Remembering Africa

Michael Chege. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 1. 1992.

In 1991, resurgent democratic movements in sub-Saharan Africa sensed a surprising shift in Bush administration policy. African political reformers were caught on the rebound and the continent’s aging despots were stunned. U.S. foreign policy toward Africa had edged closer than ever before to the timeworn position of its congressional critics. For the first time since the Kennedy administration’s support for anticolonial African nationalism, crowds yearning for freedom, this time from domestic tyranny, cheered statements from the U.S. State Department as it distanced itself from the autocratic and unpopular leaders it once supported.

The demise of the Cold War and the steady though incomplete dismantling of apartheid have undermined the logic that once drove America’s alliances of expediency on the continent, which were so inimical to expanding civil liberties in Africa. While attitudes in the West may have changed, the policies of the United States and its European allies toward Africa are still not the supportive pillars of stable market-driven democracies they could be. But much also depends on Africa itself. African political reformers must now discard the old ideological shibboleths that have helped keep their countries shackled in poverty, communal violence and political repression. The pace of their own reform, how quickly they can devise new development policies and institutions more consonant with the march of history toward economic and political liberalism, will help determine the full impact of external support for change.

Only with the emergence of African states that foster individual freedoms and market economies with complementary public sectors will the continent receive the attention it deserves. African societies might then graduate from being passive recipients of charity to full actors in global politics and economics. Amid the flood of problems that still exist in Africa, its surging tide of democracy is barely visible, especially to a world whose eyes are keenly focused on events elsewhere.

II

Until the Persian Gulf crisis media coverage of world affairs was dominated by the drama of the democratic revolutions in eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet empire, the slow evolution of 1992’s united Europe, the unfolding economic power of Japan and the Pacific Rim and even the emergence of new democracies in Latin America. Africa was for all purposes dropped from the cast. For much of the world Africa remained little more than an unfailing source of bad news: famine, dictatorship and economic collapse; blatant violations of human rights and gross carnage wreaked by merciless warlords; a region where unashamed autocrats still tightened the screws of their despotism while their counterparts around the globe were being hounded out of presidential palaces by popular revolts.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s natural catastrophes and political mismanagement combined to produce human and economic tragedy in Africa of unprecedented proportions. Regressive statist economic policies aggravated drought in the Sahel (1973), famine in Ethiopia (1985) and a succession of calamities of biblical proportions elsewhere: locusts in Sudan (1988), floods in Tanzania (1989) and the AIDS pandemic, which the World Health Organization now predicts will wipe out 20 percent of Africa’s labor force by 1996. By eliminating the middle-aged and best-educated sectors of the population AIDS will cause immeasurable setbacks to Africa’s development programs. It will also raise the percentage of the population dependent on assistance, thus increasing pressure on already scarce government resources.

After suffering negative rates for most of the 1970s sub-Saharan Africa achieved average agricultural growth of 1.3 percent in the 1980s, which brought little economic reprieve. Meanwhile the annual population growth rate was 3.1 percent—the fastest of any region in history—helping to create a severe food deficit as well as depleting basic services. Nearly half of sub-Saharan Africa’s 480 million inhabitants were living in poverty, defined as undernutrition and lack of access to locally identified basic necessities. With the exception of small number of African states—Cameroon, Botswana, Mauritius—per capita incomes fell by about 2.8 percent each year in the last decade, leaving most countries economically worse off than they were at the end of colonial rule. It is small wonder that many poor rural Africans have been known to ask when independence would end.

It is not a record of which Africans can be proud. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) have written off the last decade in terms of economic development. The outspoken former president of Nigeria, General Olusegun Obasanjo, has warned that in prevailing global circumstances Africa has become the third world of the Third World—a continent beyond the pale of the dominant movements of this era. Writing under a pseudonym in Le Monde, a ranking French diplomat has argued, “Economically speaking, if the entire black Africa, with the exception of South Africa, were to disappear in a flood, the global cataclysm will be approximately nonexistent.”

