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Bush encouraged by Africa trip

Times Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, as President Carter was preparing to visit West Africa, a Nigerian government official asked a member of Carter’s advance team whether the president would like to attend a public execution on a Lagos beach.

It is safe to say that no government official made such an inquiry of President Bush’s staff as it prepared the agenda for the six-day, five-nation African trip he completed Thursday.

For Bush, this visit was all about Africa’s economic growth, political reconciliation in many parts after years of violence, and success in fighting the scourges of HIV/AIDS and malaria. Besides Liberia, he visited Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana.

The journey was “one of the most exciting” of his presidency because of its focus, Bush told reporters on the flight home. It offered “a chance to herald courageous people in their efforts to deal with hopelessness,” he said.

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“I would hope that [the United States] never says, ‘Well, it’s not worth it over there, what happens over there,’ or it says, ‘Well, we’ve got to take care of our own first, exclusively,’ ” Bush said, seated at a conference table and wearing a blue Air Force One windbreaker, warm-up pants and plastic clogs without socks. “My answer is, we can do both. We’re a generous country.”

As Bush’s staffers prepared the schedule for his seven hours in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, they had to take into account the ragged journey of daily life in a country that for decades has been a microcosm of Africa at its worst. But it’s also a country that the White House hopes represents the continent’s potential.

Carter, who did not attend an execution in Nigeria, stopped in Liberia on his way home to Washington, promoting U.S. friendship with a country that established its independence in 1847 after being founded two decades earlier by freed slaves from the United States. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to visit Liberia, Carter was the second, and Bush became the third Thursday.

Bush’s Marine One helicopter carried him over ocean-side mangrove swamps and shrub lands, where clusters of shacks dot the two-lane main road, their metal roofs held down by rocks. Running water and electricity, other than that created by personal generators, are rare in most of the country.

The population of 3.5 million survives on an average of $185 per person per year, life expectancy is 42 years, and 80% of the population cannot read, according to the U.S. State Department.

During a brief speech on a sweltering parade ground at the Barclay Training Center, a military complex where the U.S. and the Liberian government are working to restructure and professionalize the country’s security forces, Bush announced that the U.S. would provide $1 million for books, desks and chairs for 10,000 schoolchildren.

“We’re working to help the children of Liberia get a good education so they’ll have the skills they need to turn their freedom into a future of prosperity and peace,” he said. “The people of this good country must understand the United States will stand with you as you rebuild your country.”

Later, at the University of Liberia, Bush took part in a round-table discussion on education. The school, the only public university in the country, has 300 faculty members and 15,000 students.

Liberia’s history from 1980, two years after Carter’s visit, until 2003 was one of civil war and destitution. The conditions existed under President Samuel K. Doe, who seized power after his forces shot and killed the previous president in his bedroom, and then under President Charles Taylor, when rebels kept the country in turmoil until he resigned under international pressure and went into exile 4 1/2 years ago.

With encouragement and, more important, security and financial support from the United Nations and the Bush administration, Liberia has returned to a democratic course, electing Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the only woman serving as president in Africa.

Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained, divorced mother of four, and Bush have established a friendly relationship, and he presented her the Medal of Freedom in November when she visited Washington.

They met Thursday in the executive mansion, which is the Liberian president’s office and official residence, parts of which remain unusable after an electrical fire during a reception on July 26, 2006, Liberia’s Independence Day. Johnson-Sirleaf had been living in her personal residence since her inauguration six months earlier and moved her office to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the fire.

Bush, touching briefly on the sweep of devastation over the decades, told her during a photo session at the start of their meeting, “We want to help you recover from a terrible period and live lives of hope and peace.”

For now, that future is not certain. The history of civil war brings fears that the progress represented by Johnson-Sirleaf’s government could crumble at any moment.

“There’s a nervousness in Liberia about the sustainability of this transition, for good reason,” said J. Stephen Morrison, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Liberia tends to, every five years, go down the tubes, and so that historical pattern has not been forgotten by anybody that lives [in] or works on Liberia.”

The country relies heavily on U.N. forces. More than a dozen white U.N. helicopters were lined up at Roberts International Airport, where Air Force One arrived from Accra, Ghana. Security at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is provided by the world’s only all-female peacekeeping contingent, a unit from India.

Two signs on a grassy area at the edge of the airport suggest the extent of concern over security and social order: One says, “Stop Mob Violence, Respect Rule of Law.” The other reads, “Do Not Urinate Here.”

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james.gerstenzang @latimes.com


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