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Published: Wednesday, 1/12/2005

Keeping the faith as Africa tries to overcome its past

EVERY spring I teach a seminar on U.S. policy in Africa as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Every spring, before plunging into the course, I go through the tortures of the damned about what I am going to tell my students about Africa, where I lived for 20 years.

Given my love of Africa and long involvement in U.S. policy toward it, deciding what to say is sometimes like being forced to tell one's children, in the name of truth, that their grandfathers were both wife-beaters.

Since independence, African leaders have for the most part beaten the pulp out of the people of their countries. There are exceptions, on the individual level and in some of the nations concerned, but the record by and large is pretty awful.

Just as bad - if not worse, because the United States might be expected to know better, given its own history, experience, and vaunted principles - U.S. policy toward Africa across the years has also been generally terrible, ranging from the cynicism of the Cold War to the general, facile indifference ever since.

We will give ourselves a bye on the colonial period that pre-dated World War II: The United States was not a colonial power in Africa, and, in an unthinking way, America in that period looked at "African policy" as a not very important part of overall U.S. policy toward the European colonial powers, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium. South Africa was considered too far away and too complicated to merit a U.S. policy; in the Department of State, for many years it was dealt with as part of the Bureau of European Affairs.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt started us on the right track with respect to Africa in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, which talked about people's right to self-determination, a clear anti-colonial message. Britain's Winston Churchill bought it only because he badly needed American military aid in fighting off the Germans in Europe; the old fox probably had his fingers crossed behind his back when he agreed to the charter.

War-weakened European powers began handing over independence to African countries in 1957, starting with Ghana. By that time we were in the middle of the Cold War and African nations were in the happy or unhappy position of being courted by both sides. That meant aid. It also meant a very unjudgmental attitude about how African leaders governed their peoples, including what they did with the aid. That was catastrophic in terms of wasted and stolen resources, but also in terms of burning out donors' willingness to give and belief in the efficacy of aid to African countries.

Came the end of the Cold War in 1990 and U.S. policy shifted to lots of advice, but little real help. Democracy and a liberal economy were supposed to be the pathways to salvation. The first was hard to achieve, particularly given the dilapidated state of the social infrastructure of the African countries. So was the second. Some economic clean-up occurred, but U.S. and other foreign investors did not flock to Africa, unless there was oil to be found. And once again there was little or no concern about what happened to the oil revenues that African countries received. A country like Angola, rich with oil wealth, is also one of the poorest in terms of social infrastructure.

Most reporting from Africa deals with the unending war in the Congo, the aging despot president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, or the unfettered greed of a president Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola or Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

Here is some of the current good news from Africa. The Muslim north and the Christian south of Sudan signed an agreement Sunday in Nairobi, Kenya, that - with a lot of help from friends of Sudan, hopefully including the United States - can bring an end to a civil war that has gone on since 1983 (and, some would argue, since 1956). Secretary of State Colin Powell was there for the United States. Nine African presidents were in attendance. The accord has taken so long to negotiate and is so complicated that it might actually work.

Some 15 African countries had reasonably democratic, violence-free elections in 2004. One of these was Mozambique, torn apart by East-West-based, neighbor-supported war from 1975 to 1992. Another was in Namibia, former German South West Africa, wrested from South African grip in 1990 with American muscle-grease involved.

On a smaller scale, a long-simmering rebellion in the Casamance region of Senegal ended Dec. 30 with the signature of an agreement between Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and the rebel leader, a 77-year-old priest named Augustin Diamacoune Senghor. That conflict had cost an estimated 3,500 lives over 22 years.

These stories, and the efforts of Africa to pull itself up by its bootstraps through organizations such as the new African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development, are what keep me hanging on. Of the two grandfathers, I think there is more hope for Africa itself than there are prospects of a more helpful U.S. Africa policy. I suspect the Africans know that, too.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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