U.S. should stop boosting Africa's menacing armies

November 28, 1997|By Scott Nathanson

PRESIDENT Clinton has just put the finishing touches on his ''new'' policy for Africa by appointing the Rev. Jesse Jackson special envoy for the promotion of democracy in Africa. But before Mr. Jackson can start, he must understand what he is promoting.

African tour

During her 1997 African tour, Hillary Rodham Clinton complimented the transition of so many African nations toward democracy, and pledged that U.S. policy would support freedom and peace in Africa. However, if you scratch the surface, a starkly different picture emerges.

The Clinton administration is violating the first commandment of pro-democracy groups in Africa: Thou shalt not provide assistance to the independent and often corrupt armed forces of our nations.

The statistics are striking. Of the more than 3,400 African officers trained in the U.S. International Military Education and Training program in 1991-1995, 69 percent were from nations under authoritarian rule. Eighty-one percent of those trainees were in nations whose armed forces wield substantial political and economic power independent of a civilian government. The U.S. training gives the armed forces of developing nations significant new skills that have been used to repress dissent.

Similar training is provided on the ground in Africa through the U.S.' joint combat exercise programs. Again, the statistics show the preponderance of U.S. combat training in Africa is with authoritarian regimes (55 percent) or armed forces independent of civilian control (71 percent).

A perfect example of the mindless expansion of these exercises is that the United States quickly began to engage in training the Rwandan military after the Tutsi takeover. U.S. officials admit that some of these U.S.-trained troops may have ''inadvertently'' been used in Laurent Kabila's rebellion in Zaire, now Congo. This is the same Mr. Kabila who is rejecting the pleas from the United States to allow human rights investigators into areas under his control.

On top of everything, a new Africa Crisis Response Initiative has been established that would accept only nations that ''have military establishments that accept the supremacy of democratic civilian government,'' according to a July 7 State Department paper on the program. U.S special forces are training African troops that could respond to a crisis that threaten the stability of a nation or region, like the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

However, according to John Christiansen, the Crisis Response deputy coordinator, ''minimum military efficiency'' is now the entry standard instead of civilian rule. Only one of the seven nations slated to be trained can be qualified as a democracy. The fears of misuse of Crisis Response-equipped and trained troops came true almost immediately, as the first troops trained under the program in Uganda were immediately sent to use their new skills in a counter-insurgency war against rebel forces.

Charlie Snyder, the deputy head of the Africa Bureau at the State Department, defended the continued involvement with dictators on the African continent at a recent panel discussion. What did he call this policy? ''Constructive engagement.'' Ironically, this is the same term the Reagan administration used to justify its continued engagement with the apartheid South African government in the 1980s.

The use of the term ''constructive engagement'' shows the Clinton administration's myopia toward Africa. Officials continue to claim that the only way to get abusive armed forces to make the transition to democracy is to train them to be more effective militaries. There is scant evidence to back this up. Somalia, Rwanda, Zaire? Which one of these nations has armed forces more respectful of civilian rule and human rights because of our ''constructive engagement''?

Freedom fighters

If Mr. Jackson truly wants to help promote democracy in Africa, then he should begin by speaking to the leaders of the lTC organizations fighting for democracy and human rights in their nations. These people will tell him that the military must be removed from the political process. Military and government officials must be held accountable for their abuses of power. The press must be free. Women must be given increased access to political participation. Economic opportunity must be increased in both urban and rural areas so everyone feels the benefit of democracy. In all, we must understand that democracy in Africa should be supported by, not imported from, the United States.

A ''new'' policy for Africa is possible if our government looks to promote the good of the people of that continent, not its leaders. A code of conduct on military assistance, such as the one sponsored by Reps. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that would prohibit any U.S. assistance to governments that are undemocratic and abuse the human rights of their people would be an excellent start.

This kind of engagement would be truly constructive.

Scott Nathanson is senior researcher at Demilitarization for Democracy in Washington. This first appeared in Newsday.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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