Yet cavalier judgments that write off Africa are unjust and ill-informed. They do a great disservice to a growing number of ordinary Africans, statesmen, journalists, clergymen, community leaders and intellectuals who are struggling against steep odds to reverse the continent’s fatal cycle of dictatorship and economic calamity. While African dissidents have been the unwitting victims of the media fatigue, scorn and stereotyping that appear to have overtaken Western concern for developments in Africa, 1991 did in fact bring seeds of hope.

For the first time since their independence at least 12 African states are at some stage or other in the evolution toward multiparty politics, after humiliating acknowledgements of the ravages of single-party systems. In early 1991 five African states held competitive multiparty elections for the first time and in three of those states—Benin, Cape Verde and Sao Tome Principe—the opposition peacefully assumed the government. Even in Zambia, the 27-year reign of Kenneth Kaunda was ended as he was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls by Frederick Chiluba, who was inaugurated in a peaceful transition in November. Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Guineau-Bissau, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritania, Rwanda and Sierra Leone each adopted new constitutions or moved to legalize opposition parties; Mali ousted its autocratic regime; Congo and Zimbabwe abandoned Marxism-Leninism.

Elsewhere on the continent events were sometimes more muddled and violent. Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam was forced to flee his country in May 1991 as Tigrean rebels seized control of Addis Ababa, and Eritrea finally seceded from the nation after waging the globe’s longest-running war this century. A broad-based interim coalition of forces has now pledged to oversee a transition to democracy. Angola ended its own bloody 16-year civil war and will hold free elections in 1992, and neighboring Naibia celebrated its first year as an independent state under a democratic constitution. In Zaire an end to the long and corrupt rule of Mobuto Sese Seko may finally be in sight; after bloody rioting throughout the country in September and October he said he would remain in power until new elections can be held. In Somalia fighting between rival factions left thousands dead in November and December, and the future of that state remains uncertain.

The South African government in 1991 knocked out some of apartheid’s most vital legal supports: the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936, the Croup Areas Act of 1966 and the Population Registration Act of 1950. The process of dismantling apartheid, however, remains far from complete. The de Klerk government and the nation’s various opposition groups must still carefully negotiate a constitution extending equality to that country’s black majority.

It appears that freedom is contagious in both national and global terms. The fall of east European dictators had a catalyzing effect on African democrats. But to be truly effective, reform in Africa must be accomplished through a candid appraisal by Africans themselves about the origins of the disasters that afflict them and the difficult policy choices now confronting them. In the new global order unleashed by the collapse of communism, Africans will have little choice but to pull their own weight by meeting the most exacting standards in domestic governance and economic competitiveness.

III

The carefully cultivated dogmas and half-truths of an intellectually stifled environment have shielded Africans from their own realities and produced many devastating false starts. In the case of the sub-Sahara much political ignorance begins at home. In deference to African opinion, however, American and Western policy has often reinforced that weakness.

Take the problem of “tribalism” for instance. The conventional belief is that tribal affinity in African politics is the premier scourge of good government. Ethnic warfare in Liberia, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Africa and Rwanda in 1991 is given as recent example. Since independence African leaders and their well-meaning foreign sympathizers have put much effort into exorcising this demon. Think national, not tribal, governments insist. Yet even as they have denounced it, incumbent African leaders backhandedly indulged in ethnic patronage to bolster their own authoritarianism or to distribute power and resources and maintain political stability.

African governments continue to resist ethnic pluralism on the ground that “tribal” loyalties will sunder their fragile new states. For African leaders and a vast number of African intellectuals nation-building is, in sociological terms, a process of integrating diverse, primordial and ethnocentric African tribes into modern statehood. Mozambique’s ruling FRELIMO party, for example, in the 1970s sought to “kill the tribe to build the nation.” Even the staunchest advocates of political pluralism in Kenya and elsewhere seek to distance themselves from tribal tags. The myth of the dangers of “tribalism” also achieved rapid currency among Western donors, journalists and diplomats.

