Africa Expert Lyman: Bush Faces Problems on Liberia, Congo and HIV/AIDS

Africa Expert Lyman: Bush Faces Problems on Liberia, Congo and HIV/AIDS

June 30, 2003 6:19 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and to South Africa, says President Bush’s trip to five African states next week will force him to deal with such important issues as a possible U.S. military role in Liberia, help for a peacekeeping force in Congo, and pressure for political change in Zimbabwe.

In addition, Lyman, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, also says that Bush will have a “tricky” time persuading South African leaders to moderate their opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and to various treatments for HIV/AIDS.

Lyman was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on June 30, 2003.

President Bush is traveling to Africa at the beginning of next week. How did this trip come about, and what is his agenda?

The trip was originally scheduled for this past January and postponed because of the Iraq situation. The president has tried to make the point that he is concerned with Africa. His concern reaches out to a constituency in the United States for Africa, and he seems to be genuinely concerned about the HIV/AIDS crisis. Judging from Bush’s speech on Africa that he gave on June 26, [this weeklong trip is] going to be very important. [He will visit] South Africa, Botswana, Senegal, Uganda, and Nigeria.

There is continuing strife in Liberia, and Bush has called on President Charles Taylor to quit. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for an international peacekeeping force in Liberia, and many governments have called on the United States to lead it. Is the United States likely to agree?

The United States is under a lot of pressure to do so. The British took the lead in a peacekeeping effort in Sierra Leone, a former British colony, and the French took the lead in the Ivory Coast, a former French colony. And the French are now taking the lead in the eastern Congo. They and others are putting pressure on the United States to take the lead in Liberia, which has a long, special relationship with the United States [since its founding in 1847 by freed U.S. slaves]. I think it will be hard for the United States to do so with so many troops tied down in Iraq and other places, but I would expect the United States to support some kind of peacekeeping effort there and perhaps play some kind of a role. If we don’t, we will look as if we do more talking than acting in Africa.

What are the issues in Liberia?

They are very complicated. Charles Taylor is not only a man who [traveled] a rather cruel path to power, but he also instigated rebellions and war in neighboring Sierra Leone. He has dabbled in other countries, and one reason for this rebellion [in Liberia] is that some of the neighboring countries are just tired of Charles Taylor fomenting difficulties. He has also been accused of [allowing Liberia to be used] as a transit point for [illegal trade in] diamonds [from] Sierra Leone. He’s an escaped convict from Massachusetts. He’s just not a nice guy at all. He did get elected president, but at [that] point people felt if they didn’t elect him president, there would just be more warfare. So I was pleased that President Bush called on him to depart.

He has promised to step down by next January?

Yes. But he’s going back and forth. He has said he would leave in January but wants to make sure the government and his interests are protected, [and so on]. It is not at all clear how firm his commitment to leave is.

What size peacekeeping force would be needed there?

In Sierra Leone, the United Nations eventually needed 11,000. You would need about that many in Liberia.

That’s almost the size of an entire U.S. Army division.

If the force is too light, you won’t be able to deal with the various armed groups.

Can the French-led force deal with the problems in Congo?

I don’t think so. The French are leading a special temporary peacekeeping effort into the northeast corner, in the area of Ituri and the city of Bunia, to stop what had been a wholesale massacre [rising out of] ethnic rivalries in the area. These ethnic rivalries have been promoted by outside governments— Rwanda and Uganda in particular— and to some extent promoted by the government of Congo itself. So it is part of a much larger diplomatic and military competition going on for the control of Congo, and in particular, eastern Congo, which has a lot of important resources, but which is important for the security of Uganda and Rwanda as well.

The U.N. force that has gone in there is only going to do a very small part of the job. The real question— and the question that President Bush is going to hear when he travels in Africa— is whether the United States is prepared to support a more robust peacekeeping force in Congo. If the United States agrees, it would mean a lot more money and pressing a lot of countries to send troops into a very hostile situation.

Who are the “good guys” there? Are Rwanda and Uganda on the right side?

It is hard to say who the “good guys” are in this case. There aren’t very many. Rwanda’s concern has been the former Hutus who carried out genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and fled into Congo. They are still active. They are still organized in a military way. The Hutus have played the politics very well. They’ve sided with the Kinshasa government against various other elements in eastern Congo. Rwanda wants a security buffer on [its] border [with Congo and it has] been willing to support various groups in order to [try to get one.]

Rwanda and Uganda formerly were acting in concert because Uganda also had problems on the border, but the two have fallen out and are supporting rival groups in the area, which is contributing to a great deal of the violence. There is also a charge from the United Nations that Uganda commanders [are sustaining] their influence because they are profiting from the gold [mines] and other mines in the area. The Kinshasa government is supposed to be forming a government of national unity but is also dabbling in the support of various rebel groups in order to strengthen its position vis-a-vis Uganda and Rwanda. So, it is a very complicated situation out there.

The Africans, under South African leadership, are working very hard on an overall peace agreement. It is still tenuous, obviously. But that is the major diplomatic effort involved.

When the president goes to Nigeria, what will he find there?

