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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 father’s 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 Bush’s 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 Congo’s fragile central government and several militias.

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 like Angola.

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 Africa.

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 world’s 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 people’s 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 (1993–98) 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.


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