But the word “tribe” itself is an invidious term of colonial vintage that denigrates African ethnic groups. This explains why more than 30 million Yorubas with a centuries-old civilization are classified as a “tribe,” unlike the Basque “community” or just plain Serbs and Croatians. The fact that Africans themselves use “tribalism” for the purposes of group and supposedly historical identity—and find journalists and diplomats willing to believe them—is no proof of its primordial origins. African ethnicity, like ethnic consciousness elsewhere, uses any number of primary identities—area of origin, religion, culture, language—to build a group’s internal cohesion in the face of competition for power and resources from other groups. In fact, far from being primordial, the first major arena of intergroup competition in Africa arose under colonialism with the establishment of new cities and modern cash economies. The distinguished anthropologist Elizabeth Colson has concluded, “At least in Africa, tribes and tribalism as we know them today are recent creations reflecting influences of the colonial era.”

What most distinguishes sub-Saharan Africa’s ethnic pluralism from ethnicity elsewhere is its unusually vast cultural, linguistic and geographic bases. This variety multiplies the manner in which ethnic identity may be invoked in social conflict or collaboration. African ethnicity is also marked by a weakness of secondary bases of identity—class, profession, vocation—that arise with industrialization and the spread of secular values. These two factors complicate national political management of civil society by materially poor and weak states.

Yet Africa must learn to live with its fissiparous subnationalism and ethnic diversity. “Tribalism” indeed is an issue that calls for further reflection among African political reformers seeking to recast the social bases of their governments. Governments in sub-Saharan Africa have long repressed ethnic interests, centralizing power and economic resources supposedly to promote a new “integrated” national consciousness. Their critics now demand proportional ethnic representation and an end to nepotism as the high road to the same elusive national unity. But the political and constitutional institutions congruent with ethnic pluralism are not found in strong centralized states. Rather they are found in the opposite. African states may now have to try a formula for stability and equity that disaggregates centralized power, allows freedom of association, including ethnic organization, and in particular promotes federalism.

Federalism may ironically strengthen national political loyalty. By diffusing autocratic power and providing cultural autonomy and control over local resources, it may satisfy varied and sometimes highly idiosyncratic provincial demands. Strengthening the parts could then provide solidarity for the whole. African leaders and many of their external advisers have argued that, outside Nigeria, African states are too small for federal arrangements. But it is the complexity of the social organization, not the size of the population, that mandates decentralized power. Switzerland, for instance, is both smaller and more federalist in constitutional character than the United States. It is ironic that some of Africa’s foreign advisers—the old Soviet Union, the United States, Belgium and Canada—have resisted constitutional decentralization for Africans and yet are themselves societies where ethnic diversity is an established part of the social and political fabric.

Ethnic solidarity thus cuts both ways. The challenge of African states is to cultivate the benefits of ethnic diversity, while minimizing its admittedly destructive political potential. This formula is nearly opposite the tired and disastrous policies of past decades. Toleration of ethnic identity, as long as it operates within the law and is subordinated to national loyalty, could turn an apparent problem into an asset. African leaders and thinkers must cease viewing national and ethnic identities as mutually exclusive.

Political decentralization along federalist lines is of course no panacea. To be effective it must be underpinned by democratic principles and institutions. These must include, above all, scrupulous observation of individual rights and the rule of law, safeguards for minorities and the separation of political powers to check the rise of autocrats. It is less a question of imitating the United States and the West—a notion abhorrent to many African nationalists and intellectuals—than of fashioning those institutions that best serve Africa by arresting the process of political decay set in motion by decades of presidential centralism in a social environment that was inhospitable to it in the first place.

The social institutions of sub-Saharan Africa vary so widely that new and appropriate governmental systems are likely to run the gamut from breakaway states and confederacies through federalism to politically pluralistic unitary states. Such is the wide choice now facing South Africa as the de Klerk government negotiates the structures of a constitutional democracy with the African leaders of the Patriotic Front. It is also a looming problem for the continent’s most populous state, Nigeria, once its quixotic military-inspired two-party system comes to grief, as many predict it will. And one could add others: Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Cameroon, Kenya, Somalia, Zaire and Ghana. Investment and concentrated thinking toward political innovation will be required as developments unfold in all these nations.

