Uganda’s absence on President Bush’s itinerary last month came as a shock to few. While the U.S. president’s first trip to Africa in 2003 highlighted his commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS, primarily through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), his most recent trip appeared to serve to highlight a wider array of his programs, particularly the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). The MCC, established in 2004, provides grants to countries with the goal of reducing poverty by promoting good governance and economic growth. Uganda was widely heralded a “success story” in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and an example of the success of PEPFAR, but it has been less of an example for the MCC.
The MCC, for which Bush has requested $2.22 billion in the 2009 budget, is operating in several African countries, including four of the five countries Bush visited on his most recent visit. Benin, Tanzania, and Ghana already hold MCC compacts, for which Uganda has not yet qualified. Uganda signed an agreement for a two-year, $10.4 million MCC Threshold Program last March, focusing primarily on decreasing public-sector corruption. The MCC also issues a scorecard that is a major factor in determining if a country is awarded a compact. Uganda received a failing score on two out of the 17 measures – Political Rights and Girl’s Primary Education Completion. Uganda will likely become eligible for a much larger grant through an MCC compact only if the threshold program is successful and if improvement is seen in the two failing indicators. Liberia is the one country on Bush’s itinerary that does not hold either an MCC threshold or compact agreement. It is, however, also the only African nation that has offered to host Africa Command (AFRICOM), a body headed by the US Department of Defense and currently based in Germany.
While in Tanzania, Presidents Bush and Kikwete signed a compact for the largest project in the history of the MCC, nearly $700 million over five years to improve rural roads and the Mafia Island airport. Another major deal was made in Rwanda, where President Bush and President Kagame signed the United States-Rwanda Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), which provides legal protections for American and Rwandan investors. It has been nearly ten years since the U.S. last signed such a treaty with an African nation. According to President Bush, “It reflects our shared commitment to systems of fair and open investment. It will bring more capital to Rwanda’s dynamic and growing economy.”
The trip was also an opportunity to announce the addition of five investment funds, mobilizing $875 in capital by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Other involvement on the continent by the Bush administration includes securing the international agreement on the Multilateral Debt Initiative, which has reduced $34 billion in debt to African countries; extending of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA); the Africa Education Initiative (AEI), which provides $600 million to increase access to basic education; and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), which provides $1.2 billion to reduce malaria deaths by 50 percent in 15 African countries.
Though Uganda is no longer the poster-child for U.S. development projects (or good governance) in Africa, the shifting nature of U.S. interests on the continent may mean that the country remains a significant player, corruption scandals and poor governance ratings notwithstanding. In public the U.S.’s strategic interest in Africa often takes a backseat to self-congratulation on American contributions to humanitarian causes. This was perhaps most obvious in Bush’s Washington send-off speech, “I’m going to witness the generosity of the American people firsthand,” he said, “It will give me a chance to remind our fellow citizens about what a compassionate people we are.” Although this is undoubtedly the pat-on-the-back some Americans want to hear, cutting through the compassionate conservative pontificating also reveals the increasing emphasis of US involvement in Africa for the purposes of American national security.
“We’re treating African leaders as equal partners,” Bush stated upon his return to the US. “We expect them to fight corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people, and pursue market-based economic policies. This mission serves our security interests – people who live in chaos and despair are more likely to fall under the sway of violent ideologies.” The transition away from primarily humanitarian-based assistance may be likely in the coming years. A 2007 independent task force report, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, stated that under a “business-as-usual” approach to US-African relations, “The ability of Africa to resist terrorist infiltration and extremist appeals will be weak; stability and corruption in the energy-producing states will be a cause for public concern, as well as a threat to predictable production; and U.S. influence will decline.”
If the U.S. does indeed move away from primarily humanitarian involvement and adopt a new approach to U.S.-African affairs how will Uganda be affected? If the government of Uganda continues to be viewed internationally as increasingly undemocratic, it is unlikely the incoming U.S. President will be eager to make high profile visits to the country, but more tacit relationships may remain. However, if the U.S. can find a more reliable regional partner, Washington-Kampala relations may be more seriously compromised in the days to come.