President Bush sought Nigeria's support for the anti-terror fight Friday, winning a pledge from President Olusegun Obasanjo that "we will remain steadfastly part of that coalition" in the face of pressures from Muslims at home.
Bush greeted Obasanjo in the Oval Office, their second meeting and Bush's first face-to-face session with an African head of state since the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush said that Obasanjo was among the first to call after the attacks and that he is relying on the Nigerian leader to send "a message of tolerance and respect" to other heavily Muslim nations.
"We did spend time talking about the totality of a war against terror . . . that we need to share a message that our respective governments respect tolerance, respect other points of view," Bush said.
Bush said the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan would not stop for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. He turned aside the idea of bolstering anti-poverty programs in Africa as a means of keeping terrorist groups from appealing to young Muslims.
"Economic prosperity throughout the world is more likely to make people appreciate rule of law, appreciate other people's points of view," Bush said. "But on the other hand, I don't accept the excuse that poverty promotes evil. That's like saying poor people are evil people. I disagree with that."
Obasanjo acknowledged the pressures that Nigeria's role in the coalition may create for him at home. Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation, with 126 million people, and is roughly 50 percent Muslim. Obasanjo said that means it has more Muslims than any other African country.
He said he told Bush that democratically elected leaders should surrender power if they lack the political will to stand up to terrorists and joked that Bush, "in that case, will have to go back to his ranch, and in that case I will have to go back to my chicken farm."
"But we are not going to do that, because that would be the height of irresponsibility," Obasanjo said. "The coalition has this challenge to fight terrorism. It is also a challenge to make the world wholesome, more equitable, fairer and safer for all of us to live in. . . . We are part of that coalition, and we will remain steadfastly part of that coalition."
Africa observers say Bush is wise to engage Obasanjo and other African leaders, not just for connections to the Muslim world but because of security interests. Terrorists already have struck against U.S. interests in Africa: The 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blamed on Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
Engagement would require more U.S. resources to help bolster security at borders, strengthen weak judiciaries and eradicate poverty.
"We can't afford for there to be swamps that are effectively breeding grounds for terrorists," said Susan Rice, undersecretary of state for Africa in the Clinton administration. "We can fight it in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but we'd only be displacing it to Africa."
Already a few African nations have allowed basing and overflight rights to U.S. forces; others have begun cracking down on terror cells.
Bush has made several phone calls to African leaders since the attacks. He met with Egypt's foreign minister Sept. 26. On Thursday, President Joseph Kabila of Congo met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Next week, Bush sees President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria.