Our Role in Rebuilding Africa

August 23, 2004

Howard Dean

By Gov. Howard Dean M.D.

The American government's record on encouraging self-reliance and prosperity in Africa is dismal. During the Cold War, our main interest in Africa was to use it as a chess board to counter the ambitions of other players, especially the former Soviet Union and China, and to remove her natural resources with total indifference toward ordinary Africans.

Since the Cold War ended, however, we have at least shifted toward neutral. President Clinton began a reorientation of our policy towards encouraging American trade and investment in Africa. We have gone from President Reagan's refusal to oppose apartheid to an active, although bumpy partnership with the South African government in the area of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. Among the most promising developments in Africa are in Ghana, Mali and Senegal, where democracy is taking root. There, elected governments have handed power peacefully to newly-elected opposition parties.

There are many things the U.S. can do to help the emergence of stable democratic governments in Africa. Micro-lending programs ought to be better funded. The U.S., instead of opposing family planning, ought to support it. We need to change our agricultural policies. We also need to make lending programs contingent on good government practices, and create a form of international bankruptcy court, so that emerging democracies are not saddled with the enormous debts left to them by previously corrupt autocratic governments. This would have the additional salutary effect of making international lenders more prudent about loans.

But African governments need to do their part. The Colonial past of Africa drags on her economy mightily, but the examples of Mali, Senegal and Ghana show that African nations are emerging from the political legacy of colonialism which mostly ended 40 years ago.

In keeping with what I wrote last week, criticizing European leaders and others for not dealing with the government sponsored genocide in Sudan, let me now prod those recalcitrant African leaders to become more willing to intervene to stop anti-democratic behavior in their own backyard. The massacres in Sudan are one such example. Zimbabwe is another.

President Robert Mugabe, once hailed as the leader who drove the racist leadership of Ian Smith from power in what was then southern Rhodesia, has now become a caricature of a leader who has hung on so long using violence, murder and voter fraud that he is actually leaving the standard of living of his people lower than when he took power 30 years ago. He has undone most of the good he once accomplished.

Yet many African leaders, particularly in South Africa, which has not only the strongest economy, but probably the greatest moral authority on the continent, refuse to confront Mugabe directly.

I suspect this is a hangover from the Colonial era, when the need for solidarity in the common struggle against occupying and exploiting Western nations resulted in African leaders overlooking their own human rights violations. African leaders need to confront failing states like Zimbabwe and their leaders, especially when there is well-developed leadership in opposition, which is the case in Zimbabwe.

If democracy is to succeed in Africa, it will only be so because Africans make it so. The one lesson of the Colonial period in African history that should never be forgotten is that change will only happen when Africans cause it to happen. All the goodwill which might come from an American administration under a new president will not be sufficient if Africans themselves do not insist on confronting the problems left over from colonialism on their own. The Sudan is one of those problems. Robert Mugabe is another.

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, is the founder of Democracy for America, a grassroots organization that supports socially progressive and fiscally responsible political candidates.
Email Howard Dean at howarddean@democracyforamerica.com
Copyright 2004 Howard Dean, All Rights Reserved.
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