America's chance in Africa; Diplomacy: If Washington's overtures to Africa go beyond symbolism, both the United States and the continent could reap significant benefits.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SECRETARY of state Madeleine K. Albright was to return this weekend from her third official visit to sub-Saharan Africa (her fourth, if you count her visit as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), after trips to six countries in West and East Africa. The secretary has made more official visits to the subcontinent than any of her predecessors. This is commendable.

The trip brought additional visibility to Africa, not only its challenges but also some of the continent's success stories. The overriding message of Albright's sojourn -- like President Clinton's tour of the continent last year -- is that Africa matters.

Yet, if her diplomacy is to provide lasting benefit, Albright must transcend symbolism. There are ample opportunities during the next few months for her to translate words into action.

In Sierra Leone, Albright met with the leaders of the small West African country's new government: the nation's democratically elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kebbah and former rebel leader Foday Sankoh. The Clinton administration helped broker a peace agreement this year, ending a brutal, eight-year civil war that devastated the diamond-rich country.

The peace agreement is flawed in many respects, granting amnesty and a share of the power to a rebel force accused of widespread human rights abuses, including maiming, kidnapping, murder and rape. It was a bitter but necessary compromise. Despite some initial problems, the accord is being implemented and a cease-fire has held. But serious doubts remain about the chances of disarming and demobilizing the combatants, especially the former rebels.

This week, the United Nations is expected to debate resolutions that would create a peacekeeping force to replace the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force, with broad powers to forcibly disarm combatants.

Peace process

Albright took the opportunity to lend her support to the peace process and urged all sides to comply with the terms. But that is not enough. She should also strongly support proposals to create a U.N. peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, including the participation of U.S. troops. Past atrocities have made the peace process more complicated. A U.S. military presence could prove indispensable to the success of the peace accord.

Our failure to become more substantially involved could doom the peace agreement and plunge Sierra Leone back into chaos. It also would send a message to Sierra Leoneans and other Africans that U.S. foreign policy has a double standard in which African lives are not considered as precious as European or Asian lives.

Albright also made a brief visit to neighboring Guinea, which has been overwhelmed by refugees fleeing the anarchy in Sierra Leone. Her visit to confer with President Lansana Conteh underscores the importance of the United States working with leaders to solve regional crises.

In Mali, Albright's visit served to emphasize the political and economic progress under President Alpha Konare. Seven years ago, Mali made a successful transition from decades of military dictatorship to multiparty democracy. Because of its achievements, Mali was on the short list of African countries that Clinton wanted to visit last year.

The Malian capital, Bamako, is being transformed from a dusty outpost to a modern city. Mali's democracy also appears to be thriving, but it needs increased foreign trade and investment to consolidate its political gains. There should be a tangible reward for Mali and other African countries, such as Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique and others, that have enacted positive political and economic reforms.

Economic engine

The third stop on Albright's tour was Nigeria. This year, multiparty elections restored the democratic government led by President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military leader who was imprisoned for opposing Nigeria's corrupt former military dictatorship.

Nigeria is the economic engine of Africa, possibly more important to the continent than South Africa. Nigeria is Africa's largest country, with an estimated population of more than 100 million people. One of every five Africans is a Nigerian. It is a tremendous market, a country with enormous oil reserves. Millions of barrels of Nigerian sweet crude are processed daily through refineries. But Obasanjo needs substantial assistance, including investment, debt-relief and infrastructural repair, to kick-start a once-thriving economy.

The Clinton administration invested a tremendous amount of diplomatic capital in assisting Nigeria's political transition. Unless an additional investment is made to revive Nigeria's economy, the country's return to democracy could fail, as it has twice before. Obasanjo has made an impressive start, including a frontal campaign against corruption in high places.

Kenya's once-promising transition to an open, multiparty democracy has been stalled for the past few years by a series of heavy-handed political maneuvers and power grabs. Albright will have tough words for Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi, a former Cold War ally, on allowing political and economic reforms.

If Albright is not successful, Kenya's steady deterioration could lead to a collapse. That could have severe consequences not only for the people of Kenya but also for the rest of East Africa. In the past, a prosperous, market-driven Kenya had helped provide regional stability. A stable Kenya is essential to efforts to heal the upheaval in neighboring Sudan and Somalia, and in Rwanda and Burundi.

Tanzanian model

Finally, Albright traveled to Tanzania. There she encouraged the political and economic reforms begun almost 15 years ago by the late Julius Nyerere. Tanzania's founding father and Africa's most revered elder statesman, Nyerere set an example by voluntarily retiring from office, paving the way for another peaceful transfer of power.

Once a single-party state, today's Tanzania is a shining example of a stable democracy. Also, Tanzania, like Kenya, felt the brunt of last year's bombings of the U.S. embassies and has fully cooperated with U.S. investigators seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Albright's trip could go a long way toward revealing the progress that most of Africa has made in recent years. Unfortunately, Americans know all too little about these success stories. Instead, they are fed a media diet that focuses on conflicts in a half-dozen countries. This distorted view ignores the progress in the rest of Africa and the efforts by these countries to resolve conflicts.

The United States did about $22.4 billion worth of trade with Africa last year, importing far more than we exported. If our economy is to continue to grow, we must seek out emerging markets, such as Africa's 54 countries. By helping Africa, the United States can also help itself.

The secretary of state and the Clinton administration are to be applauded for making sure that Africa occupies an important slot on the United States' foreign policy agenda.

Yet, more can and should be done. Specifically, Washington should encourage more trade and investment with Africa, and provide debt relief and other measures that will give Africans a chance to build on their achievements. Africans and Americans can become the beneficiaries of this partnership. Albright's recent trip could help forge a new era of cooperation.

Leonard H. Robinson Jr. is the president and CEO of the National Summit on Africa, based in Washington, D.C. He also is a former two-time deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

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