In the past African governments and intellectuals have unquestioningly accepted the sanctity of colonial boundaries inherited at independence. To revise them, the logic went, would open a Pandora’s box leading to widespread national disintegration. After the Congo crisis of the 1960s and France’s ignominious role in Biafra, the United States and European countries have respected this reasoning. The OAU, author of this formula, still holds out hope for a boundaries-free united Africa. But if one judges from Africa’s experience thus far, this “best” option has turned out to be the enemy of the good.

Eritrea was able to secede from a reluctant Ethiopia only after 30 years of violent struggle. In Somalia the old northern region in 1991 became the Somaliland Republic. Autonomy-seeking movements have led to decades of carnage in southern Sudan, conflict in Casamance (Senegal) and popular discontent with central governments in Tuareg Mali, western Cameroon, southern Mauritania, Zanzibar, northern Malawi and northern Mozambique. One need not wait for the full cycle of violence to work itself out before power redistribution, autonomy or even secession is conceded. Where a people’s allegiance to their own ethnic group supersedes that given to the state, it may be time to let them secede or fuse with another state. For what does a country benefit if it secures its boundaries yet suffers perennial bloodshed among its own people?

Like those of Europe, African leaders must accept that fission and fusion of national borders is a political and historical inevitability. There is nothing remiss about altering state frontiers in the nobler interests of domestic tranquillity and sustained economic growth, which are now so scarce in these lands. The divisions of today may well prepare the ground for lasting political integration tomorrow, and vice versa. It will take much courage for the OAU and its members to champion this unorthodox but politically beneficent reality. But once it gains local acceptance, bilateral and multilateral donors must hearken to the needs of the Eritreas and Somaliland republics in precisely the same manner as they have the Baltic republics and other new European states.

IV

No effort to address the needs of democratic government in Africa would be complete without discussing the policy options available to reverse the continent’s economic decline and worsening poverty. Democracies moored on poverty are precarious experiments. Over half of the 46 states in sub-Saharan Africa have adopted economic structural adjustment programs with external donor support in an effort to reverse the disastrous trends of the last two decades. The results have been at best mixed.

Crisis in the balance of external payments is usually the first distress signal of an African economy, and the rescue has traditionally been provided by the International Monetary Fund. Almost uniformly the IMF provides balance-of-payments support contingent on immediate deflationary policies that include reduction of public-sector deficit, currency devaluation, smaller price distortions and tight monetary policy. Since the early 1980s the World Bank has also embarked on financial support for policy reform, or “structural adjustment lending,” based on sectoral policy changes that reflect realistic market prices.

There have been considerable overlap and sometimes conflict between the two Bretton Woods institutions. Both, however, clearly emphasize internal supply-side reform to stimulate efficient production and tend to downplay international factors behind Africa’s economic problems: such policy has been at the root of the debate on Africa’s economic reform. In this debate Africa’s leading bilateral donors—the EC, the United States and Scandinavia—have been little more than spectators. Outside the debate, the United States has favored more private-sector lending than Africa’s other donors.

Since 1981 the UNECA and the OAU have urged that more emphasis be given to Africa’s external debt problem, declining commodity prices and the disarticulated colonial structure of African economies, which require more regional integration and economic self-reliance. They have argued that, more than mere “adjustment” to the status quo, Africa needs a thorough economic transformation to become a modern industrialized continent.

In November 1989 the World Bank issued a widely hailed study on Africa’s long-term development Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crises to Sustainable Growth, urging policy changes across a wide range of economic and social sectors. The crux of the strategy lay in raising agricultural production beyond the continent’s record population growth rate. It also called for increased investment in industry, mining and human resources, a resuscitation of the private sector, socially equitable growth with an emphasis on the poor, environmentally sound development as well as a strengthening of Africa’s own capacity for policy analysis and a pan-African identity.

