EXCEPT for the occasional outbreak of famine or genocide, or the epic struggle to overturn apartheid, the United States has systematically ignored Africa for most of this century. What goes on in Africa has been thought to have little relationship to American economic or strategic interests.
How foolish and shortsighted that indifference is may be gleaned from recent developments in two of Africa's most prominent countries. Nigeria and Kenya are headed toward political chaos and potential economic collapse. Should they lunge further toward catastrophe, they would take along with them a significant source of American oil, the possibility of long-term US investment in a major market, and hope for peaceful democratic transformation throughout the continent. We might also witness a repetition of the destruction on the scale of Somalia or Rwanda.
What accounts for these dangers are the vagaries of two governments headed by men whose thirst for power seems limitless. The governments have been abetted by the passivity of the US and, in Nigeria's case, by the greed of a multinational oil giant.
Five years ago, Nigeria, the largest and - other than South Africa - most developed country on the continent, appeared to have a bright economic future. In 1993, Gen. Sanni Abacha came to power following the nullification of democratic elections, which resulted in the apparent victory of Chief Moshood Abiola. Over the next two years, General Abacha banned all political activity, suspended fundamental constitutional rights, cracked down on press freedoms, and arrested Chief Abacha.
Ethnic fighting broke out in Rivers state, the principal site of oil production and protests by local minority groups, including the Ogoni community, over the fact that the extractors of oil were ruining the environment. There is good reason to believe the Nigerian government fomented the ethnic violence, in addition to being one of the worst aggressors.
What is certain is that Abacha arranged for the arrest of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni protest leaders, charged them with murder, and sentenced most of them to death. Though they are civilians, Saro-Wiwa and his co-defendants were tried before a military tribunal appointed by Abacha. They were denied the most elementary forms of due process. Abacha's assault on justice has undermined political stability in Nigeria and plunged the country into an economic tailspin.
Except for the fact that he won a controversial election in 1992, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi displays many of the same traits as Abacha. The Moi regime has instigated ethnic clashes in the Rift Valley in which 1,500 people have been killed and 300,000 others displaced. It has arrested journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition leaders, most notably Koigi wa Wamwere, who tried to investigate the Rift Valley killings and was convicted of robbery and sentenced to prison.
Most recently, in the face of a political challenge from anthropologist Richard Leakey and his new political party Safina, the Moi government has sought to make it virtually impossible for any new party to register and to participate in elections.
Apart from the fact that political and economic unrest in these two countries undermines stability in the region, the US has particular interests in the health of Kenya and Nigeria. Kenya, a major tourist attraction, is key to US access to the Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Horn of Africa, from which US operations in Somalia were launched. Nigeria supplies the US with up to 10 percent of its oil and provides a potential market of 120 million people for US export companies.
But can the international community truly influence these situations? Yes, it already has. After the World Bank warned Moi that he would get no more loans if he failed to improve human rights and open the political system, the Kenyan leader did just that - until the funding resumed. Clearly, those funds can be stopped again. And when President Clinton, after much throat-clearing, finally warned Abacha that recently convicted opponents of his regime must not be put to death, the Nigerian general commuted 12 to 15 death sentences and announced he would step down in 1998. What might the president have accomplished had he demanded the release of all prisoners of conscience 12 months ago?
Individuals also can help protect US interests and promote human rights and stability. Tourism makes up 40 percent of the Kenyan economy. Touring companies such as Abercrombie & Kent can be petitioned to exert influence over the Moi government and educate tourists. And Shell Oil, the major oil producer in Nigeria, should be held accountable for the way in which the government, its business partner, is treating those who protest its policies.
It is not to late to stop the erosion of freedom in Nigeria and Kenya. It will take economic calculus, political resolve, and a recognition that what happens in Africa can have an impact here at home.