FIVE COUNTRIES form an arc beginning with equatorial Uganda in the east of Africa, running southwestward to the Atlantic, including little Rwanda and Burundi and giant Congo-Kinshasa (formerly Zaire) and Angola.
Combined, they have about one-third the population of the United States on about two-fifths the land area.
On the surface, little links them. They represent hundreds of ethnicities, various ideologies, four colonial heritages and three European languages.
What they have in common is an alliance of rulers and an absence of U.S. influence. Laurent Kabila came to power in the renamed Congo with help from the others, when the U.S. said he shouldn't.
Rwanda is ruled by its defense minister, Paul Kagame, whose expatriate army brought Yoweri Museveni to power in Uganda in 1986. It returned to Rwanda as avenging angels in 1994, in response to Hutu rulers' genocide. Burundi has a similar mix.
Mr. Kagame's Tutsi army helped the Banyamulenge, ethnic kin discriminated against in eastern Zaire, to overrun Hutu camps there that were bases for raiding Rwanda. This operation grew into Laurent Kabila's triumph.
Angola's connection is different. Its president, Eduardo dos Santos, as a client of Moscow, long relied on Cuban troops. So the U.S. equipped the rebellion of Jonas Savimbi, whose arms route ran through Zaire, thanks to our guy Mobutu.
Then Moscow folded, the Cubans left and Mr. dos Santos won a fair election in 1992. The U.S. called off the insurrection and snubbed Savimbi and Mobutu, who went on aiding Savimbi.
Grudgingly, in 1994, the Clinton Administration recognized the dos Santos government, which lately aided the Kabila insurrection to pay back Mobutu and shut down Savimbi.
The U.S. sent its ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, on a whirlwind trip to urge Generals Museveni and Kagame not to aid Mr. Kabila, lest that dismember Zaire (it didn't) or slaughter Zairians (it didn't). He advised Mr. Kabila to go slow (he didn't).
So much for U.S. credibility.
Concern is merited over the power of the perhaps 3 million Tutsis, who rule two countries and overturned regimes in two more.
While the U.S. proclaims no national interest in these matters, American-owned corporations have huge private interests. In the tradition of their industries, oil and mining executives made their own peace with leftist governments while paying little attention to their own.
Africans are making Africa's history today. Colonial powers, American development experts and Cold War rivals are peripheral. U.S. firms are showing the U.S. government how to come to terms with the new Africa.
The perception of terminal breakdown (as in Somalia, Rwanda and Liberia) made fashionable by journalist Robert D. Kaplan's 1996 book, ''The Ends of the Earth,'' is overtaken by events. Left to their own devices, African peoples create as well as destroy and reform as well as corrupt.
The strong men Museveni, Kagame and Kabila (so far) have better human-rights and economic records than the regimes they overthrew.
The best way to extend U.S. influence now would be to minimize it, make greater efforts to end the Savimbi insurrection, come to terms with the dos Santos and Kabila governments, and quit lecturing and hectoring.
President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who does owe something to U.S. influence, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who owes everything to it, have more sway with Mr. Kabila than President Clinton has. Let them provide aid and advice.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 5/24/97