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Regional Outlook : Western Aid Buys Lots of African Reforms : Democracy is moving forward on the continent, but not without the influence of the economic carrot.

December 17, 1991|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — A few days after President Daniel Arap Moi announced the re-establishment of multi-party democracy in this country, thousands of Kenyans gathered for a demonstration downtown.

Chanting slogans in support of a key opposition organization, they massed in front of a landmark of the movement: the American Embassy. Then they began an impromptu serenade, as it were, of Ambassador Smith Hempstone Jr.

"Hempstone juu, Hempstone juu, " the demonstrators chanted in Swahili: "Up with Hempstone!" Finally the ambassador, a former conservative newspaper columnist, came out to give the crowd a wave from behind a wire-mesh grate.

It was a new sensation for a diplomat who just a few weeks earlier had been vilified by the Kenyan government as a "racist" with a "slave-owner's mentality"--all because of his position as the Western ambassador most outspokenly critical of Moi's autocratic policies and deteriorating human rights record.

But the pro-American demonstration also reflected a discomfiting truth about the democracy movement in this country, as well as elsewhere in Africa: It could not have been so successful without the overt support of European and American governments.

Nowhere is that as plainly evident as in Kenya, where Moi's staunch resistance to multi-party democracy--he called its supporters "anarchists" and "rats"--made him an increasingly lonely figure in African politics.

Then came Nov. 25 and a meeting in Paris of Kenya's Western donors, the source of the country's more than $800 million in annual foreign aid. Sorely tried by Moi's recent crackdown on the opposition and by Kenya's declining economy, the donors--led by the World Bank--said there would be no new assistance to Kenya for at least six months, unless Moi put his house in order.

One week later, Kenya's sole legal party agreed to end its political monopoly, allowing opposition groups to form for the first time since 1982.

African leaders grumble about the Western role in their continent's wave of political reforms, and dissidents express gratitude. But both sides are well aware that the situation only proves that Africa is so marginal geopolitically and so dependent on Western aid that the developed countries can still call the shots in most African countries.

Over the last two years, 21 African countries have formally or implicitly abandoned their traditional one-party systems amid important changes in their relationships with Western donor countries and international finance institutions. Many other regimes are facing unprecedentedly strong opposition movements.

In some cases, the West has withdrawn the military and covert support that helped dictators maintain power--a key development in the former French colonies of West Africa and in Zaire. In many others, donors have precipitated political change by attaching firm new conditions to their aid programs, sometimes making explicit threats that continued autocracy would lead to a cutoff of funds.

That the West has come to use its authority to promote laudable aims does not obscure the dangers of such a one-sided relationship, say many African observers.

"It's a positive step that they're using their leverage this way," says Richard Joseph, director of the African Governance Program at Emory University in Atlanta. "But ultimately the donor countries are all still acting in their own interests. They're more interested now in trying to see more productive economies emerge in these countries."

Just because the West's interests and those of native Africans happen to coincide now, he observes, does not mean they always will--or always have.

In fact, the very political reforms being wrought under such foreign urging may themselves change the relationship between African governments and their donors. If truly representative governments replace the autocratic one-party regimes of today, they may be less likely--or less able--to accept harsh Western prescriptions, which create political strains at home, for their domestic policies.

They may also become less willing to accept aid packages that benefit donor countries more than their own, such as programs that require recipients to spend donated funds on equipment or goods manufactured in the donor country.

Of course, it would be incorrect to say that Western pressure is exclusively responsible for the growth of pro-democracy movements in Africa. Most of these are genuinely indigenous, even if they have drawn strength from political developments elsewhere on the globe. The determination and courage of African dissidents was widely recognized during the decades in which they were harshly repressed, exiled, even assassinated (sometimes with Western complicity).

And it is unlikely that the West would be pressing Africa's autocrats so hard to change unless concurrent pressure was being applied domestically.

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