Africa's woes diagnosed, but not fixed


PARIS -- Africa nags for attention, largely ignored at the edge of our political consciousness -- and consciences. Yet the immense horrors committed by Hutu in Rwanda, and then the suffering of the displaced Hutu themselves, women and children and genocidal bands alike, fleeing through the great forest of the central Congo, pursued by enemies who showed them no mercy, bear comparison to the slaughters and forced population upheavals of World War II.

Liberia and Sierra Leone, like Somalia, have existed in conditions of anarchic blood-letting and pillage with little political coherence, a matter of sheer power struggle between war lords, sustained by feral bands of children bearing Kalishnikovs.

Inconclusive outside interventions take place; implausible elections are held; there are attempts at international mediation; but nothing fundamental is solved.

There, as elsewhere, the charitable organizations, the United Nations and the Organization for African Unity struggle to give help, but the former increasingly doubt the integrity of their own mission, which tends to perpetuate the bloodiest power struggles by sparing the criminals the consequences of what they do.

In Kenya, the West's favorite tourist destination, tribal violence currently mounts as an apparent result of pre-electoral ethnic manipulations of President Daniel arap Moi -- member of a minority ethnic group -- who successfully plays more powerful groups against one another.

An argument can be made that all this is due to democracy -- a nominal democracy that cleared the consciences of the former colonial powers and placed the blame for Africa's future condition upon the Africans themselves.

This democracy was bestowed on narrow westernized elites in states whose borders slashed across ancient tribal and ethnic structures. The new leaders of independent Africa nonetheless endorsed these colonial frontiers because they confirmed their own power, and also simply because no one was prepared to try to redraw them.

The tribal card

The result, as a South African observer, Rian Malan, has said, has been that "political parties become vehicles for tribal aspirations. Leaders survive by constantly playing the tribal card, or by assuming absolute power and smothering dissent. At worst, power in the center cannot be held at all, and carnage ensues."

Democratic votes have given power to majorities who in the traditional order had been dominated by minorities. This was the case in Rwanda and Burundi. The Nilotic Tutsi people, who ruled the peasant Hutu both before and during colonialism (when the colonial powers worked through the existing feudal order) have now reclaimed power. They did so with the support of the related Nilotic people now in control of Uganda.

By adding the former Zaire to their new empire, however, they have created conditions for a reaction against them. Their conquering army now is called "the extraterrestrials" or "the little green men" on the streets of Kinshasa, where bitterness grows over rule by Tutsi, even if the Tutsi are acting through Laurent-Desire Kabila, a Congolese political veteran and member a non-Nilotic Congolese minority.

Tiny Rwanda's conquest of the huge Congo has ricocheted onto the neighboring Congo Republic, and beyond that has shaken all of francophone central Africa.

The fighting that broke out this summer in Brazzaville, capital of the other Congo, pits a president who belongs to the plurality Kongo group of peoples -- who dominate the south -- against the former president, from one of the northern groups, who lost an election forced upon him by France in 1992. With a new election now in prospect, the two sides are fighting to control the sole multi-ethnic zone, that of Brazzaville.

The political and economic ideologies of the West have deepened Africa's problems. The World Bank's annual development report this year says that the majority of sub-Saharan countries are in worse condition today than they were at independence. It doesn't say that one reason for this is the World Bank.

Its early support for large-scale infrastructure and industrial projects, appropriate only to much more sophisticated economies, indebted African states without producing sustainable development. The World Bank's later structural-adjustment policies continued an inappropriate attempt to incorporate African societies into the international economy, and is the product of the West's blind new enthusiasm for the universal benefits of globalized trade.

World Bank and IMF policies caused Africa to export its raw materials, undermined African subsistence agriculture and indigenous manufacturing and trade, and turned African societies into markets for imported processed foods and irrelevant consumer goods.

There unhappily is no answer to all this. The South African writer, Mr. Malan, dreams of a giant African federation from the Nile to the Cape, with internal government left to the traditional tribal structures. He thinks this is the ambition of Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, the leader who is currently favorite of the American press and government. But even if this federation were achievable, it would be a return to African feudalism, with lasting subordination of majorities to minorities -- of Hutu to Tutsi, in that particular case. Is this really a formula for African stability and progress? But then one must ask, what is?

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/25/97

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