The World Bank also took African governments to task for profligate and corrupt spending, lack of accountability and repression of basic freedoms. For the first time its ambivalence toward regional economic integration gave way to reasoned endorsement of it. The bank had indeed gone far to meet its critics. UNECA gave the report grudging approval, and the World Bank urged a “global coalition” of international donors to join in an economic rescue effort for sub-Saharan Africa.

But the report was in fact too much of a good thing, and it left African policymakers satisfied but none the wiser. It is impossible to gainsay recommendations that nearly everything wrong in Africa ought to be righted. Tough choices remain to be made on the continent in the face of ever scarce resources. Where is Africa’s economic revival to begin in practical terms?

The sub-Sahara is largely an agricultural region dominated by smallholders, and that is where private sector lending should start. Chinese agrarian reforms in the 1980s and those currently under way in Vietnam demonstrate that stunning production gains can be realized by providing individual smallholders with land security, access to full market prices and improved infrastructure, and by eliminating mendacious government bureaucracies. African agricultural incomes have fallen not only because of poor world market prices, but also because of declining total production. Production declines reflect internal mismanagement, political chaos and inefficiency. Only once those problems are eliminated can the continent exploit its comparative advantage in primary commodities. Experience in Kenya, Malawi, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast demonstrates that a surging export trade pulls along food production in its train. By crossing this threshold and implementing effective population-control programs, sub-Saharan Africa might eventually satisfy its own food security needs. Export revenues could then be put toward initiating economic diversification in agriculture, industry and the service sector.

Without removing a wide range of price distortions these sectoral-based efforts will be countermanded. Adjusting prices is socially disruptive and economically expensive, but it is an inevitable cost of economic reform. The alternatives, including dithering, are infinitely worse, a reality that vocal critics of structural adjustment in Africa and their lobbies in the West need to remember. A strong case can be made, of course, for mitigating the impact of falling incomes on the most disadvantaged sectors of the population, an issue to which donors to Africa also need pay greater attention.

A call for African economies to revamp commodity trade is likely to be met with derision. The OAU already roundly criticized a 1990 U.N. report endorsing that option. Yet the alternative—retreating from world markets—is worse than admittedly imperfect trade in primary products. The prospects of a “global rescue plan” for Africa are so remote that it would be foolhardy to bank on them. For all its good intentions, the World Bank’s “global donor coalition” has not raised official development aid anywhere close to its projected $22 billion per year.

In fact history mocks the very idea of an international coalition to save Africa. The U.N. General Assembly in 1986 adopted a “compact” between donors and African states. The aim was to accumulate $128 billion in global assistance to African economies under the framework of the United Nations Program of Action for African Economic Recovery and Development. In September the U.N. secretariat admitted that for various reasons neither side had honored its part of the bargain and that the plan had foundered.

With the end of the Cold War, Africa has lost whatever political luster it may have once had, and there are no compelling geostrategic or economic reasons to catapult it to the top of the global economic agenda. Under congressional pressure, the Bush administration raised its 1991 aid commitment to sub-Saharan Africa from $600 million to $800 million, an amount equivalent to only one third of U.S. aid to Egypt alone. The administration now considers the issue settled, although some congressmen and African development experts consider the amount disproportionately small compared to the continent’s enormous humanitarian and development needs.

Africans must now take the initiative and face the world as it is, not as it ought to be. They will have to accept, if grudgingly, international and domestic market fluctuations, as have Thais, Hungarians, Koreans, Poles and Brazilians. Faced with such economic prospects, Africans must now work to have industrialized Western governments that preach the benevolence of free markets drop their increasingly protectionist postures. Of immediate concern to Africa are the agricultural protectionism of the EC and the United States, the escalation of tariffs on Third World manufactures and the so-called Multi-Fiber Arrangement, a severe Western barrier to textile and clothing imports from poor nations.

The external debt policy of Western creditor nations must also be reviewed to help prop up sound economic management in new African democracies. As of 1990 sub-Saharan Africa owed $161 billion, primarily to official bilateral and multilateral sources. Even with some rescheduling and debt relief by European countries, debt servicing still amounts to 30 percent of the region’s export earnings. The Group of Seven leading industrialized nations agreed at its July 1991 London summit to additional debt write-offs for Africa’s poorest reforming economies. Britain has since followed this agreement with debt reduction to better-managed African economies as well.

