With the death of former Zairian president Mobutu Sese Seko on Sept. 7, a master of political manipulation has passed from the scene. So, too, has an era of external manipulation in Africa.
Mobutu was both manipulated and manipulator. He became the instrument of major powers in Africa, particularly the United States, a situation dramatically demonstrated by Zaire's key role in supporting Jonas Savimbi's anti-communist UNITA forces in Angola. At the same time, by frequently reminding US officials of the central position of Zaire in Africa, his indispensable role in controlling the region, his staunch anti-communism, and the absence of any viable alternatives to his rule, he was able to blunt efforts at democratization or financial reform. He was assisted by enthusiastic lobbyists in Washington.
But Washington wasn't alone in this blind support. Mobutu reached out to friends of the US such as Israel and Morocco. France, viewing Zaire as an important addition to the francophone community, was the last European friend to leave the sinking ship.
Only the most cynical of cold-war warriors can look back with satisfaction on the Mobutu years. He may have helped blunt a perceived Soviet and Cuban threat in Central Africa, but with the civil war in Angola still unresolved, even that achievement is doubtful. Despite millions of dollars in aid from many donors and the vast undeveloped resources of the country, Zaire was marked by poverty, disorganization, and lack of the most basic infrastructure. Although efforts were made by donors to monitor the flow of assistance to Kinshasa, substantial sums went to Mobutu's Mediterranean villas and bank accounts.
The end of the cold war has reduced the West's interest in political and military intervention in African affairs. At the same time, France, the most consistent donor to the continent, is reexamining its traditional position as a "gendarme" in its former colonies. Setbacks in recent peacemaking efforts in Rwanda, Central African Republic, and Zaire, combined with internal economic problems, have lessened the enthusiasm in France for its historic role in Africa.
African suspicions and expectations of outside power involvement will not quickly disappear. Rulers in the Mobutu mode still hold power in several African countries. At the same time, new faces such as Uganda's president, Yoweri Musaveni, are emerging who speak of different approaches to the continent's problems, including an end to corruption and an emphasis on free markets. He has demonstrated what can be done in the remarkable recovery of his country from years of bloody conflict.
The US and other Western countries should welcome this new approach. Yet differences remain on questions of democratization, human rights, refugees, and conditions for investment. To Washington, Mr. Musaveni is no democrat. Insisting that the country needs a system that discourages tribal rivalry, he has banned all political party activities except for his National Resistance Movement.
He appears to have tolerated the efforts of his close associate, Lauren Kabila, now president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire), to resist international efforts to investigate the alleged massacres of Hutu refugees by Kabila's forces. And he's emphasized that he believes African problems should be solved by Africans.
Despite differences, the end of the period of manipulation shouldn't mean the end of close ties between the US and Africa. Strong mutual interests exist. The US is a major source of investment for the continent. The US exports more to Africa than to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe combined. Ties should be even stronger with leaders who demonstrate a genuine interest in the progress and welfare of their peoples. The post-Mobutu era should be a more honorable period for all.
* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.