FIGHTING crisis in Africa is like fighting a forest fire: Just as one country's blaze is extinguished, another's is ignited.
In Somalia, the United States used its military in a new way - to save lives and bring calm. The question now is: Should our efforts be used to stave off chaos elsewhere in Africa?
The answer must be yes, we can and we should. A first step toward helping to resolve the problems is to understand the unique circumstances in each troubled country.
Somalia. The international community responded slowly to the Somali crisis. After a year of civil war, the Security Council dispatched an ineffective, 500-man peacekeeping force to Somalia. But, by that time, there was no peace to keep.
Food was stolen from the docks and civilians were cut down in the cross-fire. After 20 months of fighting that left thousands dead, the US sent 28,000 troops, distributed food, and stripped the Somali war lords of their firepower while the United States envoy, Robert Oakley, engaged them in peace talks. Full-scale warfare has come to a halt.
Sudan. Just west of Somalia, Sudan is plagued by civil war and famine. The Sudanese power brokers, battling over religion, have split the country into an Islamic north and a Christian south. However, in both the north and the south there are isolated, vulnerable minority communities. Since 1989, 500,000 people in southern Sudan have starved or been killed by rampaging warriors.
US military aid, totaling $100 million in 1982, has armed Sudanese power brokers who no longer brook intervention or aid from the West. As a result, the UN's World Population Fund, which is woefully understaffed, has been left alone to assist the war-torn nation.
Liberia. A bitter struggle for personal power has devastated Liberia. Initially leading a people's revolt against an exploitative tyrant backed by the US, the commanders have splintered into opposing groups with no particular political loyalties. Using US-made M-16s and Soviet kalashnikovs, the warring leaders have destroyed all but the spirit of the Liberian people.
The US has contributed $50 million to the Nigerian-backed, seven-nation West African peacekeeping force called Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is attempting to halt the fighting. However, that contribution is dwarfed by $170 million in military aid we sent to Liberia. Despite our historical and financial link, the US has been silent in the face of Liberia's wanton destruction.
Angola. The roots of Angola's civil war lie in a cold war strategic struggle. Munitions from the US, South Africa, and the former Soviet Union were supplied to two distinct warring factions. In addition, the combatants have new weapons: food deprivation and control of electricity and running water in densely populated areas.
In September, 1992, Angola marked the end of a long civil war with UN-sponsored elections monitored by international observers. Although the international observers agreed the elections were free and fair, the Bush administration refused to recognize the winner, President Eduardo dos Santos. That gave the loser, Jonas Savimbi, tacit approval to resume warfare, and he did.
There are steps we can take. Although we cannot apply one formula to Angola, Liberia, Sudan and Somalia, we can base our foreign policy on lessons learned from our experience in Somalia:
* Refashion intelligence agencies. Formerly, covert activity in Africa was singlemindedly involved in tracking governments that embraced either leftist-leaning ideology or the weaponry of the former Soviet Union. That approach is obsolete. Today, intelligence agents should be used to detect troubled areas and even famines-in-the-making, and alert peace keepers before actual tensions turn into civil war.
* Bolster peacekeeping efforts of organizations like the UN and the ECOWAS. In order to be effective peacemakers, these groups need solid, global support. This means political and financial help.
* Create a new capacity for our armed forces, but make the UN pick up more of the tab. In Somalia, the test case for the future, the muscle behind the UN's mission was the US military. But if the UN wants the US to play a large role in its missions, other nations should pay more.
* Invest in Africa. "Seed" it with investments similar to the successful programs of Eastern Europe. Less than 15 percent of all foreign aid goes to Africa. Sustainable development, which involves teaching communities advanced techniques in farming and fishing, building schools and roads, will ultimately promote stability.
* Human rights principles should be the bellwether to aid. Universal principles mapped out in the International Declaration of Human Rights or the Geneva Convention must be applied to all continents of the globe, as well as Africa, before aid is given.
* Freeze weapons sales - conventional and nuclear - to Africa. In theory, nuclear sales have been halted and a more specific nuclear ban treaty, to be signed by African nations, is in the mix this week. But more needs to be done. Commercial transactions must be monitored. Materials transferable to weaponry should not slip through, as has been the case with South Africa.
* Support and protect humanitarian aid efforts, and jump-start negotiations among important clansmen and war lords. Somalia is an example of a successful two-pronged approach.
But we shouldn't be satisfied with a few baby steps in the right direction. We should continue to force more substantive change. Governments in transition must realize we will closely monitor their progress.
* Send negotiators who really understand the country. Michael Sahnoun, the first UN representative to Somalia, was trusted by the Somali leaders. But when the UN yanked him from his position the Somali talks temporarily broke down. This is foolish. In choosing ambassadors, the US should seek African specialists.
While the domestic situation should be our top priority, we cannot forget the tragic crises facing many African nations. Taken from the example of Somalia, we have a unique opportunity to reshape and create cogent foreign policy for the war-torn nations of Africa.