US Election Seen Through African Eyes

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Africans have mixed views on the U.S. presidential contenders, depending on how they see U.S. policies of the past four years having affected Africa.

Some Kenyans interviewed here said they would prefer Sen. John Kerry to win because they regard some Bush administration policies in a dim light.

Winluck Wahiu of the Kenyan branch of the International Commission of Jurists -- a legal body focused on human rights issues -- said the strategy of the U.S. global war on terrorism had caused friction between U.S. and Africa.

The United Nations passed a resolution requiring nations to enact anti-terrorism legislation, and the Bush administration had been exerting pressure on African nations which it felt were moving too slowly in doing so.

Because of this, Wahiu said, some African nations had hurriedly enacted laws which end up violating other national human rights provisions.

"The Bush administration has sent signals that it is ready to overlook human rights issues as long as nations enact anti-terrorism legislations," he charged.

Wahiu said Kerry has shown that he was ready to approach the war against terror in a different way.

In Kenya, a country that has suffered two significant terrorist attacks in the last six years, the government drafted anti-terror laws, but then withdrew the proposals after human rights groups said the legislation contradicted national law on matters relating to rights.

Another terror-related issue that frustrates Kenyans is the issuing of U.S. travel alerts, which Kenya said have severely affected the tourism industry, Kenya's premier foreign exchange earner.

Kenyan government spokesman Dr. Alfred Mutua declined to comment on the U.S. election.

"As a nation, we do not comment about other countries' elections. We will work with any government that is elected," he said.

Justin Wesonga, a political science scholar here, said "most" Africans had become apprehensive about world instability, and blamed the Bush administration.

He cited the argument that the U.S. attacked Iraq "in disregard to" U.N. resolutions.

This perception had "left many Africans apprehensive of America's military power. They assume Bush can attack any country that his administration perceives hostile to its interests."

Support for Bush came from Jimmie Kiragu, a Kenyan textile exporter who has benefited from the U.S. Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) - a preferential trade agreement allowing specific African countries to export selected duty free merchandize to the U.S.

The preferential treatment enjoyed by Africans was initially to have ended this year, but the Bush administration extended it to 2008.

"I believe the decision by Bush to go on with AGOA and extend the expiry of the preferential pact to 2008 shows he has interests of Africans at heart," Kiragu said.

Washington's role in Sudan also won Bush plaudits.

Mikhat Bor, a Sudanese refugee living in Kenya, said America under Bush has played a significant part in ensuring a smooth peace process between the Arab-dominated government of Sudan and the southern Sudan people, represented by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

"Our African brothers had abandoned us until America pressurised Khartoum to act," Bor said. "Now we can see freedom at the end of the tunnel."

The peace process between the two groups is at its final stages and a comprehensive peace agreement could be signed before the end of this year.

Other Kenyans interviewed raised concern about genetically-modified foods, HIV/AIDS and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The U.S. has been trying to get African countries to accept GM foods in an effort to reduce hunger (a large proportion of food in the U.S. contains GM organisms).

Most African countries have refused, arguing that the planting of GM seeds by predominant small-scale subsistence farmers in Africa could destroy the local capacity to produce food crops.

On HIV/AIDS, Bush last year announced the largest-ever program of U.S. funding to combat the disease - $ 15 billion over five years - but African AIDS campaigners complain that the funds aren't coming quickly enough.

Wahiu raised the matter of the International Criminal Court, saying the decision by the Bush administration to sign bilateral agreements with nations, requiring them not to hand over U.S. citizens to the tribunal, had cost Bush some support in Africa.

"It has showed Africans that Bush is a person who can undermine the international law," he said.

Wahiu also cited concerns about the provision of agricultural subsidies to U.S. farmers, a step he said had reduced the competitiveness of Africa's farm produce on world markets.

According to the Africa Development Bank, agriculture subsidies in both the U.S. and Europe are partly responsible for Africa's declining share of world trade, which currently averages 2.3 percent.

"If Kerry has a different approach to providing agriculture subsidies to American farmers, then he is the choice for Africa."

Whether Kerry does indeed have "a different approach" on this matter is unclear.

In an editorial last month the New York Times accused both candidates of avoiding difficult issues, saying that "of all the hard choices the candidates are not confronting, the question of agricultural subsidies may be the one they're ducking most energetically."

The editorial also criticized what it called "Kerry's protectionist trade rhetoric."

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