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Rallying Point for Black America

The sub-Saharan continent gets less U.S. attention than some European countries, yet offers worthy opportunities.

March 23, 1997|JOHN J. JOHNSON and CHARLES J. BROWN | John J. Johnson, director of programs for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and Charles J. Brown, director of Training for Freedom House, returned recently from East Africa

Last week, before setting out on a two-week tour of sub-Saharan Africa, Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke to a large crowd gathered at the State Department to celebrate International Women's Day. She berated those present for failing to show much interest in the continent. "Africa has a remarkable story to tell," she noted, "if we will only pay attention to it."

Sadly, the first lady's assessment is truer than many care to admit. American perceptions of Africa tend toward the extreme--neo-Hobbesian visions of a unitary and impenetrable failed "state" or romantic notions of a cultural oasis populated by paragons ranging from Nelson Mandela to Kunta Kinte. The mistaken impression that the continent cannot be salvaged--reinforced by recent tragedies in Rwanda and Zaire--has not helped. Nor has the memory of a failed U.S. intervention in Somalia.

But stories of genocide and war remain the exception, not the rule. Africa over the past decade has witnessed a democratic revolution that extends beyond Mandela's South Africa to Benin, Mali, Namibia and Madagascar, among others. Uganda and Ghana have enjoyed economic growth that rivals Asia's aspiring tigers. Why are these parts of the story not heard?

It would be too easy to blame racism in the United States. Racism did not prevent this country's response to famine in Ethiopia or to outrages in apartheid-era South Africa. The answer is a failure to mobilize support. Despite the efforts of leaders like Kweisi Mfume, Andrew Young, Randall Robinson and Melvin Foote, Africa has been abandoned by policy experts, foundations, intellectuals and, most important, by African Americans.

As a result, building a prosperous and peaceful Africa remains a low priority in U.S. foreign policy, evidenced by the latest budget submitted to Congress. Assistance to Africa, including development aid, humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, military training, anti-terrorism, anti-narcotics operations and the Peace Corps, totals $1.1 billion, less than 6% of the foreign-affairs budget. Efforts to further democracy get a meager $25 million. In contrast, Poland receives $31 million, Haiti $70 million and Armenia $80 million.

These figures are not coincidental. There is a direct relationship between foreign aid and domestic politics. Take, for example, Armenia, a country whose population is smaller than 35 African states, and whose geopolitical, economic and strategic value is arguably minimal. Yet Armenia ranks among the top 10 countries receiving U.S. assistance. The reason? Well-organized Armenian-American advocacy organizations have leveraged their limited constituency's clout in Congress.

Africa will not receive the assistance it deserves unless African Americans organize to support it. Those who scoff at this idea have forgotten the anti-apartheid struggle, which succeeded in part because African Americans educated themselves (and others) about the issue, organized and then used their clout--political and economic--to change U.S. policy.

That having been said, the anti-apartheid movement succeeded because it gave activists a lens through which they could focus their energies.

African Americans, unlike their counterparts in ethnic communities, do not have the luxury of building consensus around a single nation. Africa may work as a vague ideal, but it will fail as an organizing principle. If African Americans are to help the continent, they must develop a coherent strategy with limited objectives.

They also must set aside outdated perceptions. Before the end of apartheid, many African American leaders hesitated to criticize black-on-black political persecution and dictatorship, choosing to concentrate on the outrages in South Africa. In the three years since Mandela's triumph, few have turned their attention to the rest of the continent. African Americans must jettison such reluctance, as it does nothing to hide the continent's problems or highlight its achievements.

So where to begin? Promoting democracy and free markets would be a good start. Focusing on the success stories--democratic market economies like Benin and Namibia or countries in transition like Uganda and Eritrea--would help refute arguments that Africa is beyond hope. It would enhance the Clinton administration's stated goal of enlarging the international community of free market democracies. It would open up an untapped market, the U.S. share of which is only 7%. Perhaps most important, it would create a series of stable, peaceful market democracies.

Black religious institutions and civil rights organizations like the NAACP should take the lead in building a multiracial coalition capable of convincing Congress and the administration that a comprehensive package of development and democratic assistance to Africa's market democracies is in the economic, political and national security interests of the United States. Anything less will guarantee that an Africa abandoned will be a U.S. nightmare revisited.

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