Africa too big for the U.S. to overlook

Involvement: Washington needs to become more engaged with this continent of 54 nations and 800 million people.

August 01, 1999|By Leonard H. Robinson, Jr.

WASHINGTON -- While much of the Western world has focused its attention on the peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, scant attention has been paid to the substantial progress made in resolving regional conflicts in Africa.

Last month, Sierra Leone's fledgling democratic government signed a peace agreement with Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guerrillas, perhaps bringing an end to a bitter eight-year conflict that has claimed 50,000 to 100,000 lives, maimed countless children through malicious amputations, and forced more than 1 million people to become refugees.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, peace talks between the embattled government of President Laurent Kabila and rebel factions have produced a truce. This conflict began about a year ago with the disintegration of the rebel alliance headed by Kabila, who came to power after the 1997 ouster of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. It has widened into an international crisis, involving more than a half-dozen neighboring countries, which have supplied troops and weapons.

Also, the year-old border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which has produced an estimated 20,000 casualties and severely damaged the economies of both countries, appears to be nearing an end with the signing of a truce.

Internal solutions

Unlike the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, which involved the United States and Western European powers, the African conflicts were solved by other African nations.

If it appears that peace is suddenly breaking out all over Africa, one should remember that it was mature African leadership and diligent diplomacy that resolved the crises this decade in South Africa, Mozambique and Liberia. This is an encouraging trend -- and should be supported and applauded.

It must be noted that African nations are not clamoring for, nor do they necessarily need, the intervention of U.S. troops to restore order and civility -- the notable exception having been the holocaust in Rwanda and the collapse of that nation.

However, African governments need assistance rebuilding infrastructure, resettling displaced populations and retraining combatants. Notwithstanding the ill-fated U.S. humanitarian mission to Somalia, African governments have learned through hard experience that the resolution of civil wars and other deadly episodes rests in their hands.

The question pending is: Now that the bloodshed and gunfire have died down, is anyone in Washington listening?

The Clinton administration has talked about doing more for Africa in terms of trade and investment. The administration has strongly supported an African growth and opportunity act passed by the House of Representatives last month. But many in the Africa-focused community are wondering if Washington will follow its words with deeds. Does Africa matter to the United States?

Even before the 50,000 Western peacekeepers had fanned out over Kosovo, the Clinton administration was pledging to pay its fair share of a $10 billion to $15 billion program to rebuild the war-torn province and resettle ethnic Albanian refugees in neighboring countries.

The price tag on that reconstruction package is about 30 times what the U.S. spends on economic and military assistance for the entire African continent, which comprises 54 countries and nearly 800 million people. The average amount of U.S. assistance has remained static during the past five years. The totals suggest an official policy of continued neglect, not increased involvement.

Instead of equity assistance in the post-Cold War era, the administration has preached the gospel of the free market to Africa. Most African countries have enacted economic reforms to increase trade and investment. The results have been encouraging and, in some cases, dramatic.

Without substantial U.S. support, Africa has made enormous economic progress in recent years. The entire continent is growing at an annual rate of 4 percent -- a quadruple increase compared with 20 years ago.

While African countries are on the United Nations' list of the 25 poorest countries, others are among those with the fastest-growing economies in the world. Three countries -- Botswana, Ghana and Uganda -- were recently ranked by the World Bank as three of the world's four fastest-growing economies. Countries such as Mozambique, which was nearly destroyed by a 17-year civil war, are attracting investment and recording double-digit annual growth.

Increased trade

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, the United States last year did more than $20 billion worth of trade with Africa, an increase of about 7 percent. This leaves the U.S. with a $7 billion trade deficit with the continent. Yet the U.S. is losing ground in competition for the world's last emerging market. Last year, Asian countries, excluding Japan, did about $28 billion of trade with Africa -- a phenomenal increase of 147 percent.

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