A government that has just been reelected under President Olusegun Obasanjo, a man with a great deal of international stature, a man who [in 1979] turned over his military government to civilian rule, ran for election in 1999 and won. Neither the first or second of his elections has been entirely clean, but by and large people would agree that he was the majority winner. He did not do as well in his first term as people had hoped. It is very hard to reform the Nigerian political and economic scene. People think Obasanjo has more chance this time because he is a more experienced politician [and] he has a stronger party [the People’s Democratic Party].

In an article you co-authored in the International Herald Tribune in May with John Prendergast, you were concerned that the Iraq war would divert so much American resources into Iraq and Afghanistan that there wouldn’t be much left for Africa. Is that still a concern?

It is a concern, although the president’s speech on Africa last week was a very strong one, and I welcomed it. Let me give you one figure that illustrates the problem we were talking about. The United Nations’ consolidated appeal for worldwide aid, which is humanitarian aid, is for over $5 billion. Iraq and Afghanistan have received very strong responses [from donor nations], whereas Africa has received less than a quarter of what the United Nations has asked. With United States and international resources going to Iraq and Afghanistan, some of the very large humanitarian needs in Africa are going underfunded.

In his speech, Bush talked about his proposal on HIV/AIDS. The money has been authorized, but not appropriated. What is the likelihood that Congress will appropriate the money he has asked for?

It is very interesting. The president in his speech called for an appropriation of $2 billion in the first year. The authorization is actually for $3 billion a year for five years. But $2 billion is probably more than the Congress was thinking of in the first year. So, if there is in fact an appropriation of $2 billion in the first year that will be better than a lot of people had hoped. The initiative is a very, very good one and much needed. The appropriations will be critical. There will also be a lot of debate over how much should go to the global [AIDS] fund, as opposed to bilateral programs. Congress set up a kind of competitive incentive to the rest of the world, [stipulating that] the United States could contribute more to the global fund [as long as the U.S. contribution didn’t exceed] one-third [of the total]. The [idea] is to get the other countries to do more.

How will the president be received in South Africa? In particular, is the government’s attitude still hostile to medications for HIV/AIDS? In the past, President Thabo Mbeki questioned their effectiveness.

South Africa will be a tricky visit for the president in many ways. The Mbeki government was very critical of the Iraq war, and former President Nelson Mandela continues to be very critical of the Iraq war. But I don’t think Bush could go to Africa and have avoided going to South Africa. There will be a number of difficult issues on the agenda there. Zimbabwe’s going to be one, with the United States pressing South Africa do more. Congo is definitely going to be on the agenda, because South Africa leads that negotiation.

And then there is HIV/AIDS. The South African government is actually doing a lot more on HIV/AIDS now. After a court case that they lost, they are beginning to distribute mother-to-child transmission-prevention drugs throughout the country. The government is still very ambivalent, however, about how much to emphasize anti-viral treatments, fearing [their] overwhelming cost implications. President Mbeki has been very, very ambivalent about his attitude toward HIV/AIDS. That has had a negative effect on the push and morale and leadership of the government in this area. They are spending a lot of money on it but their official attitude remains ambivalent. President Bush is going to have to work on that when he is there.

Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times calling for more democracy in Zimbabwe, in effect calling for the removal of President Robert Mugabe. How will this play?

There is a difference between the West and the Africans on how to handle the Zimbabwe situation. They are very reluctant to come down hard and criticize a fellow African leader. They prefer to work much more behind the scenes and [simultaneously] publicly defend an African leader. Behind the scenes, I think they are trying very hard to negotiate an agreement between the government and the opposition that would have Mugabe step down. South Africa is reluctant to put too much economic pressure on Zimbabwe by cutting off water and electricity. A lot of the power Zimbabwe gets is bought from South Africa. The South Africans don’t want a total collapse. They don’t want huge numbers of refugees pouring across the border. But there is another problem for the South Africans and the Nigerians. They don’t have a lot of respect for the opposition in Zimbabwe. They consider it a tool of the whites, or a tool of the British, or the West, and they are not quite prepared to give the opposition the credibility that I think it deserves. And that means that they are more interested in engineering a succession from within the ruling party of Zimbabwe than perhaps some kind of coalition and a totally free election.

A lot has been made of possible new terrorist attacks in Kenya, in particular. Is this really a growing problem in Africa?

It is a serious problem in Africa. In eastern Africa— Kenya, Tanzania, etc.--clearly there are networks operating that have produced some major terrorist attacks on our embassies, on the Israelis, [and so on]. Those networks continue to function and get fed from outside.

The other place [terrorist groups have] been operating is in getting financial support through diamond traffic in West Africa, Sierra Leone, and in Liberia with the complicity of Charles Taylor. There is worry and concern about the potential for terrorism in areas like Nigeria. There is no evidence that terrorists have made inroads there, however. Islam in the rest of Africa is quite moderate. Look at Senegal or Mali, for example. Islam has not been radical and not been inconsistent with democratic governments. In fact, you could argue that if progress continues to be made in those moderate Islamic areas, African Islam might be a force for moderation.

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