Getting Serious About Democracy in Africa

AT the height of the Gulf crisis, President Bush asserted that the new world order would be based on the rule of law and protection of fundamental human rights. For some reason, however, the United States seems to have decided that this need not apply to Africa. Since 1989, strong pro-democracy movements have mushroomed all over Africa, from Algeria to Zambia. Except for a few comments from Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, the administration has done little to support what Africans call the second liberation. The moral and financial support that played a pivotal role in the Eastern European upheavals has been markedly absent.

The US engaged in the Gulf war to avert the flagrant abuse of international law, and it should prove its consistency by supporting, through increased foreign aid, those countries that are moving progressively and courageously toward democratization.

Consider the cases of Namibia, Botswana, and Benin.

Namibia became independent last year, and its constitution is one of the world's most democratic. It has separation of powers, limitations on presidential terms, and a strong bill of rights. In 1990, the US responded with $500,000 for Namibia, compared to $900 million allocated to Poland and Hungary. (The allocation for Namibia later increased to $7.8 million after intense lobbying.) This year, the administration is requesting $7 million in development assistance. But this amount does little to assist t he new government's efforts to achieve equality in education, housing, health care, and employment.

For 25 years, Botswana has been an example of authentic African democracy at work. It has attained phenomenal economic growth, thanks to diamond exports. But the country needs to diversify its economic base and address questions of income disparity that could easily unravel its progress. A mere $7 million in US development assistance shows little commitment to democracy.

One year ago, no one could have known that Benin would turn from a repressive state to a multiparty democracy which would vote out the incumbent president. Benin faces severe economic tests as it transforms from a centralized economy to a free market while maintaining its democracy. An allocation of $8 million doesn't do justice to the people of Benin and their struggle for democracy.

While meting out these little sums of money (totaling $22 million) to three democracies, the US gives a total of $109 million to Kenya, Zaire, and Malawi - the antitheses of democracy. One justification is that these countries have launched economic reforms. Yet almost all African countries are in the process of structural reforms. It is also argued that these are old allies and should not be neglected. Well, it is time to make new friends in Africa.

Kenya's President Moi has totally rejected his people's demands for democracy and, since last July, has kept a number of prominent Kenyans in jail without trial. One of them, former official Kenneth Matiba, is in poor health, and the government delays or refuses medication. Gitobu Imanyara, the winner of the 1991 Golden Pen Award and the only independent voice in the local media, is awaiting trial for sedition after questioning government hiring practices.

President Mobutu, creator of Zaire's infamous "kleptocracy," is a little more sophisticated. In a largely symbolic gesture, he announced his conversion to pluralism, but has continued to intimidate and harass the opposition. After failing to derail the pro-democracy movement by limiting the number of parties, he has reportedly financed several new parties that are loyal to him. No reforms can be undertaken in Zaire as long as he is in power.

Malawi is perhaps the saddest case. President-for-life Banda has kept tight control of the country by keeping foreign journalists out. Many of the regime's critics are murdered; hundreds of political prisoners are held without trial for real and imagined criticisms.

It is important to bear in mind the consequences of unmitigated support for dictatorial regimes in Liberia and Somalia. We must get our priorities straight. Let's get serious about democracy in Africa and prove our commitment to a new world order based on the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

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