Support Africa's Move Toward Democracy, Too

A BRUSH fire has started in Africa, burning away the desiccated arguments that have been used to justify one-party and military rule. But it would be difficult to know such a promising, and perilous, process had begun judging from the response of the United States. While the changes in Eastern Europe have been greeted with immediate promises of massive direct assistance, Namibia, which achieved independence last March after decades of struggle, was granted a mere $500,000 allocation in the US aid budget, a sum since increased to $10 million by congressional action. About 11 percent of US foreign aid is allocated to sub-Saharan Africa annually, a percentage that has remained steady despite pressing needs and fundamental policy reforms being undertaken by many countries.

At last, Africa's autocracies are tottering. The rulers of Benin, C^ote d'Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, and Mali have promised to initiate political reforms. Nigeria expects a full hand-over of power from the military to civilians in 1992, unless President Babangida decrees otherwise. Other African countries like Cameroon, Kenya, Niger, and Zambia are facing mounting protests from their people, who are fed up with being ruled by sultanates. Although President Mobutu announced in April a re-introduction of multiparty politics in Zaire, this opening was followed by contradictory statements about his future role and by further repression of political opponents. While applauding these developments, we must recognize how fragile they all are.

Most of the African continent is beset by deepening economic difficulties. The structural-adjustment reforms that many countries have conducted under the aegis of international financial agencies have forced them to balance their national budgets at lower levels of external earnings and public services. After the economic devastation of the 1980s, all experts predict more hardship and austerity ahead. The elimination of political monopolies by single parties and military regimes, and the restoration of civil liberties, are difficult operations for any nation. In the case of African states, where resources are few, and where ethnic, religious, and regional divisions are vigorously reasserted with the first blush of freedom, the challenges to be overcome in implementing democratic transitions are enormous.

Without strong external support, most of these transitions will fail. Indeed, they could spiral out of control, resulting in outbreaks of violence and turmoil that could prompt more repressive solutions. The US government should play a leading role in mobilizing national and multilateral support for African nations moving toward liberalized economies and pluralist democracies. When declarations are made by our political leaders about the need to help ``emerging democracies,'' African nations are seldom mentioned. Yet our country's economy and culture have benefited extensively from the human and material resources that have been drained from the African continent over centuries.

It is not only the Bush administration and Congress that should respond. Universities, foundations, religious, corporate, and civic groups, as well as environmental and developmental organizations should devise ways to assist Africa's economic and political renewal during the 1990s. In his recent university commencement addresses, President Bush outlined a set of broad initiatives that should be undertaken to strengthen the democratization of Eastern Europe. Africa will certainly require a more sensitive and flexible approach than one based primarily on the export of American political and constitutional practices.

The current negotiations to devise a transition to majority rule in South Africa, and the recent introduction of political reforms in Algeria and Tunisia, suggest that the entire continent of Africa could be the scene of active experimentation with novel forms of democratic governance. A little nudging, along with appropriate assistance for democratic transitions, can go a long way in contemporary Africa. Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi usually disparages criticism of his autocratic rule. Even he seems to be getting the message after the US ambassador pointedly linked the decline of external investments to displeasure with corruption, repression, and weakened judicial institutions in Kenya.

Several US congressmen, such as Howard Wolpe, Stephen Solarz, and Donald Payne, have urged the adoption of a US Africa policy based on consistent support for human rights and democratic governance. It is now vitally important that this message be heard from other voices in our government and from a cross-section of civic leaders, especially in the African-American community. The door to wider freedoms has opened a crack in Black Africa. This crack must be widened and a period of sustained economic and political reconstruction commenced. With determined internal leadership and effort, and broad external assistance, Africa can be transformed from a continent of unceasing woes to a land of great achievement.

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