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AFRICA

They're Looking Hard for a Reason to Be Optimistic

Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page B02

The ballots were still being disputed in Florida and the legal briefs were flying fast and furious in Washington, yet what remained a mystery to Americans in November 2000 seemed clear to many people in Lusaka, capital of the southern African nation of Zambia: George W. Bush would be the next president of the United States. And to some, that was cause for optimism.

Hadn't Bush already promised to name African Americans as his secretary of state and his national security adviser, a cab driver asked as we rattled down Independence Boulevard past State House, the residence of Zambia's own president.

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The cabbie clearly had been following American politics more closely than I had. But I suggested that if Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were the nominees in question, both were more steeped in the geopolitics of Cold War Europe than post-colonial Africa.

But they are black, he countered. Surely that meant that Bush would pay closer attention to Africa than American presidents typically did.

It's been more than three years since my last cab ride through Lusaka, and -- now as then -- I try to resist the lazy journalist's habit of hearing the sentiments of a nation in the words of a cab driver. But it seems evident that Africans have found Bush less engaging than they might have hoped.

"The general feeling in Zambia is that Bush is a warmonger who has polarized the world and put everyone else at risk," Edem Djokotoe, a columnist for the Post newspaper, told me recently. "Even those who might just go to an American library in a relatively safe capital like Lusaka might find themselves being blown to smithereens."

Whatever the result of the election, Djokotoe said, "many of us feel that U.S. foreign policy toward the rest of the world, particularly Africa, won't change that much, and we'll still get the short end of the stick."

Elliad Ali Banda, a Lusaka physician, said that "the average Zambian thinks that Iraq is a failure. The polarizing question is: Is this a Bush issue or is it just an American thing?"

As desperately poor as Zambia is, its problems pale in comparison with those of its southern neighbor, Zimbabwe. The country is ravaged by food shortages, political violence and economic collapse. Optimism tends to be in short supply there, and anyone able to find reason for hope in an election thousands of miles away has to be an innovative thinker -- like the editorial writer for the Financial Gazette: "It is no secret that the person who shares 'pillow talk' with the leader of the richest and most powerful nation in the world has tremendous influence," the editorial said. "If John Kerry becomes . . . president, Africa could have a strong ally in the White House. Kerry's wife would become the first American first lady with roots in Africa."

-- Andy Mosher, a Post deputy foreign editor

responsible for the paper's Africa coverage

from 1996 until 2003


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