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Strong Advances Seen in Africa Peace Efforts

Conflicts: The potential for investments and debt relief appears to add to momentum toward deals in a continent long scarred by war.

July 25, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — Breakthroughs this week in peace talks for Sudan and Congo, coupled with continued progress on a cease-fire in Angola, present the best chance in decades to ease the suffering of tens of millions of Africans affected by war, experts say.

Sudan's government and the country's main rebel group declared this weekend that they had agreed on a framework that could end a 19-year civil war in which more than 2 million have died.

Meanwhile, neighboring Congo announced that it is close to ending a conflict that has embroiled the armies of six nations and killed more than 2.5 million Congolese, mainly from disease and starvation.

And the top U.S. State Department official for African affairs was in southern Africa on Wednesday urging rebels and Angola's government to cement an end to a nearly 30-year civil war that has killed an estimated 1.5 million people.

Some Africa-watchers say a new debate about how the continent's 53 countries should pursue economic and political progress may be giving a boost to the various peace talks.

The New Partnership for Africa's Development, an economic plan approved by the African Union this month, calls on nations to end their wars, promote democracy and welcome private investors--in exchange for billions of dollars in investments from the world's richest nations.

The African Union, itself launched this month, has also made it clear that it plans to intervene in the internal affairs of member states to stop human rights abuses, war crimes and genocide. The union's predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, was prevented by its own rules from doing so, even when atrocities occurred.

"There is a feeling among warring parties across Africa that they are being left out of a new momentum taking place in some parts of Africa that may see new levels of investment and debt relief," said Salih Booker, head of Africa Action, a nonprofit Washington group.

World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn reinforced that sentiment when he met in Tanzania this month with the finance ministers of nine war-ravaged countries to discuss how the bank could help reconstruct their economies.

"The issue of peace is something that is in Africa's hands," he said. "What you need to do is to sort out for yourselves the question that killing each other is a lot less preferable to living with each other."

Booker and other Africa specialists say U.S. involvement is crucial to secure final peace deals.

In the Sudan talks, taking place here in Kenya's capital, the U.S. must combine a credible set of incentives with pressure on the government and rebels, said John Prendergast, coordinator of Africa programs for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

"Is Africa going to be the last item on the White House's agenda, or is George Bush himself going to pick up the phone a couple times a week ... make some calls to the leaders, and tell them how important it is that they reach some peace agreement?" asked Prendergast, a top policymaker on Sudan during the Clinton administration.

"The highest level of commitment could help determine whether we have a final and lasting peace deal in the Sudan."

Bush administration officials insist that they are actively engaged in Africa. Three Cabinet members--Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill--have made official visits to Africa, and the White House has announced that Bush will visit next year to highlight free trade, anti-corruption efforts and human rights issues.

The administration is hoping that its involvement in the Sudan peace process could be used as a model for solving other major conflicts in Africa.

"Sudan is one of the longest-lasting and most brutal conflicts on the face of the Earth," said Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of State for African affairs. "If you could put together a Sudan peace process and have a Congo peace process and further the peace emerging in Angola, that would be an incredible swath of Africa that will be turned from war to a peaceful solution. It could bring great improvement to the lives of people in Africa."

At the Sudan talks, U.S. officials helped both sides agree on the two most contentious issues: separation of church and state and self-determination for rebel-controlled areas in the south.

The war, which erupted in 1983, has pitted Sudan's Islamic government in the north against the largely Christian and animist south.

Under the interim deal announced over the weekend, both sides agreed that Islamic law would apply only in the north. The deal calls for a transitional period of six years followed by an internationally supervised referendum in which southerners will vote on whether to secede.

When talks resume next month, the parties are expected to discuss other key issues such as power-sharing and how to allocate revenue from oil fields in the south.

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