February 26, 2001
Not a time to ignore Africa
Richard Joseph is Asa G. Candler
Professor of Political Science
Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are widely considered to be friends of Africa. Carter conducted the first state visit to Africa and has remained deeply involved in peace and development programs on the continent. Clinton, after a slow start marked by inaction to halt the genocide in Rwanda, paid two well-publicized visits to the continent and implemented several economic and security initiatives during his second term.
Although George W. Bush argued during the presidential campaign that
Africa is not of great strategic interest to the United States, it was
under his fathers administration that a shift was made to more reformist
policies in Africa. Operation Restore Hope, in which 25,000 American troops
were sent to war-torn Somalia, took place during the waning months of
the elder Bushs administration.
Despite the appointment of African Americans Colin Powell and Condoleezza
Rice to the two senior foreign policy positions in the Bush administration,
it is still unclear what their presence will mean for Africa policy.
Africa today reflects deeply contradictory developments. We are confronted almost daily by reports of diamond smuggling, arms trafficking, ethnic and religious conflicts, political corruption, high refugee flows, cross-border armed incursions, authoritarian governance and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS. The assassination of Laurent Kabila of Congo has rekindled concerns about the possible disintegration of this large and richly endowed African nation with nine countries on its borders.
Thousands of troops from five countries in the region are currently engaged
in armed hostilities between Congos fragile central government and
International commissions have recently demonstrated the complicity of
African leaders in the illicit diamond trade and arms trade. The World
Food Program and other humanitarian agencies often provide whatever food
and health care millions of Africans receive, even in mineral-rich countries
Political and economic renewal in Africa during the 1990s was strongly
aided by the Bush and Clinton administrations. Important changes were
accomplished, as witnessed by the emergence of functioning democracies
in several countries, including Benin, Mali, Ghana, Senegal and South
However, most democratic transitions were gradually thwarted, and autocratic
leaders continued to preside over authoritarian systems behind the camouflage
of constitutional institutions. The violent upheavals in the Ivory Coast
provided a tragic illustration of these tendencies. The same is true of
market economic reforms that have been seriously implemented in only a
restricted number of countries. Africa therefore remains marginalized
from global economic flows, a problem targeted by recent U.S. trade legislation.
Despite the lack of interest Bush has shown toward Africa, this is no time for the worlds superpower to go wobbly with regard to strengthening democracies and state institutions, advancing economic reforms and reducing warfare. Responsibility, moreover, does not only rest with the government.
State erosion has resulted in the steady expansion of the work of international
volunteer agencies. Yet they usually operate in the absence of any system
of accountability and spend huge sums annually without any independent
evaluation of their impact. This is an appropriate time to assess carefully
which forms of assistance and intervention are helpful and which are counter-productive.
Moreover, to confront effectively the causes and consequences of the
African predicament, solidarity with Africa and the African people must
be distinguished from solidarity with whatever individual or group proclaims
the right to speak for them. This is particularly important for African
Americans, who have sometimes found it difficult to confront the violence
and hardships inflicted on Africans by their own supposed leaders and
governments. Summit conferences that indiscriminately parade
the Bashirs, Eyademas, Mois and Mugabes of Africa are deeply troubling
to journalists, human rights and other civil society activists in the
countries dominated by these rulers.
I have long argued that what Africa needs is not just more debt relief,
foreign aid, international peace monitors and other forms of external
assistance. As important as these are, they must be combined with a tougher
form of love. Ghana would not have made such progress in establishing
a constitutional democracy if its outgoing ruler, Jerry Rawlings, had
not been pressured internally and externally to abandon military rule.
Where governments exist that are clearly responsive to their peoples
needs (as in Botswana and South Africa) and genuinely permit public participation
in framing public policy, high levels of official support should be maintained.
Where these conditions are not met, however, we should be more active
in amplifying the muffled voices of reformers and dissidents. Such clarity
of purpose and action, by both government and civic leaders in the United
States, would have greatly limited the unprecedented looting and tyranny
of the Sani Abacha regime (199398) in Nigeria.
For those who helped dismantle colonial systems and defeat apartheid,
the policy choices today in Africa are often unclear and confusing. We
therefore have to work harder to clarify them, be more self critical about
our activities, and prepare for a long and difficult campaign.
There is a real opportunity for Powell, Rice and their associates to
frame new policy guidelines for Africa based on a combination of compassion
and realism. If they elect to provide such leadership, many others, here
and abroad, will follow.
This essay first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is reprinted with permission.