THE LAST AMERICAN president to pay any serious attention to Africa was Jimmy Carter. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon -- particularly Kennedy -- wooed African leaders and provided various forms of assistance to the continent's newly independent states. The United States needed to keep African nations out of the way of Soviet communism. By 1980 the continent was pretty much divided ideologically, with the United States gaining an upper hand over the Soviet adventurists.
This brought complacency. The Reagan and Bush administrations largely ignored Africa. Since the end of the Cold War American governments have continued to behave as if they no longer know where Africa is. The result is a credibility problem for the United States in Africa.
The Clinton administration promised in its first term to correct the situation. The national-security adviser, Anthony Lake, expressed America's commitment to Africa's development. The deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, visited Africa in October 1994. The first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Tipper Gore attended the inauguration of South Africa's President Nelson Mandela.
No coherent policy
But these assurances did not grow out of, nor did they result in, any coherent or constructive policy on Africa. The administration policy was ad hoc, a mix of confusing signals: Ensuring a balance between the conflicting objectives of protecting democracy and human rights and the promotion of American trade and Africa's economic growth has been a problem. In 1993, for example, "Operation Restore Hope" was meant to rescue Somalia from the brink of anarchy. It was praised across Africa as an indication of America's renewed interest in the continent. But when 18 American troops died, the operation was abandoned.
The same year, the Rev. Jesse Jackson appealed to the administration to invite Nigeria's former head of state, Gen. Ibrahim Babaginda to Washington, as an encouragement for the Nigerian government's transition to democracy. Washington refused. In that August, General Babaginda annulled the results of the June presidential election. Nigeria has known no peace since. Maybe a trip to Washington, and recognition by the world's most powerful democracy, would have persuaded the general to give democracy a chance.
When in 1994 the administration organized a conference on Africa, so hurried were the preparations that members of the Congressional Black Caucus, natural defenders of Africa's interest, were not invited until the last minute.
Everywhere but Africa
Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher is probably the most traveled officer in the history of that office, but he made only one trip to Africa -- at the end of his tenure. At the 1994 conference, President Clinton had declared that African nations will have to bear the responsibility for solving their own problems.
At the moment, there is no strategic American interest in Africa. Only South Africa and Nigeria have significant trade relationships with the U.S. America continues to buy 40 percent of Nigeria's crude oil, despite the well known human-rights abuses of the military junta in power in Abuja.
The U.S. Aid for International Development program in Nigeria, which benefits thousands of ordinary Nigerians and non-governmental organizations, is being downsized. Nine USAID missions in Africa have been closed down. Liberia, which the United States created in 1847, is torn apart by ethnic strife. Nor has much been done to support democracy in Angola, despite the administration's recognition of the former Marxist government of President Eduardo dos Santos.
The alibi that was often tendered for this inaction by the 104th Congress is "national interest." Applied to Africa, it poses the question: What does Africa have to offer? The continent is in debt. It accounts for less than 3 percent of world trade and investments. Its people are overburdened by religious riot, ethnic strife, corruption and the absence of social infrastructure. African governments are torn between free-market and state-controlled economies. The entire continent is a theater of hunger and disease. Besides, it is so far away that it poses no immediate threat to the comfort and happiness of the American people. This cynicism will not help. The truth is that the models and strategies that define approaches elsewhere do not work in Africa. The continent's historical heritage of feudalism and years of imperial rule hardly provide the right atmosphere for Western democracy to thrive, or even Western notions of development and accountability.
Support for dictators
These same problems existed during the Cold War, but they did not stand in the way of America's support for Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, Angola's Jonas Savimbi and Siad Barre of Somalia. Why should America turn a blind eye now that its own ideological battle is won?
It is instructive that Africa's people continue to look up to the United States. I recall that in 1993, my compatriots trooped to the American embassy in Lagos, as the country suffered political tension, to plead with the American ambassador to ask Mr. Clinton to save Nigeria. America's silence then and now remains a puzzle.
Why help Haiti, Mexico and Yugoslavia and ignore Africa, when the situation is essentially the same? America, as Mr. Clinton said, is "the world's indispensable nation." Four times in this century, America has saved Europe and twice the whole world. But this global leadership involves responsibilities that should not be partially rendered.
It is not too late. Mr. Clinton has another chance to keep his promise and take Africa along on that "bridge to the 21st century." The 105th Congress also has a great opportunity to correct the charges of U.S.-centrism that were often leveled against its predecessor.
U.S. policy on Africa must move from voyeurism to action, backed by strategies that reflect an understanding of Africa's peculiar circumstances. What to do? Restore aid, isolate Africa's dictators, provide debt rescheduling, support democratic rule and investments and keep Africa in view, always.
Anything in it for America? Yes: moral redemption, to start with, investment in Africa's future, and creation of opportunities for American trade.
Reuben Abati is a Nigerian journalist studying at the University of Maryland on a Humphrey fellowship.
Pub Date: 2/11/97