Holding Africa at arm's length

Last week's summit highlighted its desire for world attention, but Congo imbroglio gives US pause.

Perhaps no American president has paid more attention to Africa than Bill Clinton. He has visited extensively, promoted peace, tried to open trade barriers, and pushed for measures that would improve education and health in a land ravaged by war and AIDS.

Yet as Mr. Clinton enters the last year of his presidency, there are few signs that his efforts have paid off. Most visibly, Congo and the nine nations surrounding it have become the scene of what US officials call "Africa's first world war." After 18 months of fighting, there's still little evidence the violence is coming to an end, analysts say, despite a cease-fire signed last summer.

Furthermore, regardless of claims that Africa will see an economic and democratic renaissance, the Clinton administration's trade incentives are small in comparison to the scope of Africa's poverty. The most ambitious measure, the African trade bill, is struggling to make it through Congress and is likely to reach the White House in a watered-down form.

Compared with other regions of the world, Africa remains a distant US priority, African officials say. "There is a degree of imbalance and double standards on the part of the international community in addressing Africa," says Salim Ahmed Salim, secretary general of the Organization of African Unity. "This is in contrast to how other societies are treated."

Speaking in Washington last week at the National Summit on Africa, Clinton said Africa "does matter." But he acknowledged limits on how the US could help. "No one in our government is under any illusions," he said. "There is still a lot of work to be done. These things cannot be imported and they cannot be imposed from outside."

One initiative the US may support is a United Nations proposal to deploy more than 5,500 troops in Congo - a country roughly the size of Western Europe. The US would help pay for the force (about $40 million), but would probably not contribute troops. Congo is so vast and its infrastructure so weak that about 5,000 of the troops would need to work in support of 500 actual monitors.

Richard Holbrooke, US ambassador to the UN, is pushing the measure, which will have to pass the UN Security Council and the US Congress. Mr. Holbrooke has tried to promote African issues since he was appointed to the UN post last year.

"Success requires more than just talk," Holbrooke told the US House subcommittee on Africa last week. "Action is necessary to prevent further conflict and the resurgence of genocide and mass killing."

But analysts are doubtful that UN troops will succeed in bringing peace to central Africa, since previous missions have failed. Most recently, rebels in Sierra Leone reversed roles and ended up disarming some of the peacekeepers who had been sent as part of a US-brokered agreement.

Putting UN troops in Congo is "a disaster waiting to take place," says Marina Ottaway, an Africa specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. According to Ms. Ottaway, the greatest danger is that the UN may be sending peacekeepers when they are not wanted by the combatants. If that is the case, they could become targets.

Also, observers say, the war is so complicated that it is hard to discern who is fighting whom. Six surrounding states are involved, as are numerous rebel groups within Congo, who are trying to overthrow self-appointed President Laurent Kabila.

Some of the factions are driven by the natural wealth of the land, which contains diamonds, gold, and oil. Others are driven by the lingering Hutu-Tutsi rivalry, which led to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which at least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. Mr. Kabila is allied with the Hutu militiamen.

The war is extraordinary, says Ottaway, because, unlike other recent wars in Africa, this one is bringing established borders into question. "Europe did not come out of World War II with the same borders, and the same could be said for this conflict in central Africa," she says.

So far, the Clinton administration has preferred to take an economic approach to helping Africa. Officials have announced $500 million in debt relief and have enacted programs that would pay $120 million per year to promote democracy.

While there has been substantial trade between the US and Africa - particularly with oil and textiles - the effects are limited, analysts say, because only a handful of African countries have been involved.

One problem is the weakness of the African lobby in America, which is dwarfed by lobbies from other countries. A purpose of last week's summit was to strengthen those ties. Another problem, critics say, is that the Clinton administration has spread itself too thin - trying to make friends with every nation and not focusing its resources where they can make a real difference.

"Clinton's probably spent more presidential man hours on Africa than any other president," says Walter Kansteiner, a former head of African affairs at the National Security Council under President George Bush. "I'd give him an 'A' for highlighting Africa and showing commitment. But I'd give him a 'C-plus' for implementation."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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