Washington. -- Zaire and Angola, neighboring central African countries with a combined population of about 50 million, are spiraling downward toward humanitarian crises exceeding Somalia in scale.
The primary culprits are two former U.S. clients resisting the new era of African democratization.
How the United States deals with Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and rebel leader Jonas Savimbi of Angola will be critical tests for the credibility of the Clinton administration's Africa policy.
Failure will send a clear signal that it is the gun, not the vote, that counts. Deadly precedents will be set for South Africa, Mozambique and a score of other countries.
U.S. officials no longer cite Cold War rationales for supporting Mr. Mobutu, the Zairean dictator installed with CIA aid in the 1960s, or Mr. Savimbi, the leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) who has long pursued power, backed by South African and U.S. aid.
But U.S. policy still evades the need to put real pressure on
these two Cold War holdovers.
President Mobutu has long been criticized as one of the most corrupt of African leaders. The Zairean democracy movement, taking on momentum in the 1990s, installed a transitional government in August 1992. But Mr. Mobutu has paralyzed its operations, retaining control of the military and the central bank.
Sporadic violence and free-fall economic collapse have left the country in chaos. In March, Mr. Mobutu appointed a new prime minister who is not recognized by the parliament or the international community.
The United States and other Western powers reportedly are considering measures to confiscate Mr. Mobutu's enormous overseas assets and bar his access to funds with which he buys the army's loyalty. But little action has resulted.
In Angola, after almost six months of renewed war, there is still no effective U.S. response. Last September, Angolans voted enthusiastically and peacefully in their first multiparty elections, which were judged free and fair by international observers.
The ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) gained 54 percent of the legislative votes, as compared to 34 percent for Savimbi's UNITA movement. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos won almost 50 percent in the presidential race, while Mr. Savimbi received 40 percent.
Mr. Savimbi decided to return to war. With hidden stockpiles plus new supplies from South Africa and Zaire, UNITA launched offensives around the country. In late October the government responded, expelling UNITA from the capital.
Recently, after a two-month siege, UNITA took the highlands city of Huambo, where more than 15,000 people, mostly civilians, died in the heaviest fighting anywhere in the world this year.
The United States and the United Nations have deplored Jonas Savimbi's return to war. But Washington has only pleaded ineffectively that he return to the negotiating table. It has refused symbolic or practical support for the elected government in Luanda.
For many years, U.S. refusal to recognize the Angolan government was rationalized by the presence of Cuban troops in Angola. After Cuban troops left, recognition again was delayed, contingent on elections.
Now State Department officials argue for further postponement. In his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Warren Christopher referred to ''effective control of territory'' as grounds for recognition, giving UNITA added incentive to continue fighting.
Withholding recognition reinforces Mr. Savimbi's belief that he can prevail by force, with no international penalty for breaking the peace. It signals continued irrational U.S. hostility to the Angolan government.
The United States should immediately recognize Angola, while cautioning that recognition should not be interpreted as license for reprisals.
The United States should urge the Angolan government to adhere to international human rights standards, to maintain willingness to negotiate and to hold open the option for UNITA to return to peaceful political competition.
Pressure for peace should focus on Jonas Savimbi, by squeezing his war supply lines from Zaire and South Africa. The United States must demand that South Africa curb suppliers.
Diplomatic recognition of Angola and clear condemnation of Mobutu and Savimbi are minimum prerequisites for effective policy on these two interlinked crises. But words alone are unlikely to be sufficient.
There is no magic formula for quick success, but specific U.S. action to weaken Mobutu Sese Seko's and Jonas Savimbi's capacity for violence would show that U.S. rhetoric about democracy applies to former clients as well as former enemies.
William Minter is scholar-in-residence at American University's School of International Service.