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Africa’s New Block
By Dan Connell & Frank Smyth, March 3, 1998, Foreign Affairs

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Coming of age

Sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing its most profound changes since the early years of independence. Forces that have long held sway over the region are now either waning or gone. For decades the United States, the Soviet Union, and France propped up dictators who served their interests -- men like Ethiopia's Mengistu Halle Mariam, Somalia's Mohamed Siad Barre, Rwanda's Juvenal Habyarimana, and the former Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko. The scaled-down presence of foreign powers has helped topple the regimes these men built. Other despots like Kenya's Daniel arap Moi and Cameroon's Paul Biya are also feeling unprecedented pressure for democratic change. Many were military officers who took advantage of the general disorder left by departing colonial forces to seize power. Once entrenched, each preached some form of nationalism, only to evolve cynical regimes which, in addition to being brutal, did little for their own people while shamelessly enriching their leaders' inner circles. Now, with the clear exception of Nigeria, Africa's postcolonial despotic order is finally breaking down.

But several new trends are evident. Since the departure of foreign powers, pre-colonial ethnic conflicts -- exploited by local political forces -- have reemerged with a vengeance. Although the divide between the Hutus and Tutsis dates back to at least the sixteenth century, Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which up to 800,000 people were slaughtered, was unprecedented. Ethnic and clan-based political identities are resurfacing elsewhere on the continent as well. In Nigeria they fuel a regionally based opposition movement to the central government, in Sudan an armed rebel group that threatens secession. And in places like Liberia and the Somali Republic, they have dissolved nations into anarchy.

Another rising trend is the propensity of African states to invade each other. Besides deploying combat forces, Rwanda helped plan, organize, and lead the rebel campaign that deposed Mobutu last year, turning Zaire into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Angola also marched against Mobutu and had a hand in Brazzaville's more recent leadership struggle. Uganda, which has a history of backing military campaigns in the Great Lakes region, is now allied with Ethiopia and Eritrea in support of rebels in Sudan. Ethiopia is also backing forces in Somalia. Nigeria has deployed peacekeepers under dubious mandates in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Africans are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. A new generation of leaders backed by highly trained and disciplined armies is assuming power. The most assertive of these new leaders are former guerrilla commanders who developed their character and worldview as their movements defeated foreign-supported, postcolonial despots in drawn-out struggles. While highly nationalistic, these leaders were once students of Marxism, organizing along democratic-centralist lines and planning to nationalize their economics. Although some still own Lenin's complete works, they are pragmatists, favoring free markets and insisting that corruption, not class difference, is the greatest threat to national development. Steeped in the values of secular nationalism, each has sought to incorporate disenfranchised ethnic and religious groups. Yet not one of these leaders can easily be called democratic, as each still runs a de facto one-party state.

Some of these states are coalescing into a new political and military bloc that, though relatively small, aspires to remake much of the continent. At its core are Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, with Angola and South Africa playing smaller roles. These countries enjoy the sympathies of Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Burundi. Having ousted Mobutu, the bloc now seeks to topple the Islamist regime in Sudan and influence Chad, the Central African Republic, and Somalia. While these new leaders disagree over tactics, they share the goal of ending the cronyism and instability that has epitomized postcolonial Africa.

More by default than by design, the United States has gained influence while France, especially, has lost ground. The Clinton administration has largely played catch-up in response to events in Africa, with guidance flowing as much from foreign missions to Washington as the other way around. U.S. policymakers have been mostly sanguine about the new bloc and its aims. Yet on key issues affecting Africa, they remain divided.

The agents of change

LEADERS OF the new bloc share interests and experiences that manifest themselves in fiercely independent attitudes. Take Eritrea, a small, poor country on the Red Sea, colonized by Italy and forcibly incorporated into neighboring Ethiopia in 1962. It fought U.S.- and then Soviet-backed Ethiopian regimes for 30 years before gaining independence in 1993. Its new president, Isaias Afwerki, is a long-time guerrilla leader and is unusually candid. In his first address to the Organization of African Unity, Isaias (Afwerki, by regional custom, is his father's first name) lambasted the assembled heads of state for neglecting Africa's problems while wasting money on their own lavish lifestyles.

