If the re-emergent democracies of Africa are to survive and bloom they desperately need Western capital and technology. But the West, having burnt its fingers once, will not return to Africa until it can find security there.
That is the dilemma of Africa as it stumbles through the post-Cold War 1990s: It cannot have stability without investment and it cannot have investment without stability.
Yet, for all the conflict and misery in far-flung countries such as Somalia, Angola and Liberia, this may well be the time of greatest opportunity in Africa since the departing British and French colonists let loose a wave of independence in the 1950s and '60s.
Where only five of the continent's 52 states could be regarded as legitimate multi-party democracies in 1987, now there are 12, and moves toward this end are under way in roughly 20 more. All across the continent, longtime despots and repressive centralized regimes are yielding to domestic and international pressures for change.
But what kind of change? How permanent? And to what end?
It was with these questions that Helen Kitchen, respected director of African Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, drew together a distinguished group of some 50 scholars, financiers, career diplomats, business people and politicians to a round-table conference in Washington last month.
It was an illuminating discussion among people who, for a variety reasons, clearly wanted Africa -- or rather, it's disparate nations -- to succeed.
Jeffrey Davidow, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, noted that African states were often hampered in their efforts to install democracy because many of the conditions that made democracy possible in Europe and the United States were lacking -- such as strong public institutions, nationally-based parties and well-educated middle classes.
In many cases, he said, African states would have to develop those institutions after, rather than before, they established a democratic government.
"Once democracy is in place, then the real problems begin," he said.
African Edward Jaycox, head of the World Bank's Africa division, predicted that the new democracies of Africa would ultimately ,, lead to better governance, through improved accountability, transparency, rule of law and predictability of government.
"In the short term, though, the transition is going to mean disruption," he said. That would mean higher risks for investors, but "it's a price that has got to be paid."
Samba Ka, a Cameroonian professor at Johns Hopkins University, disagreed with Mr. Jaycox, arguing that the drive for democracy did not guarantee economic success.
"There is no conclusive evidence that the economic performance of democratic governments is better than that of non-democratic governments," he said, citing the economic success of Singapore. "There is only proof that political instability leads to economic decline."
There was one crucial element that no one had mentioned -- almost certainly not because it had slipped their notice, but more likely because they knew it was beyond their reach: the question of concern. To put it more bluntly: Who still cares about Africa?
Eight years ago when the harrowing pictures of Ethiopian famine flashed across our screens, it led to an outpouring of outrage and compassion that spilled into the streets and parks of capitals across the Western world and spurred tardy governments into action.
Similarly, it was public anger over apartheid in the mid-1980s that drove an unwilling President Reagan to impose sanctions on the recalcitrant South African government, hastening the demise exclusive white rule.
There are other instances, too, in which international public concern averted disaster or ensured success on the trouble-plagued continent.
But now the momentum seems to have gone. Once again we stare aghast at the images of stick figures dying in the faraway Somalian wastes; read of tailspinning peace processes in Angola, Liberia and Mozambique; watch the expansion of civil strife in South Africa and Kenya.
And what happens? Nothing.
This is not to detract from the frantic and tireless efforts of international aid groups and the generous contributions of concerned individuals and organizations in the United States and other industrialized nations. Their work is of vital importance and immeasurable value for the 40 percent of all Africans who live below the poverty line. But where is the popular support for their efforts? Where are the fund-raising drives, the protests and banners, the concern on the streets?
A void of interest seems to have developed in the Western mind over Africa with the ending of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc -- as if the Cold War itself, and Western interests in particular, had no responsibility to bear for the civil strife that now rages through countries like Angola, Mozambique and Zaire, and that could soon bubble over in autocratically-ruled states like Malawi and Kenya.
The diminution of interest can be tracked merely by counting the shrinkage of United Nations peacekeeping operations:
In 1989 The U.N. sent a force of 5,000 to Namibia (population 1.5 million) to monitor a nine-month ceasefire and independence process that went off with barely a hitch. In 1991 it sent fewer than 500 people to conduct an election in a simmering Angola (population 9 million) that seems to be descending once again into savage conflict. This year, so far, it has sent little more than 20 observers to monitor the shaky peace in Mozambique (population 14.5 million), where about 1 million people have been killed in 18 years of war.
Western nations, including the United States, have had a hand in these conflicts -- and in many more -- either by propping up unpopular regimes or encouraging exploitation and corruption for their own ends.
They have more than a passing interest in ensuring a stable transition to democracy and pluralism in the countries of Africa; they are morally obliged to do so.
Peter Honey, now a Washington correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, was The Sun's correspondent in Johannesburg.