Remembering How Colin Powel defended Bush and U.S. policy during a 2004 African tour

During a fast-paced visit to Africa from July 8-12, then-President George W. Bush was warmly received by African leaders but scorned by the people, with his then-Secretary of State, Colin Powell, jumping to his defense during press briefings.

It was mid-July 2003, right after the end of Iraq war, and President George W. Bush embarked on his first trip to Africa as president. He visited five countries, one in each of the five regions of the continent: Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria. While African leaders gave “the president of the world” a befitting welcome, he was greeted coldly, sometimes with hostility, by the people, with his effigy burned in Pretoria, South Africa.

Virtually no one expected the Republican president to visit Africa, which prompted then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to state in his welcoming address to Bush in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria:  “President Bush being with us at this time is the sort of accident we should be praying to God to always have.” The word “accident” gave a precise idea of how Africans, who overwhelmingly disagree with Bush’s policies and doubt his sincerity about their continent—despite his stated commitment to fight HIV/AIDS and poverty in Africa—perceived the president.

In South Africa, the dominant political party, Thabo Mbeki’s African National Congress, protested Bush’s visit with a sizable demonstration of more than 2000 people who marched to the U.S. embassy. Demonstrators saw the trip as nothing but a way for the United States to further extend its hegemony on the world and push its anti-terrorist agenda. An editorialist of The Nation, one of Kenya’s leading newspapers, who acknowledges that, in the end, Bush might commit more money to Africa than any of his predecessors, wrote, coldly: “And yet he will never be liked on this continent.” The editorialist feels that the Bush administration lacks “Wisdom.”

Then-Secretary of State Colin Powel firmly defended his boss’s record with regard to Africa in several interviews he gave during the visit.

To a South African Broadcasting Corporation reporter who asked Powel on July 10 in Pretoria, “What do you say to criticism that the United States is using this visit as a PR exercise to save face after going unilaterally into Iraq?” Powel answered: “It’s nonsense. Why would we want to do that? We don’t need to save face. We have not lost any face.” The Secretary elaborated: “We went to Iraq and we removed an awful person from power. We removed a dictator, and now we are seeing the mass graves being opened up. We are seeing what he did to the infrastructure of his country. We have seen how he has suppressed the Shias in the south.” Powell added: “Africa is an important place in the American agenda, on the American priority list. The president has felt that way from the very beginning of this administration. That’s why he has pursued expansion of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the HIV/AIDS program that he is pushing, the Millennium Account—all these are not PR exercises.” Powell made the same remarks during a prime-time interview on CNN’s Larry King Live show.