African leaders are expected to give George Bush's tour a rocky start today by blaming US trade practices for impoverishing millions of farmers across the continent.
The US president will be personally challenged for perhaps the first time over the huge subsidies to US cotton growers, a dispute which threatens to overshadow a trip intended to trumpet Washington's generosity to poor countries.
Mr Bush's five-day, five-nation tour will start in Senegal today with a visit to Goree Island, where in the 19th century slaves awaiting shipment to America were detained. His scheduled speech is to touch on democracy and race but there will be no apology for slavery, as some campaigners had wished.
For the seven African heads of state due to meet the president today it is a rare opportunity to bypass multilateral institutions and make a direct pitch for trade reform.
Mr Bush wants to publicize the compassionate side of Washington's aid and trade concessions but he is likely to be tackled several times about the $4bn (£2.42bn) subsidies that critics say help to ruin west African cotton farmers.
Yesterday South Africa warned that Mr Bush would also be confronted over other agricultural subsidies during talks in Pretoria tomorrow.
Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal's president, is considered a Bush ally but he has promised to complain to his visitor about the damage wrought by the cosseting of the US cotton barons, a powerful lobby which has close ties to Texas and the Republicans.
Mali's president, Amadou Toumani Touré, is also expected to pitch in, following his testimony last month to a congressional sub-committee when he denounced the devastating impact of "unjust" US and European trade policies.
Many African economies, especially those of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Benin, depend on cotton for employment, exports and wealth creation. These nations' low-cost, high-quality outputs should be competitive. But many producers, mostly the small and labor-intensive ones, are failing because US subsidies are helping to depress prices and squeeze rivals out of markets.
According to Oxfam, a 25% fall in price pushes 250,000 people below the poverty line in Burkina Faso alone. More than a third of Mali's population depends on cotton and across the region there are a further 11 million producers. The World Bank agrees they have a "very valid" complaint.
Francois Traore, head of Burkina Faso's cotton producers' association, urged African leaders to ram the point home today. "This is a great opportunity - our heads of state have an obligation to speak out."
However, advocacy groups fear some leaders will speak softly, or not at all, for fear of jeopardizing debt relief and marginal trade concessions.
Sensing momentum against them, US negotiators at the World Trade Organization have turned "pretty heavy" in response to a Brazilian-led attempt, supported by four African countries, to reduce the subsidies, said Kevin Watkins, Oxfam's head of research. "The problem is, the US cotton growers are probably the world's most effective agricultural lobby group. They make French wheat farmers look like amateurs."
Kudos for helping African producers would not compensate Mr Bush politically for offending his cotton constituency, said Mr Watkins. But he added that that could change if enough pressure were applied. There is plenty of scope for embarrassing Mr Bush: the president recently praised Senegal's premier for understanding trade and "believing in open markets".
Campaigners have noted the irony that many of the slaves who passed through Goree Island ended up on the cotton plantations which mutated into the subsidized corporations of today.
"Getting rid of subsidies alone won't eradicate poverty, but this visit is a big opportunity for African leaders. I hope they take it," said Chris Conrad, regional director of the relief group Care.
South Africa's trade and industry minister, Alec Erwin, said economic links would be at the forefront of discussions with Mr Bush and agricultural subsidies were a priority.
Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, a Washington advocacy group, said Mr Bush's promotion of trade as an engine of growth was dishonest: "The reality is that the US continues to pursue trade policies that are antithetical to Africa's interests."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003