A Budget Vote Heard 'Round the World'

US Endowment for Democracy is seen as vital to Gabon's multiparty elections

IN the next month, the United States Congress may well determine the future of an American institution that has served as a beacon for democracy the world over.

Even here in Libreville, Gabon, 7,000 miles away in Central Africa, we are watching to see if funding is permanently restored to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which provides hope of freedom and good governance to millions of people around the world by promoting free and fair elections in countries taking their first steps toward democracy.

We in Gabon are concerned about the NED's status for a simple and perhaps selfish reason: In December, our citizens will vote in Gabon's first multiparty presidential election. We are counting on the presence of international election monitors, including those from American groups that receive NED funding, to help ensure free and fair elections.

As a candidate, President Clinton promised he would assist "Africans [who] are struggling to achieve political and economic freedoms that we Americans often take for granted."

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs George Moose strongly restated this theme at his April confirmation hearings before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And in early May, national security adviser Anthony Lake explicitly endorsed US aid targeted for African democratization, noting, "African people are protesting bloated, corrupt, or inefficient governments and insisting on honest leaders who focus on the broad needs of their people."

Gabon is one of the places where people are clamoring for such change. Already, however, serious questions have been raised about our country's electoral code. The only opposition radio station, Radio Liberte, which is forced to constantly switch frequencies because of government jamming, has adopted a new slogan: "Seek and ye shall find."

We are encouraged in our struggle by the Clinton administration's strong words of support for democracy in Africa. But it is with concern and even apprehension that we await the transformation of these words into effective policy. Mr. Moose visited Gabon in late May to attend the second African/African American Summit, but he could not find time to meet leaders of the democratic opposition.

Indeed, the 1,000 American delegates seemed too busy exchanging toasts and mutual congratulations with visiting African leaders - many of whom, like our President El Hadj Omar Bongo, have never faced a free election - to notice the reality just outside their luxury hotels and posh conference halls. Angry demonstrators demanding a free media carried a replica of the Statue of Liberty, adopted as a symbol of the struggle for their rights.

The conferees lauded military dictators and authoritarian strongmen like Sierra Leone's camoflogue-clad Capt. Valentin Strasser and Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida.

What was not talked about at the summit is more important to Africans, and should become the reality and not only the rhetoric of America's African policy: a firm commitment from America to support African countries' transitions to democratic governance.

NED's support for such transitions, through grassroots work by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, and others, is a clear demonstration of this commitment.

Of course, training sessions and the presence of election monitors cannot guarantee a free election; but the scrutiny of international observers, and the international concern their presence indicates, makes cheating much more difficult to accomplish.

Conflicts today taking a terrible toll in Liberia and Somalia grew from long periods during which the rule of law and human rights were all but ignored. Suppression of fundamental freedoms eventually triggered the explosion of anarchy rending those countries. A rigged election rejected by our people raises the specter of similar tragedy here in Gabon.

Internationally, the NED promotes democratic values and processes aimed at avoiding such outcomes. Investing in the rule of law rather than salvaging the results of lawlessness seems to be the keystone of America's new Africa policy.

NED programs are the brightest expression of America's moral leadership in the post-cold-war world. For the sake of democratic change in Africa, and around the globe, Congress should not allow them to be extinguished. Only the dictators would applaud the demise of NED-funded programs in Africa.

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