Playing Politics in Africa

TWO new books on African politics dislodge conventional views of the continent's political landscape.

"Africa Betrayed," by Ghanaian economist George B. N. Ayittey, looks at the ravages of more than two decades of black self-government in Africa. As a black African, Ayittey brings a personal, passionate commitment to his analysis. But he does not simply offer complaints about the status quo. He develops a comprehensive prescription for addressing the continent's lack of representative responsible government.

`High Noon in Southern Africa," by Chester A. Crocker, is an outsider's analysis written in the calm, assured tone of an American career diplomat. Both books show that whites are not always oppressors and blacks are not always victims.

After Ayittey was driven out of Ghana by government harassment, he was amazed to find that in the West, "African leaders, especially those from black Africa, were viewed almost as saints." "Exceedingly tolerant and apologetic Western attitudes that shielded African despots from public scrutiny and criticism have helped perpetuate tyranny in Africa," he writes.

Makaziwe Mandela, Nelson Mandela's daughter from his first marriage, says in the foreword to "Africa Betrayed" that this book is an "inside view" that "many would prefer not to hear.... But only the truth shall set us free."

Ayittey's critique centers on the rudimentary or nonexistent political structures needed to support human rights in Africa.

Rebuilding Africa's indigenous political institutions is still possible, Ayittey says. "There are still chiefs and kings operating in Africa as well as tribal councils ... [who] are not illiterate and politically primitive," he writes. Community involvement and sophisticated checks on political power existed for centuries before colonists set foot on the continent.

Ayittey scolds the world press for being soft on black African tyrants. South Africa's racist regime is the target of countless articles and television reports, he writes. Yet the press rarely reports that in Sudan, Mauritania, and other African states, several million black Africans are still held as slaves.

World opinion condones tyranny "as long as the tyrants are black," Ayittey writes. "This insidious form of racism suggests that white rulers in Africa must be held accountable to a higher moral standard than black leaders face."

At the June 1991 Organization of African Unity summit in Abuja, Nigeria, African leaders demanded trillions of dollars in reparations from the West for the colonial exploitation and ravages of the slave trade. These same leaders, Ayittey says, have pillaged their countries of billions of dollars now stashed in foreign bank accounts.

President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire has $8 billion to $12 billion hidden overseas. He could singlehandedly pay off his country's foreign debt. Wealthy Nigerians have $33 billion in foreign bank accounts, about equal to their country's national debt. Other heads of state have also amassed fortunes: Mali's Moussa Traore has $2 billion; Ivory Coast's Houphouet-Boigny has $11.5 billion; Togo's Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema made off with $2.8 billion.

In many cases, foreign aid "actually retarded the process of democratization in Africa," Ayittey writes. "Until the West recognizes that oppression is oppression, irrespective of the tyrant's skin color, Western leaders have no business pontificating about freedom for black Africans." Western economic pressure, diplomatic efforts, and the linkage of aid to political reform have "democratized not a single African country" in the 1980s, he adds.

Crocker, who was United States assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1981 to 1989, has a more sanguine view of the prospects for diplomacy. In "High Noon in Southern Africa," he makes an elegant case for the value of diplomacy in furthering African democracy. Crocker was chief strategist of the State Department's efforts under Reagan to pursue a peacemaking strategy in Angola, Namibia, and Mozambique, and to prod South Africa toward reform.

Though the United Nations had long been clamoring to free Namibia from South African control, Pretoria's siege mentality had resulted in little movement. Early in his tenure, Crocker's team decided to pursue decolonization in Namibia in concert with the elimination of Cuban troops from Angola. Cubans would leave Angola as the South African Defence Force pulled out of Namibia.

Crocker decided that by broadening negotiations to include more players who had a stake in achieving a resolution, gridlock could be broken. The US took the lead as the only party that could get the South Africans to the table.

In 1975, the former Soviet Union and Cuba had rushed into the vacuum created by the rapid Portuguese withdrawal from Angola. Luanda, the capital city, "represented Havana's largest foreign commitment and served as a showcase of Cuban `internationalism,' " he writes.

In the US, the "loss" of Angola irked conservatives who, after Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, were itching to reverse the communist advance. Complicating matters, by the mid-1980s South Africa was embroiled in township violence that heightened awareness in the US. Militant activists dragged Crocker's "constructive engagement" strategy through the mud, labeling it a "do-nothing" policy that coddled the white regime.

In fact, Crocker writes, the policy was intended "to acquire the leverage previously lacking.... The new formula would give us a far better chance to nail Pretoria down to a categorical commitment to implement [UN] Resolution 435 [the Namibia decolonization plan]."

Crocker's team believed that without the elimination of South Africa's perceived external "threats" - Cuban troops and rebel fighters in Namibia - Pretoria would not be tractable enough to advance internal reforms.

In Washington, the bruising domestic battle over South African sanctions proceeded "as if South Africa were an island in the South Atlantic.... It completely overlooked the logical necessity for regional peacekeeping to precede basic internal political change in South Africa," Crocker writes.

Diplomacy is thankless and grueling. Yet "High Noon in Southern Africa" describes the kind of delicate and artful balance that can be achieved by purposeful diplomacy.

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