A former engineering student, Isaias, 51, is a problem-solver, willing to borrow from any plan or formula that might work. At 23, he went to China for military training at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Today he is taking a correspondence course at a British institute to earn a business degree. Isaias retains -- and demands from his followers -- an unyielding spirit of self-sacrifice. Crime and corruption are rare in Eritrea. In 1995 the government imprisoned several high-ranking Eritrean revolutionary veterans for embezzlement. National service, including both military training and civilian labor, is compulsory, and many young men and women are surprisingly eager to serve. And unlike other African capitals, Asmara is impeccably clean.

Eritrea, while allowing more political freedom than before, is not a democracy. Isaias states clearly that the country will advance toward greater pluralism according to its own schedule and on its own terms. The movement he founded, which still dominates, has successfully incorporated Muslims and ethnic minorities into its ranks. But fearing ethnic fragmentation, Eritrea outlawed parties deemed to be ethnically or religiously motivated. Furthermore, only demonstrations in favor of the government are tolerated. In 1993, when disabled revolutionary veterans protested by blockading roads and taking hostages, government soldiers killed several of them. There is no free press either. An Eritrean journalist with Agence France Presse was arrested in 1997 for reporting on a private speech Isaias gave on Eritrea's military involvement with allied states against neighboring Sudan.

Ethiopia, much larger than Eritrea, is one of those states. Its prime minister, Meles Zenawi, 42, who joined a revolutionary movement when he was a 20-year-old aspiring medical student, is another eclectic thinker. Meles fought alongside Isaias for 15 years against the brutal, Soviet-backed Mengistu. Isaias, who provided experienced combatants to help Ethiopian revolutionaries in 1975, provided the artillery for Meles' final march on Addis Ababa in May 1991. These two leaders then negotiated the protocols for a referendum two years later that led to its independence. They have even more in common. Both men are ethnic Tigrinya, which leads many non-Tigrinya Ethiopians to suspect a conspiracy.

A third leader within the bloc is Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, about 53 (he is not sure), the president of the small but powerful Uganda. Often described as the "godfather" of the new bloc because of his voluble utterances, Museveni is the only bloc leader who came to power during the Cold War. He, too, has a history of involvement in revolutionary movements. In 1968, the 24-year-old Museveni was studying in socialist Tanzania. Later he led a group of students behind enemy lines in Mozambique to visit Marxist Guerrillas. He also spent time in North Korea seeking military training. By 1971 he was back in Uganda, working for President Milton Obote's first regime when the army commander Idi Amin seized power. Museveni formed a guerrilla force to oppose Amin but eventually disarmed and joined the second Obote regime, only to break with him again. In January 1986, five years after forming a new guerrilla army, Museveni and his men overran Kampala.

Museveni has been a relatively benign dictator, often delivering homilies about the value of work and individual initiative. While encouraging political participation in villages, he outlawed political parties, claiming they would only breed chaos. Before the 1996 presidential elections, he allowed long-dormant parties to resurface, although they were still prohibited from formally endorsing candidates or organizing rallies. During the campaign, Museveni's followers intimidated the opposition, while state resources were used to mobilize his own supporters, and he won easily. Opposition groups nevertheless hold some seats in the parliament and control The Monitor, Uganda's second-largest daily. While the opposition tries to attract members of ethnic minorities, the issue of ethnicity is less divisive in Uganda than elsewhere. The country has many small ethnic groups, so no single group dominates. Museveni himself is from the Banyankore ethnic group in southwestern Uganda. Because some key Rwandans who fought alongside him during his rise to power are Tutsi, he is frequently accused by foreigners, especially Francophones, of being one as well.

Paul Kagame, 40, Rwanda's vice president and minister of defense was one of Museveni's comrades, supporting him in 1981. In turn, Museveni aided Kagame and the Tutsi rebels that defeated the French-backed Hutu government in Rwanda in 1994. Like others in the new bloc, Kagame and his movement have a Marxist past; some Rwandan officers still subscribe to North Korean newspapers. Yet the new Rwanda is hardly antediluvian. Western experts consider Kagame a top military strategist who commands an effective army that he is not afraid to use. Kagame does not deny that his forces played a decisive role in the recent Zairean rebellion that brought Laurent Kabila and his followers to power. Kagame's main objective was to rid eastern Zaire of Rwandan Hutu rebels. But an unknown number of them have since returned to Rwanda, hiding among its Hutu majority and launching new attacks. Hutus outnumber Tutsis six to one. Kagame has no intention of sharing any real power.

