Leadership in Africa

A PRE-DAWN coup yesterday off the coast of Nigeria underscores why long-term economic and strategic interests require the United States to define its leadership role and forge a sustained Africa policy. Infrequent presidential visits are fine, but they are not enough.

What should America do about the coup in Sao Tome and Principe? Absolutely nothing directly. But the unexpected military takeover in those tiny but oil-rich islands is yet another reason why President Bush must join efforts by African countries to quickly develop an effective collective security and peacekeeping machinery to guard against further instability on the continent.


For the past several weeks, President Bush has been edging toward such a joint mission in Liberia, the war-torn West African nation created by free blacks and former slaves from the United States. He has been cautious and painstaking. That is understandable: In light of so much unfinished business elsewhere, it would be politically disastrous for him to overcommit American troops or send them into lethal crossfire similar to Somalia in 1990s.

This deliberateness has had its benefits.


Earlier this week, concerns about Liberia finally brought President Bush together with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the first time since unilateral U.S. actions in Iraq divided the international community. Their meeting was long overdue.

Mr. Annan has urged the United States to lead a contingent of some 2,500 troops, mostly from the Economic Community of West African States, to Liberia to buttress a cease-fire negotiated last month. So far, President Bush has hedged, prudently avoiding an open-ended commitment.

But yesterday's coup in Sao Tome re-emphasizes the need for a permanent conflict resolution and peacekeeping mechanism in West Africa, where several nations have been racked by civil wars and border disputes in recent years.

Sao Tome is a prime candidate for future instability: Its unexploited oil riches are so huge that several bigger neighbors would like nothing better than to annex it. This is one reason why the island group's now-deposed government has been hoping to get the United States to establish a naval base there to protect Sao Tome's sovereignty.

The Liberia issue is separate from Sao Tome, but both are now in the same mix. The message to Washington is that African problems need steady attention and an overall game plan, just like other world trouble spots. President Bush's recent whirlwind tour of Africa should have sensitized him to this reality.

African countries are conflicted about the United States, whose size, prominence and wealth make it easy to envy or resent. On the one hand, those countries insist they are capable of handling their own affairs; on the other, they plead for leadership because they are too divided to provide it themselves. This is an opportunity for Mr. Bush and constructive engagement.