commitment to economic development, fighting AIDS and malaria and promoting democracy in an address on Africa at the National Museum of African Art, which he said was a "testament to America's long connection to Africa."

"We have revolutionized the way we approach development," Bush said, adding that paternalism and exploitation were things of the past for the US.

"Instead we are treating African leaders as equal partners, asking them to set clear goals and expecting them to produce measurable results," he said.

The US president said a thriving, democratic Africa was "vital to our strategic interests" in the fight against terrorism that grows amidst "failed states" and "ideologies of radicalism."

"We have seen that conditions on the other side of the world can have a direct impact on our own security," Bush said. "We also know that if Africa grows in freedom and prosperity and justice, its people will choose a better course."

Saying that Africa's most valuable resource was "the talent and creativity of its people" - not its oil or diamonds - Bush outlined a series of US investment, military and health initiatives for Africa since he took office that he credited with "tough economic, political and social reforms" across the continent.

Signs of hope were in the projected 7-per-cent growth rate for sub-Saharan Africa this year, led by Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania; the 34 billion dollars in debt relief for African nations in the past 18 months by the G8 countries; and a "historic" doubling of US foreign aid to Africa, which is to double again by 2010, Bush said.

The number of Africans receiving medicine to treat HIV/AIDS has also soared from 50,000 when Bush last visited Africa in 2003 to 1.3 million, supported largely by the 15-billion-dollar US AIDS initiative.

African leaders were now competing for US funds through their willingness to fight corruption, work through the rule of law and ensure the flow of wealth to the people - not to government officials, Bush said.

Investment and trade were key to progress, Bush said, noting that exports from sub-Saharan Africa to the US have tripled since 2001.

During the trip, Bush, who will be the first sitting US president to visit Rwanda, plans to sign a bilateral investment treaty with the central African country that is still recovering from the horrific 1994 genocide.

The US president saluted the "brave" Rwandan peacekeepers for trying to stem a broadening genocide in Sudan, where more than 300,000 people have been killed since 2003 in the western Darfur region.

"Other nations need to follow Rwanda's example ... take this issue seriously ... and provide more manpower for this urgent mission," Bush said.

He pledged US assistance for training and equipment for Darfur peacekeepers, although efforts such as providing US helicopters for desperate transport there have faltered on Sudan's objections to any US involvement.

Bush also saluted Rwanda for having the highest percentage of elected female legislators in the world.

Citing 50 elections across Africa in the past four years, Bush noted more than "two-thirds of sub-Saharan African countries were free" - a strong stand against the endemic corruption, conflict and disease that undermined the early hopes of independence after World War II.

"Don't get me wrong, it's still a poor place, but poverty is beginning to decline," Bush said of the continent.

He pledged steady US support for change in Africa, adding: "The direction of history is clear - so long as the United States does not lose its nerve, and retreat into isolationism and protectionism."

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