July 14, 2003
MIAMI - Illustrating the maxim that all politics are local, American politicians used to lavish attention during election years on the `three I's' - Israel, Ireland, and Italy. Today, Israel remains in first place, but thanks to demographic changes , Africa and Mexico have replaced Ireland and Italy.
Last week, President George Bush, who is campaigning for re-election, voyaged to Africa on a self-described mission to promote democracy, and combat AIDS, terrorism, and poverty. Before leaving, Bush, whose strong suit is not geography, proclaimed, `Africa is a nation with a lot of diseases.'
Bush's African trip may win away a few black votes from the Democrats. Bill Clinton made a similar pre-election media safari. But Bush's trip was aimed more at his missionary-minded, Bible Belt core supporters, riled up by their preacher's dire warnings that `evil' Islam is devouring sub-Saharan Africa.
The trip was also about securing new, non-Mideastern oil supplies for the power-insatiable US, and opening up the world's last big, untapped market to US business. Bush's promise of US $15 billion to combat AIDS in black Africa was a laudable, desperately-needed effort that may help counteract the negative worldwide image of the US that President Bush has fostered.
But once the Great White Father from Washington returns home, Africa's problems will continue to fester. Liberia, the focus of current attention, is an egregious example. The West African state was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves. The ex-slaves, in a telling comment on human nature, promptly enslaved local tribes, formed a dynasty, and turned the country into a plantation run by Firestone Tire Company. The `American' oligarchy was overthrown in a bloody 1980 coup by an illiterate, syphilitic soldier, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe.
Before Doe, the decrepit capitol, Monrovia (named after US President James Monroe), had a whiff of civilization. The demented Doe brought in fellow tribesmen from the stone-age interior, turning Liberia into an even scarier, more wretched place than Idi Amin's Uganda or Papa Doc's Haiti. President Ronald Reagan received Doe at the White House, unfortunately referring to him as `my very good friend, Chairman Mo.'
Doe was overthrown in 1990 by rebels led by former US-resident Charles Taylor, and forced, while being videotaped, to eat his ears and other body parts, then killed.
Taylor, who was much smarter than Doe, is blamed for stirring civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Bush has demanded he quit office and may send US troops to Liberia. Unlike the imperial adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, US intervention in Liberia would be a true `liberation' and genuine humanitarian mission. Only western troops can bring law and order to anarchic Liberia.
But intervention in Liberia will not begin to address Africa's many miseries. Africa's underlying problem, as this writer found covering the continent's wars, is rotten government, rampant corruption, tribalism, disorder, disease, and a runaway birth rate that gobbles up any scant economic progress.
Oil-rich Nigeria, black Africa's most populous nation, and Olympic scam champion - `hello, I am the daughter of Jonas Savimbi' or `make $30 million from frozen bank accounts,' is a chaotic mass of corruption, ethnic hatreds, and political chicanery. ,
Liberia, Sierra Leone and now Ivory Coast are terrorized by gangs of heavily armed teenage thugs crazed on palm beer and potent marijuana. Congo, Africa's heartland, is being ravaged by tribal warfare and plundering neighbors. Rwanda risks new genocide. Zimbabwe and Ethiopia face famine.
The old order, where respected tribal chiefs ruled and administered justice, is breaking down, replaced by corrupt officials, urban gangs, and anarchy. Farmers have been ruined by high western tariffs and surplus foodstuffs dumped on Africa by the Europe and the US. Governments across the continent are totally addicted to cash handouts from abroad.
Parts of black Africa have regressed economically, politically and socially since independence in the 1960's. Slavery and colonialism left pernicious legacies, to be sure, but the main blame lies with Africans themselves. In the 1980's, UN experts estimated that Angola alone, if properly run and farmed, could easily feed all black Africa. Yet today, after untold billions in aid, and endless conferences, Africans continue to starve and suffer.
Attempts by African states and ill-trained UN peacekeeping forces to deal with Africa's war-torn regions have failed. However, small numbers of troops from former colonial powers France, Britain, and Belgium, have been highly successful in imposing order and driving off armed rabble. Now, sub-Saharan Africa may well be heading towards re-colonialization by western powers, a renewed version of what Kipling called `the white man's burden,' where permanent garrisons of mobile western troops keep the Pax Americana and impose law and order.
Bush made his longest stop in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, the world's most respected and venerated figure after Pope John Paul II, refused to meet with Bush and instead left the country. Both Mandela and the Pope condemned Bush's war against Iraq in the strongest possible terms. Mandela's pointed departure was not a proud moment for the USA.
Bush's aides may sneer Mandela has neither divisions nor billions. True enough. But when old lion Mandela roars, all Africa listens.