The new four-state African bloc, therefore, emerged from the prior understandings between the men who are now leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia on the one hand, and Uganda and Rwanda on the other. These leaders still disagree on many issues, however. While Rwandan and Eritrean senior officials get along well, Uganda's Museveni is critical of Ethiopia's Meles for encouraging ethnic identity politics that could backfire and divide the country. Similarly, since Kagame's 1994 takeover in Rwanda, some distance has opened up between the Ugandans and the Rwandans. Although Museveni is prone to making indecorous public comments, he privately discouraged Kagame from taking measures that might have provoked France in the former Zaire. Kagame ignored him. In general, Museveni has advocated restraint, while the leaders of the bloc's two smallest countries, Rwanda and Eritrea, have called for action.

For better or worse?

Emerging conflicts have brought the four members of the bloc closer together. Since the late 1980s, Sudan has provided bases and arms to various Islamist and extremist rebel groups launching raids into Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda. After one cross-border attack into Eritrea in December 1994, Isaias took the initiative to strike back. He invited various factions of the Sudanese opposition to Asmara to forge a military alliance and flew to Addis Ababa and Kampala to persuade Ethiopia's Meles and Uganda's Museveni to form a coalition of frontline states. Each, state now provides bases, logistical support, and arms to Sudanese rebel groups operating from its territory, with their combined momentum even drawing U.S. support. In 1997 the Clinton administration's budget for nonlethal military aid to Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda to help fend off rebels backed by Sudan was $20 million.

The former Zaire was a second catalyst of cooperation. While Zaire had long provided bases to rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) fighting the Angolan government along its western border, its own ethnically-driven policies on its eastern border harrowed the terrain for insurrection. Zaire allowed Rwandan rebels to operate from its territory, and Zairean forces joined with these groups in 1995 and 1996 to attack local Tutsis, massacring thousands and displacing as many as 250,000.

Although Laurent Kabila took credit for its success, the Zairean rebellion was a joint effort. Kagame has since admitted that Angola and Uganda provided initial funding. Angola also deployed troops right before the fall of Kinshasa; Rwanda helped plan and execute the operation and provided combat forces. From the beginning, Eritrea provided material support and combat training in eastern Zaire. The operation, while impressive by military standards, exacted a grisly human cost. Evidence suggests that both Kabila's and Kagame's forces hunted down and killed unarmed civilians -- including women and children -- suspected of being, or being associated with, the rebels. Many officers suspected of ordering the killings spoke Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's language. These massacres cast a harsh light on Kagame, Kabila, and the new bloc.

Despite this record, some international observers like the World Bank and Oxfam International, a private anti-hunger consortium, welcome the bloc. They see a new axis emerging across the continent, linking leaders who seek to break the corrupt and colonial ties of the past and ending the vast patronage systems that have undermined African development. For decades, leaders failed to invest in infrastructure, education, health care, or legal and regulatory reform. Nations became aid-dependent, while their leaders established predatory regimes. They used their armies and what judiciaries they had to insulate themselves from any pressure for reform. When challenged, tyrants like Amin, Habyarimana, and Mobutu responded with unspeakable violence.

The legacy of their generation is obscene. Among Sub-Saharan Africa's 590 million people, almost half live on less than one dollar a day and lack safe drinking water. More than one-third have no health care. Tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis, and AIDS run rampant, and preventive measures are minimal. Nearly half the adult population is illiterate, and worker productivity in most countries is among the lowest anywhere. Africa's aggregate per capita income is lower than that of any region but south Asia. In fact, under the last generation of rulers, the continent grew poorer with every passing decade. Even if Africa's aggregate growth doubles over the next nine years, its per capita income in 2006 would still be five percent lower than it was in 1974.

