Africa slipping as U.S. priority

April 10, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The tense evacuation of Americans from Rwanda's escalating bloodshed yesterday marks the latest U.S. retreat from a continent that top Clinton administration officials once touted as holding untapped promise.

"It doesn't matter like other places in the world matter."

Investor interest cools

Nor is it, yet, a major economic interest. While last year's pact between South Africa's government and the African National Congress, which ended American sanctions, led to a surge of interest by U.S. firms in getting back into the South African market, recent violence has caused a number of companies to take a wait-and-see attitude.

"The investment climate is cooling down," Mr. Kansteiner said.

South Africa forms one of the continent's three economic anchors-- together with oil-rich Nigeria and Kenya.

But now, Mr. Kansteiner notes, all three are in trouble politically. And he fears that South Africa could be in for prolonged guerrilla fighting between Zulus and armed forces of the new South African government that will be elected later this month.

African economies as a whole, with a history of poor management and corruption, offer too low a return on investment to attract much American business interest, he says. Even some of the most prosperous have suffered in recent years by the drop in prices for coffee, cocoa and other commodities.

The relative lack of interest in the continent is a constant source of frustration to African diplomats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

A senior African diplomat complained in an interview recently that both official and private Americans tended to overlook his homeland's vast potential.

"It's a huge continent with a huge population," he said. "It's not possible to ignore a continent of this size today."

Rich in minerals, Africa could also become a net agricultural exporter with an infusion of the right technology, he argued. Private investment "is the most important thing we need today," he said.

In addition, Africa offers a diverse and rich cultural heritage that should provoke increasing interest among Americans, one-fifth of whom are of African descent, he said.

One of the ironies in American policy toward Africa, Mr. Kansteiner said, is that the United States could produce major changes there with far less cost than elsewhere.

"Diplomatically, you get a bigger bang for the buck in Africa than anywhere else in the world," in persuading governments to resolve conflicts and shift toward a market economy.

Western countries have encountered a mixed bag in trying to exert influence in Africa, however. Among the most successful have been the British and French, which retain strong commercial and political ties to former colonies. But the bitter colonial histories of Portugal and Belgium give them less leverage.

No powerful lobby

One reason for lack of consistent, high-level American attention, the African diplomat complained, is the absence of a powerful Washington lobby for Africa. Although domestic American pressure was a major force in maintaining sanctions on South Africa for years, the Black Caucus and other activist groups have recently been preoccupied by the political crisis in Haiti.

If the United States hopes to expand democracy in Africa, it will have to refrain from trying to remake its governments in the American image, former Deputy Secretary of State Clifton R. Wharton Jr. argued in an op-ed page article yesterday in the New York Times.

"We must not attempt to impose a 'made in America' democratic model on other countries, especially where cultural and ethnic divisions are ancient and bloody," he wrote.

Even with all the frustrations it presents, Africa is worth a sustained effort, Mr. Kansteiner said, and not just as a producer of essentials ranging from coffee to platinum. In South Africa, "we have a very real interest in seeing another multiracial society make it."

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