Why Africa's wars confound the US

After a period of democratic progress, flareups across Africa point in part to legacy of cold war.

It was like trying to put out a brush fire with a garden hose.

Richard Holbrooke, the US ambassador to the United Nations, was in Congo, hoping to mend a peace accord between seven countries that apparently didn't want to stop fighting. Then he went to the Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia and Eritrea were preparing for a renewed war of attrition along their 620-mile border.

Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, a rebel army stepped up fighting against UN peacekeepers, and one of the world's most notorious warlords, Foday Sankoh, escaped his international captors.

"When this trip was planned," Mr. Holbrooke told reporters in Asmara, Eritrea, "[the war in Congo] was the most urgent crisis in Africa. But by the time we got here it had managed to drop to being third on the crisis list."

The waging of war on the African continent is nothing new - it has ebbed and flowed with the decades. By the end of the 20th century, Africa had more major armed conflicts - 11 - than any other continent.

But today's fighting is especially troubling, analysts say, because it comes in the wake of democratic progress, because it flies in the face of the international community, and because it is visible to the world, with the continent getting more press attention now than it has in years.

"I'm not saying Africa was a bed of roses," says Peter Takirambudde, a Ugandan who heads Human Rights Watch's Africa division in New York. "But you were starting to see some determination by the leaders to stay on a democratic course."

Two patterns of violence

Today, however, that course appears to have sidetracked into armed conflict, with violence fitting two distinct patterns.

First, African countries are beginning to fight across international borders, as is the case in Congo and Ethiopia-Eritrea. In many cases, this stems from a collapse of the cold-war security balance that was maintained by the US and the Soviet Union. Simply put, today's African leaders perceive that they have the ability to take matters into their own hands.

"It's Africa unchained," explains William Reno, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who just returned from Congo and Uganda.

Some countries, and their leaders, are becoming more internally stable and developing lasting institutions - a positive trend, but it leaves nations increasingly free to project military power against their neighbors.

Some experts even worry that interstate wars could lead to the disaster scenario of an Africa-wide war, much like Europe has had.

The second pattern, experts say, is the continued implosion of weak states, such as Sierra Leone. Lacking strong infrastructure and regional powers to keep the peace, these countries are becoming the personal fiefdoms of those who are in power. So-called revolutions have little ideology beyond attainment of power and wealth. Mr. Reno calls it "hyper-privatization."

"People ask why we mine diamonds," Mr. Sankoh, the leader of the Revolutionary United Front [RUF] in Sierra Leone, recently said. "Why didn't they ask [others] that when they were in power? We believe in wealth, arms, and power in people's hands."

The danger of this scenario is that the chaos could spread, as rogue leaders try to destabilize their neighbors. If a populous country like Nigeria were to fall, years of progress could be washed away.

Also, as is the case with Sierra Leone, the implosion of national institutions can lead to complicated rivalries and countless factions. That makes peace agreements and reconciliation more difficult.

The cause of the crises in Africa dates back to European colonialism.

"The colonial experience fostered weak states and artificial boundaries in which countries were forced to compete for scarce resources," says Peter Lewis, an American University professor specializing in Africa.

Colonialism eventually gave out to cold-war domination, when the Soviets and the US played African groups against one another and armed them with weapons that are still used today.

"Then they quit and walked away," Mr. Lewis says, "and left behind smoldering and intractable conflicts. They created a security vacuum."

Today, blame is spread between the international powers, who are accused of not doing enough to help, and African leaders, who often have not acted in the best interests of their people, critics say.

Economics are also at the root of Africa's woes, says Walter Kansteiner, a former National Security Council adviser on Africa. "It's a combination of a failed policy of the government owning everything and horrific corruption."

And if economics are a cause, weapons are the means. According to the US Bureau of Intelligence and Research, countries are increasingly looking to Africa to unload cold-war stocks of inexpensive weapons like AK-47s. In some instances, such as in Ethiopia, countries are buying fighter aircraft or attack helicopters when their own people are near starvation.

Influx of arms

America's government and defense industry are also partially to blame in the arms game, according to the New York-based World Policy Institute.

"The US has helped build the arsenals of eight of the nine governments directly involved in the war that has ravaged [Congo] since [President Laurent] Kabila's coup," says a World Policy Institute report.

Mr. Takirambudde of Human Rights Watch says steps by both African leaders and Western powers are essential for progress, however long it may take.

"It's a two-way street," he says. "The international community has been unwilling to assert itself. And the African leaders have made mistakes for which history will judge then very harshly."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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