Africa's new leaders aspire to reverse this decline -- to establish what Oxfam calls "new political systems of responsive and accountable government." Interestingly, while all four members of the bloc share this goal, Eritrea and Rwanda have been particularly suspicious of foreign nongovernmental organizations. Neither country is a beggar. In 1996 Rwanda expelled many NGOs, accusing them of aiding rebels. Eritrea accuses NGOs of perpetuating their own existence by creating aid-dependency among its people. In 1996 Eritrea ended food relief programs, and in 1997 it suspended all other activities of NGOS in the country, allowing them to fund, but not operate, health and education projects.

The bloc's four countries encourage development through investment and work rather than through foreign aid. With the exception of Rwanda, whose economy continues to plummet due to the civil war, these countries have seen their economies grow. Ethiopia experienced a 3.4 percent average annual increase in GDP in this decade. Uganda did even better, averaging 6.9 percent growth during the same period, rising to 10 percent in the past two years. This prosperity follows efforts, especially in Uganda, supported by the World Bank and others, to stabilize currencies, sell state-owned enterprises, reduce government budgets, and create a stable business climate designed to attract private capital. Pursuing similar policies, Eritrea has seen recent annual growth of almost 8 percent.

Sub-Saharan Africa now receives only five percent of all direct foreign investment flowing to developing countries. About half of that goes to Nigeria, mainly to extract oil. Nonetheless, South Africa, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana are attracting new investors, and countries like Senegal and Mozambique are trying to. Private capital alone, however, will not eliminate poverty. Oxfam and many other groups urge the World Bank and other Western institutions to use their funds to encourage economic equality, improve health and education, and develop agricultural and other projects that are self-sustaining in the long term.

Economic development should not distract attention from human rights abuses like the Congo's recent massacres. These events, however, should not be seen through an historical lens. Looking at events over time, everyone emerges sullied, including members of the international community. Rwanda's genocide began in April 1994. United Nations peacekeepers were already there, but their force structure and mandate were too feeble to stop the bloodletting. France deployed troops in Rwanda once the genocide was under way, but they set up a safe haven that protected many war criminals. The U.N. Security Council approved France's establishment of a sanctuary. Oxfam and U.N. relief agencies also played host to killers in refugee camps in eastern Zaire.

Almost everyone involved agreed that civilian refugees should be separated from war criminals, but they disagreed on who should do it. When the United Nations in late 1996 decided to deploy a force under Canadian command, its proposed mandate was limited to providing safe corridors for refugees to voluntarily repatriate to Rwanda. It had no authority to segregate them forcibly from the killers who were holding them back. By then Kagame, the Rwandan leader, was fed up. Just as the U.N. force was about to mobilize, Kagame unleashed a rebellion. In less than one month, local Tutsi and Rwandan forces routed the war criminals from the U.N. camps, separating them from most of the refugee population. Half a million refugees returned to Rwanda within three days. The rebellion continued, and, Kabila proclaimed himself its leader.

A member of the Muluba ethnic group from diamond-rich southeastern Zaire, Kabila had participated in several communist-led revolts and an ethnic rebellion. He formed his own revolutionary party in 1968. Although it attracted little support, Kabila financed it through ivory, diamond, and gold smuggling. He remained in relative obscurity until he was recruited by Kagame and others to lead eastern Zaire's Tutsi rebellion. Since assuming power, he has failed to incorporate opposition leaders and other ethnic groups into his movement, raising questions about whether he will be able to control the Congo, one of Africa's largest countries with over 200 ethnic groups. His forces, like Kagame's, have much to answer for concerning human rights, although he has agreed to allow the United Nations to investigate their alleged massacres. But brokered by U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson, the U.N. commission's mandate begins in March 1993, which will enable its members to investigate Rwanda's deadly slide into genocide, as well as subsequent events that precipitated the Congo massacres. Kagame, Kabila, and others have been assured that the antecedents to their own crimes will not be overlooked.

