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Military bases in Africa? Bush says ‘that’s baloney’

Times Staff Writer

After crossing Africa from west to east and back, the central issues that followed President Bush on his tour all came together Wednesday in the white stucco Osu Castle here on the Atlantic shoreline.

With gusto, the president declared “that’s baloney” to the notion that the United States was preparing to establish military bases in Africa.

“Or, as we say in Texas, that’s bull,” Bush said at a news conference with Ghanaian President John Kufuor.

Bush also defended the foundation of his program to combat HIV and AIDS, which emphasizes fidelity, the use of condoms and abstinence from premarital sex. He was responding to a question from a Ghanaian reporter, who said that in African societies “this doesn’t really strike a chord because multiple sexual relationships or partner relationships is the reality, though it’s not spoken of in public.”

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And Bush challenged the idea that China’s progress in seizing commercial advantages in Africa, particularly in energy development, might come at the cost of U.S. opportunities.

“I don’t view Africa as a zero-sum for China and the United States,” Bush said.

The president, on the fifth day of a six-day trip, drove through streets lined for miles with schoolgirls in yellow dresses and boys in khaki shorts and yellow or blue shirts. He exchanged rhetorical bear hugs of admiration with Kufuor, who, like Bush, is watching a campaign to elect his successor play out.

But here, five decades after Ghana gained independence from Britain, the country’s political history is largely one of coups and corruption. Kufuor was Ghana’s first new president installed after a democratic election since 1960, when the country became an independent republic.

Along with Liberia, which Bush visits today in his final stop on the five-nation trip, Ghana is seen by the White House as an encouraging demonstration of political progress on the continent.

U.S. relations with Ghana are on a smooth enough footing that what had been scheduled as a 65-minute series of meetings ended early. Perhaps the most sensitive issue, the nature of a new U.S. military command responsible for Africa and whether its establishment would mean permanently stationing troops on the continent, appeared to have been resolved with Bush’s promise to place no more than a headquarters operation in the region.

Liberia is seeking to house the offices of the new Africa Command, which Bush said would help provide military assistance to nations on the continent for, among other things, peacekeeping missions.

In an opening statement at the news conference at Osu Castle -- a 17th century fort built by Denmark, the first European colonial ruler here, that’s now the seat of Ghana’s government -- Bush said, “We do not contemplate adding new bases.

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“I want to dispel the notion that all of a sudden America is bringing all kinds of military to Africa,” he said, speaking on a small stage in a garden, where a peacock strutted and screeched nearby. “It’s simply not true.”

Kufuor, who previously raised objections to U.S. plans, suggested he was satisfied with Bush’s explanation.

The president came to Africa to draw attention to U.S. health efforts across the continent, primarily in fighting HIV/AIDS and malaria.

On Wednesday, he announced that the U.S. would make $350 million available over five years for treatment of what he called “neglected tropical diseases,” among them hookworm, river blindness and elephantiasis. The current budget for such programs is $15 million, the White House said.

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Responding to the question on HIV/AIDS and whether his focus on abstinence and fidelity would work here, he said, “I understand customs and norms.” But noting that the program was “comprehensive,” he said there was a third element, “called condoms.”

“The program has been unbelievably effective,” Bush said.

However, Taylor Royle, a spokesperson for the ONE campaign to end extreme poverty and the AIDS epidemic, said the number of infections in Africa peaked in 1998, according to the United Nations anti-AIDS office. It was on its way down when the president began his campaign against the disease in 2003, Royle said.

Bush also said 50,000 people were receiving antiretroviral drugs in the countries that are part of his AIDS relief program when he took office and that 1.2 million are receiving them now.

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“I monitor the results,” Bush said. “And if it looks like it’s not working, then we’ll change.”

The president’s focus teamed him up with two celebrities involved with health issues on the continent, Irish rock star Bob Geldof and “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks.

Geldof traveled aboard Air Force One with Bush on Tuesday from Rwanda to Ghana, and Sparks performed a soulful rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the U.S. Embassy here, where Bush greeted diplomats and staffers.

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com


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