COLLEGE PARK. — College Park -- Two more African dictators have fallen. On January 26, Mohamed Siad Barre, 73, who had run Somalia at gunpoint since October 1969, was chased out of his presidential palace, Villa Somalia, by rebels led by Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidiid. On March 26, Moussa Traore, 54, who had ruled Mali with an iron first since December 1968, was ousted in a coup led by Lt. Col. Amadou Toumani Toure.
In the tradition of African-style ''revolution,'' both General Aidiid and Colonel Toure promised to allow the formation of democratically elected civilian governments as soon as possible. But if the past is any indication of the future, their promises aren't likely to be redeemed any time soon, if ever. Dictators Barre and Traore, too, once were young and ambitious generals who promised peaceful democracy and economic prosperity. Power indeed corrupts.
Somalia and Mali aren't the only African countries paying lip service to the idea of restoring democratic principles. Nigeria's Babangida, Zambia's Kaunda, Zaire's Mobutu, Cameroon's Biya, and Chad's Deby -- all of whom shot their way to presidential palaces -- are promising multi-party democratic elections.
Why is it that these dictators, who managed to survive at the top by suppressing their people, are all of a sudden interested in democracy? Is it because democracy, like caller ID, is a new response to an old problem? Or is it, like a Beta VCR, something that is going out of fashion? Or is it that these dictators finally read Locke and Jefferson and found inspiration?
The answer requires an understanding of the history of the new African states that came into existence after the departure of the European colonial powers in the early '60s.
Country after newly independent country came under the direct control of a strong man and his immediate tribe, or clan, who ran everything with a military junta. Whatever light industries had developed during colonial times were nationalized and run into the ground. Farmers were forced to sell their crops to the state at prices well below market, so that the state could provide below-cost food to the educated city dwellers who ran the bureaucracies. The result was a substantial reduction in
agricultural output, leading to food riots in the cities. Africa's children, my generation, suffered from unprecedented hunger, malnutrition, disease and famine.
The new African leaders equated capitalism with colonialism. They saw socialism as a liberation from colonialism. Yet their frequent alliances with the Soviet Union often brought them mainly military weapons with which to control their populations. Africa's people, whose freedom of thought had not been constrained even by colonialism, became hostile to state-sponsored socialism, which led to state persecution of intellectuals, professionals, teachers, managers, technicians and other skilled workers. Thus began an enormous brain drain.
Military coups fed on mounting unhappiness in country after country. These coups were (and are) often referred to ''revolutions,'' but they can best be characterized as tribulations, by which leadership is passed from one tribe to another by force. Since the death of President John F. Kennedy, less than 28 years ago, well over 70 coups have taken place on the African continent.
This instability, more than anything else, led to the monumental collapse of Africa's fragile economies, which is why Africa's 40-plus sub-Sahara governments have become dependent on handouts from the West in the form of direct aid and loans that can't be repaid.
When the Soviet Union was able to compete with the United States for strategic advantage in Africa, the continent's dictators were able to encourage bidding wars between the superpowers. With the collapse of Soviet communism, the Eastern option for economic and military aid is foreclosed; only the prosperous West offers any prospect of assistance. Thus many of the dictators are promising elections, multi-party democracy, free-market capitalism -- things the West likes to hear. But the West shouldn't accept these converts on their mere profession of faith.
In fact the industrialized Western democracies, and especially the United States, have golden opportunities to help the poor people of my mother continent. The West should develop a post-Cold War policy of helping any country that respects human rights, allows the formation of multi-party democracy, holds fair and free elections, adopts free-market capitalism, reduces government intervention in economic affairs, and encourages freedoms of speech, thought, worship, association, a free press and an independent judiciary.
Aid should not be, as in yesteryear, in the form of surplus agricultural goods dumped on market to the detriment of local farmers, nor in the form of military weapons that kept despotic regimes in power. Rather, it should emphasize rebuilding the infrastructure of the economy with technicians, medicine, tractors, transportation, educational supplies, spare parts for machinery -- and expertise.
Countries that refuse to adopt humane and democratic policies would not be allowed to participate in the development program. But most will go along -- or be overthrown by the enraged masses who yearn for economic prosperity and political freedom.
Abdulrahman Abdi, a Somali-American, is a senior economics major at the University of Maryland. He writes a column for the student newspaper, The Diamondback.