New targets

Although the bloc is cohesive, its influence elsewhere on the continent is modest. Stretching from the Great Lakes region to the Red Sea, its combined forces are one of several major military concentrations in Africa. While together they are stronger than the Sudanese army, they are no match for the armies of South Africa or Nigeria. Economically the bloc is small. Its most militant members, Eritrea and Rwanda, have economies smaller than that of Cyprus. The bloc's two largest countries, Ethiopia and Uganda, have economies that are each less than that of oil-rich Sudan. So far the bloc's influence has been limited to central and eastern Africa as well as the Horn. Nigeria dominates the Economic Community of West African States, and post-apartheid South Africa is a rising force on the continent.

Sudan is next on the bloc's list of targets. For years the Islamist regime, led by General Omar Bashir, has backed fundamentalist rebels in three bloc states and elsewhere, including Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, and the former Somalia. Khartoum was also behind assassination attempts on Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995 and Eritrea's Isaias in Asmara in 1997. Here the bloc and the United States share common interests. Washington is irritated at Sudan's support of individuals like the wealthy Saudi Osama bin Laden, whom the State Department claims has financed terrorism worldwide, and groups including Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, the Palestinian-based Hamas, and Islamist veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

Composed mainly of Muslim Arabs in the north, the Bashir regime has escalated the war against rebel forces in the south. The regime has banned political parties, trade unions, and all other "nonreligious institutions," and has restricted dress and behavior in accordance with Islamic law. Taking some cues from Iran, it has also restricted the press and purged more than 78,000 people from its army, police, and civil service, reshaping the state apparatus to better stifle dissent. The army, faced with unprecedented rebel attacks, has been forced to recruit 14-year-olds to sustain its ranks.

Leaders of Sudan's armed rebels are close to the bloc. John Garang, the commander of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, based mainly in the south, was in a revolutionary study group in Tanzania with Uganda's Museveni. Abdel Aziz Khalid, commander of the Sudan Alliance Forces, a new group based in the east, is a former Sudanese army commander who consults frequently with Eritrea's Isaias. Elsewhere in Africa, another leader compatible with the bloc is Thabo Mbeki, 55, the South African deputy president. More militant than President Nelson Mandela, Mbeki is expected to succeed him in 1999.

The bloc supports change elsewhere in Africa, even in states beyond its reach like Nigeria. Described by one U.S. expert as "a massive criminal enterprise," Nigeria has become a major transit point for heroin from Asia and other drugs en route to Europe and the United States. Led by General Sani Abacha, who seized power in a 1993 coup, Nigeria's regime has killed hundreds of political opponents and imprisoned thousands more, including many members of ethnic minorities. Composed mostly of northerners like Abacha, it has crushed dissent in the country's southeast, especially among the Ogonis, who blame him and his predecessors for destroying their homeland. Ignoring them, Abacha in November 1995 hung Ken Saro-Wiwa, the award-winning writer, along with eight fellow Ogoni activists.

However unlikely the bloc is to effect change in Nigeria, it has already bolstered the opposition in other countries like Kenya. President Moi recently closed the offices of Ugandan rebels in Nairobi, and demonstrators there have begun shouting Kabila's name in the streets. Moi has finally extradited Rwandan rebel leaders to stand trial. As part of its effort to isolate Sudan, the new bloc also seeks influence in the Central African Republic and Chad. In the former Somalia, the bloc plans to help rebuild the state's institutions. On the Horn and elsewhere, it aims to inspire regimes in its image.

Although disorder reigns over much of the continent, Africa's new leaders have begun to fill the vacuum left by the end of the Cold War. While all four members of Africa’s bloc are leery of France for historical reasons, all enjoy warm relations with the United States.

The Clinton administration has embraced the bloc and its allies. Since 1995 U.S. army special forces have been training Kagame's troops in Rwanda. Last December, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. She sidestepped, however, many abuses, including the recent massacres in the Congo, drawing criticism from human rights organizations. Moral versus pragmatic views are at the heart of most foreign policy debates; the most sustainable solutions usually result from a synthesis of both. Such a policy is appropriate for dealing with Africa's new bloc, which is led by market-oriented men who earned their mandates through protracted struggle. Although they still resist foreign guidance on democracy and human rights, they are far more responsive, accountable, and egalitarian than any of their predecessors. Together they comprise a new political-military alliance that is engaged in joint campaigns from the Great Lakes to the Sahara. However imperfect, the bloc changes Africa's balance of power.

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