Don't blame ethnicity in Africa The problem is rulers who aren't accountable, and U.S. could help

November 17, 1996|By Amil Omara-Otunnu

We've seen the pictures. A straggling line of women and children on the move with their meager possessions atop their heads. They are refugees. Yet, this time, the wave of frightened people moving deeper into the heartland of Africa are fleeing not their homes but the temporary camps where they hoped to find refuge just two years ago.

With international humanitarian organizations flown out of the border areas of Zaire to the safe haven of Nairobi, Kenya, these former citizens of Rwanda are left to survive as best they can without assistance from the outside world.

And now to compound the situation, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is demanding that these two-time refugees return to the country they fled, yet without providing any guarantees for their safety.

Why is this happening? And is it reasonable to expect the refugees to go back?

Although ethnicity or tribalism is the most common explanation for conflict in Africa, it is only a part of the story. The Tutsis are not fighting and killing Hutus and vice versa simply because they hate each other. In fact, there has always been trade and intermarriage between these and other ethnic groups in Africa.

The conflict in Rwanda that has now spilled over into Zaire is following a pattern that has become all too commonplace in Africa. It derives from a struggle between rival factions of an elite that is hungry for power - and for the wealth and privilege accorded to those in power, in stark contrast to the poverty that prevails on the continent.

For American citizens, political elections have become routine. In the majority of African countries, however, governments were not voted into power but took over in military coups. The distinction is not limited to the method of accession to power. Such governments behave in a fundamentally different way from elected governments, such as those in the United States or Western Europe.

Military leaders who have appropriated power for themselves have no notion of obligation to the electorate, no thought of serving the people of their country. Overriding whatever political party affiliations may once have existed, they distribute the wealth and influence that is at their disposal through patronage along ethnic lines, exacerbating the differences between ethnic groups. Calls for a more equitable distribution are interpreted as opposition and silenced with the gun.

In African countries, weapons are deployed not in wars against an external enemy but against citizens of the same country. Soldiers with guns are a feature of the everyday lives of millions of people all over Africa.

When the violence escalates against one particular group, the people who bear the brunt of it - usually women and children - have no choice but to leave their homes and their country merely to survive. We have seen this happen in Rwanda in 1994, in Liberia since 1990, in Angola and Mozambique in the 1980s, in Nigeria from 1969 to 1973 and in southern Sudan on and off

since 1954.

As this pattern has repeated, the statistics have multiplied. Consider the following:

n While Africa has less than 25 percent of the world's total population, it has more than 50 percent of the world's refugees.

n While at the beginning of this century 90 percent of the world's war victims were soldiers, now 90 percent of war victims are civilians - and the majority are in Africa.

n There are more guns than books among the general population in Africa.

In these circumstances of violence and uncertainty, economic development is stifled. Although Africa possesses more than 50 percent of the world's strategic minerals, the continent has the largest number of least developed countries in the world. Agricultural production has waned and famine is a recurring event.

What can be done to curb the violence and set Africa on a more productive path?

In an ideal world, we would pray for a change of heart among Africa's rulers to renounce violence and intimidation, to seek an electoral mandate and to serve their people. In the absence of utopia, however, there are strategies the international community - and in particular the United States, to which the rest of the world looks for leadership - could adopt to steer African governments in the direction of demo-cratic politics and sound economic policies that would ameliorate the crises in the continent:

n Impose a moratorium on the sale of arms to Africa.

n Isolate repressive regimes politically and economically.

n Make aid to African governments conditional on reductions in military spending and increased spending on education and health care.

n Take the lead in political mediation to resolve disputes.

n Provide support for democratic groups.

n Encourage educational campaigns that foster a legal culture supportive of human rights and the rule of law.

In the current situation, in which African rulers look almost exclusively to the outside world for support, an array of incentives and disincentives to African governments and people would increase the prospects for economic production, reduce the risk of future famine and help make large-scale flight unnecessary.

Only long-term stability can prevent the kind of tragedy now unfolding in Rwanda and Zaire. Only long-term stability can enable the thousands of people who are struggling just to survive find a permanent home and build a stable and productive life for themselves and for their children.

Amil Omara-Otunnu, a native of Uganda, is associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut. This article first appeared in the Hartford Courant.

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