Real help for Africa

The tragic problems that UN peacekeepers have been facing in Sierra Leone have no easy solution. The Clinton administration should work hard to help the beleaguered peacekeepers regain control of the situation. Rebel leader Foday Sankoh is a nasty-minded bully who has conscripted thousands of young boys and encouraged them to engage in psychopathic actions against neighbors and countrymen. But his forces are lightly armed. A resolute show of US and worldwide commitment to the peacekeepers could persuade him to rein his followers in, thus allowing the peacekeepers to resume their mission.

But more international help is needed if Sierra Leone and other war-torn African countries are to escape their current, debilitating cycles of violence. US leadership is vital in three areas:

*In winning a total moratorium on shipments of arms to all rights-abusing and war-wracked countries anywhere. Not long ago, President Clinton asked Congress for a small appropriation to help sustain an arms-import embargo agreed by and for Sierra Leone. Amazingly, Congress rejected that request. It's likely that, had it passed, many weapons Sierra Leonean rebels have used against peacekeepers could have been intercepted.

The US dominates the global arms market - its share of world arms exports in the 1990s never fell below 48 percent. Meanwhile, international efforts to condition arms transfers on the human rights policies of recipient countries have foundered in Congress. As has happened since slave-trading times, American arms producers and traders continue to throw fuel on the fire of West African instabilities. But given US dominance of the world arms trade and world politics, if Washington actively pressed for a worldwide code of restraint, it could nearly close the arms spigot to beleaguered countries like Sierra Leone.

*Washington should make a large and credible promise of aid to any war-torn country - including Sierra Leone - whose elites make a serious effort at resolving their conflicts. In an African context, building such credibility might at first be hard. Over the past decade, African citizens have heard numerous promises of increased US concern and aid. Yet too often, those promises remained unfulfilled. In 1996-97, the last year figures were available, the total US overseas aid amounted to a puny $30 per head of our population - only 20 percent of that went to the group of "least developed countries" that includes Sierra Leone. (For comparison, Denmark gave aid totaling $342 per head, and 30 percent of that went to "least developed" states.) And no, private contributions from Americans didn't close the gap: They contributed only 3 cents per head to the aid flow.

Can governmental aid make much difference? You'd better believe it. The generous and far-sighted sums Washington gave war-torn Europe in the late 1940s helped France and Germany rebuild. The aid also gave Europeans a high stake in building a cooperative, post-conflict economy. Right now, the aid punishment that many African countries are suffering looks more like the mean-hearted settlement at the end of World War I that helped incubate Adolph Hitler. Is it any surprise that the meanness of today's rich countries incubates a Foday Sankoh?

*Washington should develop and fund a whole range of means that the world can use to intervene effectively in wars like Sierra Leone's. Some of those means may involve the use of force. It is untenable for Americans to expect peacekeepers from elsewhere to take all the risks of peacekeeping, while Washington criticizes from the sidelines. US soldiers and airmen all voluntarily agree to accept the risks of combat. Keeping them far from combat makes the US look selfish and mean-spirited. The US should also develop effective nonviolent means of intervening where conflicts erupt. A big part of that may involve increasing the aid needed to upgrade local infrastructures. Another part involves strengthening these countries' indigenous mechanisms for nonviolent conflict resolution. All societies have such mechanisms. But often, Western diplomats and activists focus too much on Western-based mechanisms, like war crimes trials, that may or may not have local relevance - and that sometimes perpetuate cycles of inter-group violence.

So much to do in Africa. Is this administration or any likely successor up to the task?

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs. Her newest book is 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace: Nobel Laureates Discuss our Global Future' ( University Press of Virginia).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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