WHEN she traveled to Burundi recently, Madeleine Albright was armed with a warning and the good advice that will be needed to keep that Central African nation from sliding into chaos.
''In Burundi, you describe what's happened in other African nations where civil wars are being fought, and you say, 'I've seen your future,' '' the US ambassador to the United Nations says she told government and rebel leaders. ''You have a choice to make if you don't want to go down the road of a 20-year civil war.''
Ethnic fighting has brought Burundi to the brink of the kind of ''cataclysmic violence'' that has devastated three other African nations - Liberia, Angola, and Rwanda - where as many as 1 million people have perished over the past five years.
Following a recent week-long visit to all four nations to urge reconciliation and to jump-start peace efforts, Ms. Albright points to a common denominator: All four conflicts are struggles for personal power among extremists ''who have no stake in order but rather in chaos.''
The international community has been reluctant to wade into Africa's domestic problems. But the UN envoy says that for humanitarian, strategic, and economic reasons, the United States has a role to play in ending Africa's lethal ethnic and civil wars.
''That's not to say we have to do it all, and we can't do it everywhere,'' Albright said in an interview after her return last week. ''But we do have to do something. Our responsibility should be commensurate with our interests.''
The four African nations are at different stages of conflict. In Rwanda, where fighting between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus two years ago claimed at least a half million lives, ''the worst appears to be over,'' Albright says. The task now is to make peace with the past, which includes bringing the main perpetrators of the genocide to justice before an international war-crimes tribunal. ''They have to deal with the horror of what they did before they can move on,'' Albright says.
In Angola, a civil war that became a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war is winding down after two decades. ''I have a sense that the Angolans are tired of war and ready to move on. That's very encouraging,'' she says.
After several false starts, the two sides have agreed to back a 1994 peace agreement under which antigovernment rebels are to be given the choice of joining the Angolan Army or disbanding. After meeting with Albright last week, the leader of the rebel forces, Jonas Savimbi, agreed to send more than 16,000 guerrilla fighters to a UN assembly camp where they will be disarmed.
Unless both sides comply with the peace accord, Albright warned, the UN will revisit the issue of extending the stay of a 6,500-member Angola peacekeeping mission.
''It's very fragile in Angola, but it's almost there,'' the American envoy says.
In Liberia, a 1995 peace accord designed to end a five-year civil war that has left 150,000 dead is more fragile. ''Liberia has hit rock bottom, but the leaders don't know that yet,'' Albright says.
The accord calls for the disarmament and disbanding of warring militias, one of which clashed with UN-backed African peacekeepers on the eve of Albright's visit. During a visit with the country's six-man ruling council, she warned that the nation must not ''slide into the abyss of a devastating civil war again.''
In Burundi, two years of ethnic fighting threatens to devolve into full-scale civil war and genocide. ''Burundi is teetering on the edge of national suicide,'' Albright says. So far the government has resisted preventive measures suggested by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, including setting up an international rapid-reaction force.
''They see his recommendations as interference rather than as assistance,'' Albright says. She says she warned Burundis not to fall into ''a hopeless abyss of violence'' and persuaded the government to step up security for relief operations, which have been suspended for safety reasons.
''What I found interesting,'' Albright says, ''is that all the leaders [in the four countries] figured out some way to blame someone else for what's going on. My message is that it is your responsibility.''
The international community can help by providing programs that will induce militias to lay down arms, she says. One program would train ex-soldiers to rebuild war-damaged homes. ''You have to show what the rewards of disarming are,'' Albright says. ''To the extent that the international community can persuade these countries to learn from each other that a political solution is always better than a military solution, then we will have accomplished something,'' she says.