Why Africa is in agony

The plight of Somalia has shocked the world. But, Mark Huband says, food airlifts can’t disguise the fact that the seeds of Africa’s current destruction were sown by Western powers eager to do business with dictators


IT IS difficult to look at the US humanitarian effort to Somalia without wondering why it is being done. It was announced two weeks ago by President Bush in response to the sudden upsurge in a famine which has been present in the country for a year. State Department staff were given three days to plan it, and the first transport aircraft arrived in the Kenyan city of Mombasa three days later. The first food – 200 tonnes of split peas – arrived in the north Kenyan town of Wajir three days after that. But most of the US food still has not arrived, and will not do so before the US fiscal year starts in October. Meanwhile the Americans will airlift food taken from World Food Programme provisions sent for shipment to Somalia.

Among the more cynical aid workers in Mogadishu there is a question being asked: who will be the first among them to hear President Bush at an election rally mention his relief aid to Somalia? This question has often been followed by the question of why it was so badly organised (the Kenyan government has accused the US of encroaching on its airspace by bringing in the transport aircraft without permission).

The muddled organisation, the sudden interest in a famine the world – and certainly the US government – has known about for months, the sudden availability of food to a former cold war ally just as an election in the US is drawing closer all build up a rather shady picture of White House motives. Moreover, these elements in the US approach raise the issue of what responsibility the cold war’s victor has in small, insignificant countries whose internal problems must be seen as having been exacerbated by their relationship to the superpowers.

In Africa there are three such countries – Somalia, Chad and Liberia. All have declined into tribal conflict as a result of dictatorship having stunted their development during the post-colonial period. All have had these conflicts made worse by the presence of modern weapons provided by the superpowers or their allies. All are faced, or will be, with the prospect of having to rebuild long after overseas interest in their strategic importance to the East or the West has disappeared.

Somalia’s former dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, seized power in a military coup in 1969. Throughout his 21-year dictatorship, during which his human rights record became legendary for its abuses, he played the US and the former Soviet Union against each other. The Kremlin poured in $3 billion-worth of weapons and military advisers until Somalia’s conflict with the neighbouring Marxist government of Ethiopia forced Barre to look to the West for assistance. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the US readily embraced him within its Middle East strategy.

Barre was able to use the superpower conflict to fight regional disputes. The 1977-79 Ogaden war opened with a rapid Somali invasion of the desert which it had long claimed as part of Somalia and where many Somalis now live. The rapidity of the invasion was facilitated by the sophisticated weaponry Barre had received from the Soviet Union, and would never have been possible if he had not played on Somalia’s strategic importance within the Horn of Africa.

Similarly, Chad’s former dictator Hissene Habre used his country’s long border with Libya as a trump card in his calls for the weapons, originating in France but bought with American money, which kept him in power until he was toppled in December 1990.

Within the past month, the government of President Idriss Deby, which overthrew Habre, has been faced with the most concerted upsurge in tribally-based rebellions in the south of the country since it took power. Deby arrived in Chad equipped by Libya, which meant he could contend with Habre’s western-supplied army. Now the country is awash with weapons in the hands of tribal leaders who have little intention of supporting Deby’s attempts at keeping the country together. As a bureaucracy it has already fallen apart.

TRIBALLY-based civil war has split Liberia for more than two years. Between 1981-85, the US gave the atrocious government of Samuel Doe $500m in foreign aid. Although by 1987 the US was unable to continue justifying aid to Doe, the wheels of his corrupt and brutal 10 years in office had already been sufficiently well-oiled for him to cling to power for three more years.

As an example of the identity crisis many African countries have or have had as a result of the force of foreign influence, Liberia is incomparable. So desperate was the US to prevent Liberia falling under the influence of Colonel Gadafy that in 1981 it sent a special envoy to the capital Monrovia to convince Doe he should abandon plans to visit Tripoli on a state visit.

He was given several million dollars as a sweetener and never went to Libya.

Cheap, unprincipled politics of the kind played by the superpowers in the most vulnerable, underdeveloped and tribally-complex countries of Africa has now created the need for more than long-overdue gestures of goodwill when millions of people are facing starvation. Pressure within the US for more public admissions of responsibility for the affect superpower strategies had on Africa appears to be minimal. Press coverage of Africa in the US is rarely analytical, as the issues are complex and, in the case of Somalia, Chad and Liberia, the countries are economically irrelevant.

While it would be naive to deny that the character of the dictators who ran these three countries was the product of their own countries, the destruction they wrought and the fracturing of the societies they led were carried out on a scale which would have been impossible were it not for the external resources they received. Foreign aid used to be the weapon supplied to African countries who showed themselves prepared to toe the line on political dogma.

Now, as these countries slide off the political map amid apparently endless, obscure and violent conflicts, their crises suggest a new pattern in Africa’s painful development which will require more and more support from the West. To ensure the provision of the real amount of assistance needed, the countries who hold so much of the responsibility for Africa’s plight must first admit their role in sowing seeds of the current destruction.

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