The U.S. Treasury, however, has pleaded the need for a special congressional appropriation to cover any debt forgiven. This came after U.S. debt relief to Poland and Egypt for an amount far exceeding the $850 million sub-Saharan Africa owes to the United States. Africa’s leading debtors to the United States are Zaire, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi and Cameroon—not exactly top players in the league of African democracy To avoid throwing good money after bad, debt forgiveness could be used as a carrot to entice political reform and economic efficiency. Based on those criteria the major beneficiaries of relief would likely be countries like Zambia and Benin—small debtor—which provides all the more incentive for the United States to follow Britain’s suit.

In the long run Africa’s sustained economic growth will be founded not on easy grants but, as elsewhere, on the ability to raise and repay loans in international money markets and the capacity to draw direct foreign investment. For too long the bugbear of exploitative multinational corporations and inward-looking populist economics have deflected private foreign capital. If African poverty is aggravated by the presence of a mere two percent of the globe’s direct private investment, as conventional thinking mainstains, then would living conditions not surely be abysmal in new capital magnets like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Brazil and Mexico?

The truth is increasingly the opposite. Those countries, like the nations of Africa, are former colonies. At independence Ghana and Sudan had the same or higher living standards than did Korea. Yet today those African states are not in the same league as Asia’s newly industrialized countries. Africa’s still-vocal opponents of international capitalism may nonetheless sleep easy. Private investment in sub-Saharan Africa fell to $900 million in 1989 from its 1982 peak of $2.3 billion. And the prognosis holds little hope of a reversal. A recent study reveals that between 1979 and 1989 British transnational corporations withdrew 31 percent of their investment from the sub-Sahara. Moreover British divestment has most affected better-run economies like Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nigeria. American multinationals have also steadily divested over the last decade from Kenya—once a favorite destination of foreign capital.

Some African commentators have criticized the diversion of Western capital investment to eastern Europe. But the process of capital divestment from Africa was already in motion before those revolutions. The reasons behind it predictably include corruption and poor governance, price controls and foreign exchange shortages. Those problems also led to inefficient production and falling private capital inflows. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, invested a mere 15 percent of its gross domestic product in 1987-88 back into the region. That compares to an average of 30 percent in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, countries whose per capita incomes are roughly equivalent to those of African states. The quality of Africa’s own investment also leaves much to be desired. The rate of return per unit investment in sub-Saharan Africa was 2.5 percent in the 1980s, compared to 23 percent in South Asia.

The IMF and World Bank are wont to emphasize that capital investment will rise in the wake of reform. But in circumstances such as these it is unrealistic to expect a turnabout in private foreign capital inflows, even with reforms. African governments must first cultivate the confidence of their own domestic investors. As with good governance, sensible economics also begins at home.

America’s policy change toward Africa came not a moment too soon. For many years, particularly during the Nixon and Reagan administrations, U.S. policy toward Africa was the despair of reform-minded African democrats, congressional subcommittees and Washington’s pro-African lobbies. They watched with consternation in 1982 as American directors at the IMF voted for a $1.1 billion loan for South Africa, against loud protests from antiapartheid groups and the press; the previous summer South African defense forces had struck deep into Angola, and they continued to launch devastating raids into neighboring countries with impunity even until 1989.

Successive U.S. administrations, following the global client-age calculations of the Cold War, cast their lots with many of Africa’s most corrupt and vain regimes. Zaire’s President Mobutu was needed to keep Jonah Savimbi’s UNITA movement supplied with armaments in its protracted guerrilla war against the Soviet-and Cuban-sponsored government in neighboring Angola. Similar geostrategic considerations informed America’s relations with Kenya’s authoritarian leader Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s and the repressive regime of Somalia’s Mohamed Siad Barre; both leaders actively supported the U.S. rapid deployment force with Indian Ocean bases after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Neither leader cared to consult local opinion on those decisions, any more than did the late president of Liberia, Samuel K. Doe, caretaker of the hub of the U.S.-African communications network in Monrovia. Doe’s government blatantly rigged that country’s 1985 elections and routinely abused civil rights, all the while earning $550 million in American aid throughout the 1980s, most of which was promptly embezzled.

