REPORTS THAT President Bush received a mixed, at times cool, reception during his brief, five-nation African trip should not overshadow the generally positive attitude that most Africans express toward a stronger, mutually beneficial relationship with the United States.
More than two-thirds (69 percent) of all Americans share this aspiration, recognizing Africa's importance to America.
Now, enlightened self-interest demands that we do the hard, bipartisan work needed to develop our long-term strategic relationships in the region.
The Congressional Black Caucus has decades of experience advancing U.S. interests in Africa. Rep. Donald M. Payne of New Jersey, in particular, is a recognized expert for his work on the House International Relations Committee.
"Engagement with Africa is a vital U.S. interest," Congressman Payne recently observed on the House floor. "From the war on terrorism to the supply of critical resources, from the campaign against threatening diseases to the opportunities for economic trade and investment, Africa is a global player. We ignore the continent at our own peril."
America's enlightened self-interest argues for a renewed effort directed at expanding our engagement with Africa's 54 nations and 774 million people.
When many Americans think about Africa, we are filled with humanitarian concern about the suffering that often fills our television screens. Too often overlooked are Africa's rapidly expanding movement toward democracy and the benefits that we will receive by participating in the development of Africa's enormous economic potential.
Today, about one-sixth of U.S. oil consumption comes from Africa, and Africa's share of our oil supply is expected to grow to one-fifth within the next five years.
In 2002, U.S. exports to Africa totaled more than $5.8 billion, while the United States imported more than $18 billion from the continent.
Americans will benefit from well-developed strategic alliances with the countries of Africa. But achieving that goal will require hard bipartisan work. The Congressional Black Caucus stands ready to do our part.
We have the expertise and, equally important, the moral and political credibility with many African leaders that are so critical to advancing American interests.
In May, Congressman Payne and I joined Reps. Corrine Brown, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, William J. Jefferson, Sheila Jackson-Lee and Gregory W. Meeks in Nigeria for the inauguration of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Our trip reaffirmed for us that mutual and enlightened self-interest must be the foundation of any lasting U.S. relationship with African nations.
In Nigeria, and throughout Africa, Americans and our democracy are deeply admired, although Africans often express concerns about our electoral failings during the 2000 presidential elections, the administration's military policy and the decline in American protection for civil liberties post-9/11.
The people of Africa want a level playing field from the United States, Europe, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in their understandable pursuit of democratic and economic progress. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) enacted during the Clinton administration, as well as current American initiatives to address desperate public health needs in Africa, offer tangible opportunities for stronger international ties.
As we develop a bipartisan American consensus about our relationship with the countries of Africa, however, we also must be realistic about the challenges that we face.
Following years of advocacy by the Congressional Black Caucus, this Congress passed a five-year, $15 billion commitment to provide more help in response to the African AIDS crisis and other public health challenges. Now, we must keep that commitment as we work with African nations to dramatically expand their public health systems.
American assistance to African efforts toward economic development, hunger, public health, regional security and democracy must be balanced with reasonable measures to verify that the help we provide will reach the people in Africa who need it the most.
U.S. involvement in international peacekeeping efforts is in our national self-interest, but the same level of coordination and cooperation that we developed in response to genocide within the former Yugoslavia will be critical to success in African nations such as Liberia.
Americans understand that Africa is important, and the three-quarters of a billion human beings living there today understand that America's enlightened self-interest should be our guide.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat, represents Maryland's 7th Congressional District. He is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.