America Takes Tougher Line With Despotic African Leaders

Cold-war exigencies fade and US pushes harder for democracy

THE Berlin Wall has fallen. The Soviet Union is no more. And the cold war is finally ending - in Africa.

Once the United States and the former Soviet Union vied for influence throughout the vast stretch of continent south of the Sahara. But one of the players is now gone from that game, and as a result the US has slowly but unmistakably changed the way it looks at sub-Saharan African nations.

No longer can pro-Western, "Big Man" African autocrats count on automatic US support. In recent months both Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi and Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko have seen their old friend the US turn cold in the face of their continued repression of democratic forces.

"It used to be we would say, 'We have to stick with Mobutu or Moi because if we don't the commies will come in, says Terence Lyons, an African expert in the Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Studies program.

The US is giving more support to democracy in Africa, at least rhetorically. African leaders worry that the words cover a general US disengagement from their problems, as Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union cry out for attention.

"We are not abandoning Africa," insisted Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen at a recent briefing for reporters.

Despite tight budget times, US aid for sub-Saharan Africa in 1993 will continue at the current level of about $800 million, Mr. Cohen said.

But there is no denying that Africa plays a far different role in US policy today than it did throughout the 1970s and '80s, when it was one of the primary proxy battlegrounds of the cold war. Back then, in an effort to check Soviet inroads, the US threw in with what Ford Foundation international program officer Michael Chege calls "many of Africa's most corrupt and vain regimes."

In Zaire, President Mobutu became a key conduit for covert US aid flowing to Jonas Savimbi, whose UNITA rebels were battling the Soviet-backed government in neighboring Angola. In Liberia, Samuel Doe had a key role in US-Africa communications hub. Kenya's Moi and Somalia's former president, Mohamed Siad Barre, allowed the US Navy port access and supported US planning for a Middle East rapid deployment force following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Now Angola is at peace. Liberia's Doe and Somalia's Barre have been overthrown by violent coups, and their nations are still wracked by violence and hunger.

Moi is moving only reluctantly toward political reform, though elections are expected in Kenya sometimes this year. In Zaire, Mobutu has been living secluded on a yacht in the Congo River. In January he canceled a national conference that had been working on plans for multiparty elections.

The US has expressed displeasure with all this heel-dragging. Ambassador to Kenya Smith Hempstone has bluntly criticized Moi, and the US and other Western donors have agreed to withhold aid. US officials have complained that Mobutu's behavior offers little possibility for national reconciliation.

By distancing itself from authoritarian clients at all, the US "surprised African despots and thrilled African democrats," writes Michael Chege in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

Some members of Congress and other critics don't think the US has applied enough pressure for democratic change, particularly in regards to Zaire. Other Western donors of aid, such as Belgium and France, have been far more explicit in calling for Mobutu to leave office. "I expected to see more. Our voice resonates very loudly in that country," says Carol Lancaster, a professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

American officials say their policy in Zaire isn't based on personalities. The US is insisting on two things: First, the canceled national conference should be reopened. Second, the conference should lead to fair elections. In such an election "the people of Zaire can decide for themselves whether they want Mobutu or somebody else," said Assistant Secretary Cohen.

Free elections are the trend now in Africa, after decades of authoritarianism. At least 12 African nations are now moving from single-party governments toward multiparty democracy.

Benin, Mali, and Guinea are among the nations US officials cite as African role models. Another is Zambia, where the 27-year rule of Kenneth Kaunda ended peacefully when he lost an election and handed over power last November to Frederick Chiluba.

"The end of the cold war signaled the return of democracy in Africa," said Mr. Chiluba at an appearance in Washington last week. "A lot of one-party dictatorships on the continent were heavily subsidized." He added that one thing the West could do to help his nation is forgive or restructure its foreign debt. There is a precedent for this: The US has forgiven debts owed it by Poland and Egypt. Sub-Saharan Africa as a region has some $161 billion in foreign debt, most owed to governments or international agencies such as the World Bank.

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