The U.S. policy shift in 1991 thus surprised African despots and thrilled African democrats. In early November, when the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa, Zaire, released a statement by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen insisting that “Mobutu has lost legitimacy and should hand over the government to an opposition-led transition,” copies of the statement flooded the streets of the capital within hours as joyful crowds flocked to the home of opposition leader Etienne “Moses” Tshisekedi. In 1991 U.S. diplomats also protested the harassment of the political opposition in Togo and Swaziland. In Kenya, U.S. ambassador Smith Hempstone virtually became a local folk hero for sticking adamantly to the principles of democracy and human rights in the fact of a recalcitrant Nairobi government. He was supported by the White House and the State Department, to the chagrin of President Moi and his ministers, who had made a fetish of insulting him for his stand.

But these expressions of moral backing aside, U.S. embassies pleaded penury in most African countries making the transition to democracy. In Benin, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Cape Verde, the United States made only small contributions to electoral management and human rights initiatives, and in 1991 the United States raised its expenditure on “democratic infrastructure” for all of Africa to $30 million. Fortunately Africa’s democratic reformers have been able to get maximum mileage from America’s moral support and diplomacy, absent substantial U.S. financial backing and expertise. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also succumbed to the Africa-last-and-least syndrome. Out of the agency’s $171 million for democracy funding in fiscal year 1990, sub-Saharan Africa got slightly over half a million dollars—O.3 percent of the total—compared to $73 million for more democratized Latin American and Caribbean nations. Funding for constitutional reforms, government electoral expenses and independent observers remain high priorities to complete Africa’s democratic transitions.

Perhaps the most significant U.S. policy shift toward Africa in 1991 was to link development assistance to democratization. In November USAID indicated that priority for aid would be given to “democratic and honest” governments. This pronouncement not only brought U.S. aid policy in line with the human rights conditions of Section 116 of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, but also placed it in step with the EC’s African development program, which too has renewed emphasis on denying aid to dictatorial one-party regimes. African opposition leaders hope that this uniting of forces will not turn out to be a dead letter, like the British government’s June 1990 proclamation threatening aid cuts “to governments who persist with repressive policies,” which was quietly shelved in Kenya and Malawi, Britain’s leading aid recipients in Africa,

At the Paris Donors Consultative Meeting in November 1991 aid pledges to Kenya were deferred for six months after the Moi government cracked down on opponents of its one-party state, its human rights violations and rampant corruption. Kenya has long been a favorite destination of Western aid, private capital and tourists, and its rebuff may serve as an object lesson to other renegades from democratic reform like Malawi, Cameroon, Tanzania and Seychelles, as well as those nations who would adopt a leisurely pace toward political liberalization. After that Paris meeting Kenya permitted the formation of opposition political parties.

Working in concert with the Paris Club of bilateral and multilateral donors, the United States and its European allies must now go further and reexamine their military and security aid policies toward African countries. South Africa was subjected to an arms embargo for pursuing apartheid policies with severe internal repression. Yet there are other African regimes whose domestic policies have been perhaps even crueler than South Africa’s, and they should receive the same sanction. Although U.S. law prohibits military aid “to consistent violators of human rights,” Chad, Djibouti, Kenya, Malawi and Zaire each receive U.S. military aid in excess of $1 million, and they hardly qualify by that criterion. The same leverage should be applied to the imperfect democracies in Senegal and Tunisia, which are also leading recipients of U.S. military aid. It would serve the ends of democracy far better if this money were channeled through the United Nations or OAU toward peacekeeping operations and transitions to legitimate rule in disintegrating Somalia, Liberia, Mozambique and Zaire.

