Letting Africa Be Africa

What with all the images of boy soldiers wielding machetes, women warriors firing Kalashnikov rifles, and men in berets carrying mortar launchers, it's difficult to keep track of Africa's wars these days without a score card.

Let's see now ... for this week, we find Sierra Leone in an uneasy power-sharing deal with rebels whose main tactic was amputations; Congo and five other nations have made peace on paper in recent days even as bullets fly; Angola is in its third decade of civil war and Sudan in its second; Ethiopia and Eritrea are near an accord - after losing over 40,000 soldiers in the past 16 months; and Somalia remains a land of warlords.

Little wonder the West throws up its hands, despite a slaughter in Africa greater than in Kosovo. But the interesting part of this otherwise dismal scene is that, while much of the world has given up on Africa, Africa hasn't.

The West's indifference is forcing Africans to make a difference for themselves - or else they further miss the global economic train. Solutions to many conflicts are now home-grown - out of sheer desperation - and don't always fit Western ideals.

Most of the wars seem more like domestic spats - some over diamond wealth, others driven by spite - that call for an intimacy and insight that only African trouble-shooters can bring. Nigerian peacekeepers work better in Africa than US Marines.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, himself an African, says the continent's "orphan crises" are being met with new "African solidarity." He notes that a recent Organization for African Unity summit, in a welcome change from earlier years, endorsed the importance of the rule of law and respect for the will of the people and human rights.

And something else: Because some new conflicts are invasions rather than civil wars. African leaders are rushing to stem this trend. Violating borders scares leaders who know their own frontiers are artificial lines set by white colonialists and don't always fit ethnic groupings.

The war in Congo has set a worrisome precedent for invasions in Africa. This multinational conflict is really driven by the desire of Tutsi-led Rwanda to have a border secure from attacks by its own Hutu rebels. The lack of Hutu-Tutsi reconciliation since the 1994 Rwanda massacre continues to rip at Africa's heart.

Western pressure still has a role, as it did in Nigeria and South Africa. Britain had a hand in Sierra Leone's peace deal. And Mr. Annan has nudged the West to pay more attention to Africa's economic plight.

But conflicts such as Congo's must be calmed - or at least contained - with an African hand first. Then the West can help.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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