ACCRA, Ghana - President Bush said Wednesday that talk of the United States building new military bases in Africa to expand its influence is "baloney."
The Defense Department created Africa Command last October to consolidate operations that had been split among three other regional commands, none of which had Africa as a primary focus.
Several African countries, including Libya, Nigeria and South Africa, have expressed deep reservations, fearing the plan signals an unwanted expansion of American power on the continent or is a cover for protecting Africa's vast oil resources on the United States' behalf.
Ghana's President, John Kufuor, raised the issue with Bush during their meetings at Osu Castle, a centuries-old building that was once a hub of slave-trading and now is the seat of government. "You're not going to build any bases," he told Bush - according to Bush.
"I know there's rumors in Ghana `All Bush is coming to do is try to convince you to put a big military base here,' Bush said at a news conference with Kufuor. "That's baloney. As they say in Texas, that's bull."
Instead, he said the new command - unique to the Pentagon's structure - was aimed at more effectively reorganizing U.S. military efforts in Africa to strengthen African nations' peacekeeping, trafficking and anti-terror efforts.
"The whole purpose of Africom is to help African leaders deal with African problems," Bush said.
Bush sought to dispel the notion about militarization of Africa even before giving reporters a chance to ask him about it. Kufuour said he was satisfied with Bush's explanation, and thanked him for announcing it "so that the relationship between us and the United States will grow stronger."
For now, the administration has decided to continue operating Africom out of existing U.S. bases on the continent with a headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. War-wrecked Liberia is the only African nation that has publicly offered to host a headquarters. Bush said before the trip that "if" a headquarters for Africom is ever established on the continent, he would "seriously consider" Liberia as the host.
Sweat was pouring off Bush's face during the news conference, set outdoors in Ghana's equatorial heat. Both leaders were in good sprits, showing off their camaraderie and signing the cast of a U.S. reporter who broke her hand during the trip.
Neither leader offered public complaint about China's rising influence in Africa. With near $100-a-barrel oil, and one-fifth of America's oil coming just from Nigeria, the issue is on U.S. officials' radar. But Bush and Kufuor took care not to be openly critical of China, which has gained favor in Africa by significantly increasing its investment in transportation and communications and other infrastructure while such funding has generally declined from the West.
"I don't view Africa as zero-sum for China and the United States," Bush said. "We can pursue agendas without creating an inherent sense of competition."
Kufuor said China is "coming not as a colonial power as far as we can see. It's coming ... as a guest on our terms."
Before the trip, U.S. officials offered veiled criticism of China, suggesting it looked at Africa as solely a commercial opportunity while the U.S. is interested in helping the continent's people.
"Too many nations continue to follow either the paternalistic notion that treats African countries as charity cases, or a model of exploitation that seeks only to buy up their resources," Bush said in a pre-trip speech.
Bush also announced an effort to combat neglected tropical diseases, with $350 million to be made available over five years to target seven major diseases: elephantiasis, snail fever, eye infections, river blindness, hookworm, roundworm, and whipworm. The initiative aims to help more than 300 million people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The White House said it amounts to nearly five times the spending in the current year.
About one billion people suffer from one or more of the neglected tropical diseases.
Ghana is the kind of story Bush likes to promote: a stable democracy that has largely avoided ethnic clashes and played a busy peacekeeping role on the continent. Ghana also has boosted its agriculture-based, resource-rich economy and cut its still-persistent poverty.
Kufuor is an Oxford-educated leader who came into power about the same time Bush did and is given credit here for economic reforms, open government and regional leadership. Ghana, working through the United Nations, has sent peacekeepers to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Pakistan and the Balkans.
Ghana received more than $55 million in development aid from the United States in 2007. It won approval in 2006 for a five-year, $547 million aid package aimed at expanding markets for its crops.
Several thousand children in their school uniforms lined the humid, sweltering streets of coastal Accra to welcome Bush, waving tiny Ghanian flags. Bush also has visited Benin, Tanzania and Rwanda. He will return to Washington on Thursday after stopping in Liberia.