VI

It is encouraging that the Kenyan foreign minister’s denouncement of U.S. Ambassador Hempstone as a “racist” with a “slave-owner mentality” was met by local demonstrations and protests in the letters columns of Kenya’s print media. Refuge in white imperialist-bashing is not the popular gimmick it once was. Candid self-reproach and recourse to realistic policy choices are increasingly gathering popular momentum.

At a 1990 conference UNECA Secretary General Adebayo Adedeji spoke on behalf of many when he said that “the voice of the people rather than the voice of one person or an oligarchy” should inform development policy. A mail survey done by the London-based New African in January 1990 found that 79 percent of respondents in Africa favored competitive multiparty political systems. And in 1991 60 percent of voters in Sierra Leone approved a referendum on competitive electoral politics. South Africa’s indefatigable antiapartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu has urged that the civil liberties of all Africans be respected. “If detention without trial is evil in South Africa,” he told a Nairobi audience in November 1988, “then it must be evil in every part of the African continent.” He also acknowledged the now-evident fact that there is today less freedom in many African countries than during the colonial period.

The absence of realistic and self-critical policies has probably done more damage to Africa than its much-vaunted lack of resources. For too long a vocal and influential number of African leaders and intellectuals have blamed Africa’s circumstances on someone else, usually omnipresent “imperialist” conspirators. Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka has argued in The Los Angeles Times: “To meet the challenge of renewal, it is time to rid ourselves of the past legacy of excusing, ignoring or even justifying atrocities by leaders simply because they are on the ‘left.”‘ He upbraided African dictators and their apologists for betraying the continent “from within.”

But self-critical sentiments from African writers, academics and journalists are now more commonplace than ever before. Editors like the often-jailed Gitobu Imanyara of the Narirobi Law Monthly, Kenneth Best of Liberia’s Daily Observer, Pius Njawe of Cameroon’s Le Messager and Stanley Kamana of Tanzania’s Family Mirrow have bravely crusaded for a critical and free press in the face of unrelenting government hostility. Kindred efforts by human rights lawyers in Kenya and Nigeria have been reinforced by groups like Africa Watch, PEN, Amnesty International, the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the BBC World Service as well as Africa-based U.S. and European media correspondents. If President Bush’s July 1991 remark about “keeping the faith with all oppressed peoples to promote democracy and freedom” is to have practical meaning in Africa, this is good company to keep.

But for Africa’s every democracy advocate there is a government adviser who will defend authoritarianism in the presumed interests of political stability and development. Influential Nigerian policy advisers, for example, have prevailed against the ballot box, and in October 1991 Kenyans were treated to a lengthy defense by 140 intellectuals of the supposedly stabilizing capacity of the one-party system. Such African policymakers and intellectuals appear oblivious to the evidence accumulating against them elsewhere on the continent and throughout the rest of the world.

Africa’s task of reform cannot be accomplished in geographic or intellectual isolation. The United States, the EC and multilateral donor agencies would do Africa a great favor by treating its dictatorships to equal-opportunity hostility. They should insist on high-performance standards in economic management and the observance of internationally accepted principles of democracy and human rights. To exempt Africans from these norms—because they are “disadvantaged,” “culturally different” or “just Africans”—is to give succor to the political blundering and economic incompetence that penalize Africa’s poor most. At worst it amounts to patronizing racism: the kindness that kills.

While imploring Africans to play by the rules of a new world order, the industrialized democracies must also demonstrate by example their adherence to the same principles. For the United States in particular, with its large African-American population, application of universal justice increases its moral authority in Africa, while setbacks to nondiscriminatory race policies only accomplish the reverse.

American foreign policy toward Africa was for too long compromised by Cold War calculations and misplaced trust in the autocrat as an agent of stability. The political change on the continent in 1991 provides reasonable grounds for a meeting of the minds. The ideas of today’s political reformers in Africa will lay the institutional foundations for new constitutions, changes in legislation and dialogue among rival national groups. Democracy is an incremental process. With renewed vision on political and economic fronts, the United States may yet provide some building blocks to that process and thereby reconcile itself once again to Africa’s aspirations.