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AFRICA : The 'Dinosaur' Dictators Outlast Colonial Powers : France, in particular, is stymied by them. Reform fatigue may be helping to prevent their ouster.


PARIS — Just four years ago, President Francois Mitterrand lost patience with human rights abuses in Zaire, Gabon and Togo and vowed to work for the ouster of those countries' dictators.

This week, though, in the French resort of Biarritz, those same dictators again were enjoying head-of-state perks at the Franco-African summit--still in power and still supping with Mitterrand and top French officials.

" Les dinosaures, " as Mitterrand once called them, have survived, proving themselves tougher than any former colonial power. But their resilience also suggests that France, the United States and others in the West, horrified by the anarchy in Somalia and the bloodshed in Rwanda, have grown weary of the battle for democracy in Africa.

Despite the success of democratic transitions in South Africa, Niger, Mali and several other countries, a kind of reform fatigue now grips Africa. The democratic process has failed in Zaire, Nigeria, Gabon and Togo, where the strongmen prevail.

And the pressure for political change, after four years of painful pro-democracy moves, has eased across Africa.

Zaire's leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, is a case in point. In his 29 years in power, Mobutu has amassed a vast fortune at the expense of his people.

Bernard Kouchner, head of the French aid agency Doctors Without Borders, once described Mobutu as "a traveling safe wearing a leopard-skin cap."

But Mobutu, once ostracized by the French and on the verge of being overthrown four years ago by his own military, was welcomed back to the Franco-African summit this week. The official reason: gratitude for his logistics support for French forces in Rwanda and his modest moves toward political and economic reform.

Even U.S. diplomats who once demanded Mobutu's ouster now seem willing to accept his attempt at sharing power with opposition Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo. The Clinton Administration's new policy is to strengthen the hand of Dondo, hoping that Mobutu will disappear. But Africa experts contend that strategy can only help Mobutu, who wants nothing so much as acceptance in Washington and Paris.

To be sure, Africa has undergone some positive political changes in recent years. Peaceful changes of government, something unheard of on the continent before 1990, have occurred in at least a dozen countries, from Zambia and Malawi to Mali and Ivory Coast.

But fraudulent elections have restored autocratic rulers to power in other countries, such as Kenya. Much-heralded elections in Angola disintegrated into civil war when the loser refused to accept his fate.

In July, there was a coup in Gambia, which occurred just as the U.S. ambassador showed up for a meeting at the presidential palace. (The envoy and the deposed president left by boat together.)

And the man who won Nigeria's free, democratic elections 17 months ago has been jailed by the general who still runs that country.

In France, the country most deeply involved in Africa, the departure next year of Mitterrand, after 14 years in power, also signals a change, diplomats say.

The paternalism and friendship that Mitterrand and his predecessors fostered will end, replaced by a policy based more on hard-headed business interests than personal ties.

The result: France will again be doing business with people such as Mobutu, Omar Bongo in Gabon and Gnassingbe Eyadema in Togo.

Liberation, a Paris daily newspaper, has dubbed this new policy "rehabilitation for services rendered."

France, like the United States, has often been willing to ignore human rights shortcomings of its friends in Africa in exchange for strategic and economic concessions. It strongly supported the now-deposed Hutu government in Rwanda for years, for example.

Now the French face questions about their policy in Rwanda, the only French-speaking African country not invited to this week's summit.

France was the first Western nation to send troops to help stem the killing in Rwanda in the spring.

Although the government said its mission was humanitarian, many analysts saw it as an attempt to prop up the Hutus. Now Paris considers the new Tutsi-dominated government to be unstable.

In fact, France's intervention in Africa has long been humanitarian--laced with self-interest. And whatever Mitterrand's successor does in Africa, he will find his policies criticized, analysts say.

As Mitterrand's office complained in a memorandum distributed recently, "Either France is accused of intervening too much or of letting Africa drop."

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