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Rethinking Africa's future: What the West can do

For months now a stream of news stories has tracked the progress of armed rebels toward Kinshasa, but few have attempted to predict what will follow the climax of their arrival in the capital of Zaire. That is unfortunate because Americans have new opportunities to influence the story lines of Africa, says Larry Diamond, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The stakes are high, says Diamond, a political scientist who coedits the Journal of Democracy and codirects the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy. Zaire, the richest country in central Africa, has been rendered poor by 30 years of corrupt, American-supported government. It borders on nine African countries and has more than 200 ethnic groups with differing regional and linguistic loyalties.

"If Zaire falls apart, it is possible to imagine refugees streaming in every direction and ethnic and regional conflict spreading out in waves," Diamond says. "That is why Nelson Mandela has invested so much effort in trying to broker a solution."

No one should expect the rebel force to improve conditions of its own accord, Diamond cautions. While there has been a recent wave of "pseudodemocracy" creation in Africa, two-thirds of the continent remains under authoritarian rule and with generally deteriorating respect for all government institutions.

"The political culture in Zaire, shaped by 30 years of venality, gross arbitrariness and abuse of power by Mobutu, is one in which norms of accountability and respect for the law are virtually nonexistent," Diamond said. "As a result, there is very little reason to believe that the rebel movement or its leader Laurent Kabila is likely to be much more respectful of human rights and standards of good governance than Mobutu has been."

More likely, he said, the rebels will simply change the beneficiaries of government corruption if they can hold the state apparatus together. If, however, the international diplomatic community has the will necessary to force the rebels to include unarmed popular elements in a new transition government, Diamond said he believes that Zaire has a chance to be a long-term positive influence on sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps second only to South Africa.

"There is a democratic movement based in the capital that is interested in seeing the country become a democracy, and they are at risk of being shoved aside. I believe our [emissary] Bill Richardson tried to make clear to the rebels when he was in Zaire that there will be major consequences to taking all the power ­ that aid and international cooperation with the new Zairean government will be contingent on including others."

But the United States government has "very little credibility in Zaire so our actions will speak louder than our words," Diamond said. "Because of our historical support of Mobutu's highly abusive regime, the Zairean people believe that the CIA is involved and that Kabila is our instrument."

People-to-people aid

That low credibility, a legacy of both European colonialism and U.S.-Soviet Cold War policy, is one reason that Diamond, in a series of recent essays and lectures here and in Africa, has advocated a kind of people-to-people foreign policy as well as a new "debt for democracy" orientation to governmental and international aid to Africa.

Nascent civic groups ­ women's clubs, labor unions, student groups, bar associations and religious groups ­ are "bubbling up" in Zaire and other African countries, he said, offering grounds for hope. Still small and poor, these organizations and African newspapers and magazines are showing new interest in ending the cycles of corruption and repression. Some groups have begun to monitor and report on their government's behavior while others are involved in educating adults and schoolchildren about democracy. Unlike many African political organizations that were formed to win power for a particular group, these newer civic organizations have attempted to incorporate different interests, including people who have been left out of politics in the past, especially women, Diamond said. "They need small amounts of assistance to operate. I would like to see us increase by a factor of 10 or 20 our assistance to civic organizations, and reduce much of our larger amounts of assistance to governments."

What Diamond has in mind are competitive grants of $25,000 to $50,000 from non-governmental organizations here and in other wealthier countries. The money, he said, could include U.S. government aid but it should be awarded through non-governmental organizations. They are likely to be better respected in Africa and to do a better job of selecting and observing how recipients use the assistance. As examples, he cited the democracy-promotion arms of the Republican and Democratic parties and Transparency International, an international group that seeks to establish national chapters and forge coalitions to gradually squeeze corporations and governments who engage in bribery and other corrupt practices in developing countries.

But Diamond says that building good government from the grassroots up won't work if the top leadership of democratic countries doesn't also provide rewards for progress toward good government and punishments for any repressive backsliding.

Scholar's changing views

In one sense American social scientists have been partly responsible for the lack of will at the top. Their theories have buttressed policies of aid to authoritarian leaders. Postwar economic growth theory, for example, held that providing capital was sufficient to spur economic growth in poverty-stricken countries. Conventional political science theory posits that countries need to be reasonably rich before democracy will stick, and political scientists have viewed Africa's prospects as particularly grim because of its deep ethnic divisions. Furthermore, many scholars have been impressed by the economic success of East Asia ­ under the leadership of dictators.

Diamond says he and a growing number of African scholars believe that Africa will not develop economically unless it can also build its democratic capabilities. Asian authoritarian leaders built rule-based institutions that curbed corruption and limited the arbitrary power of government, he said, while Africa has seen nothing but decades of arbitrary corruption and favoritism.

"Because of those entrenched patterns of abusive state power that date back to colonial governance, Africa needs democracy and the rule of law more than any other region in the world," he wrote in a recent essay. "Any economic assistance given there must be seriously tied to conditions aimed at institutionalizing the structures for what is called good governance."

By structures, Diamond means both more and less than holding elections. Promoting democratic elections has become a cornerstone of American foreign policy but elections alone are not likely to bring real change, he says.

The global "third wave" of democratization reached Africa in 1990 beginning with the release of Nelson Mandela. The number of constitutionally prescribed one-party states fell from 29 in 1989 to none by 1994, but Diamond says many are only "pseudodemocracies." As in Mexico for decades, the ruling party uses control over financial, administrative and coercive apparatus of the government to intimidate and handicap opponents so they have no realistic prospect of winning power. Electoral fraud plays a role but often "the game is rigged well before election day" in such countries as Senegal, Kenya, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Chad.

In designing democratic institutions for Africa, Diamond stresses the importance of getting the structural details right. In general, that means structures quite different from America's own.

Electoral districts like those in the United States, where one person is chosen to represent a geographical area, encourage efficiency and accountability but they also leave minorities without a voice, he said. "Majoritarian systems are ill-advised for countries with deep ethnic, regional, religious or other emotional and polarizing divisions." In most of Africa, it is probably better to have proportional representation where not only the highest vote-getter wins a seat.

Presidential systems, although popular among African political leaders, are also probably not good for Africa. Even if a broad coalition has to be assembled to elect a president, many voters still perceive that a candidate from only one ethnic group has won control of the government, which was a factor in the Nigerian military's overthrow of that country's democratic government. For similar reasons, Diamond advocates federalism for Africa ­ giving local communities control over local affairs, such as their schools.

In Zaire, it will take at least six months after the rebels arrive in the capital to reconstruct the state apparatus and then another six months to organize elections, he said. A democratic outcome is unlikely this time around because it would require "a massive international presence ­ I mean thousands of international observers, substantial technical assistance to civil social organizations and very strong international pressure to allow participation. I don't think the international community is sufficiently farsighted to make that kind of commitment yet."

A more realistic first step, he said, is for the U.S. State Department to appoint an assistant secretary for African affairs who has both the ear of the president and the international prestige to begin building a sustained policy of rewarding small steps toward democracy and consistent punishment for any backsliding.

"The key is to keep the system moving forward, to institutionalize whatever fragments or parts of democracy may have emerged, and to avoid their displacement, perversion or terrorism by yet another in a long succession of military or executive coups," he wrote.

"As much as anything, Africa needs time to work with and become habituated to democratic institutions, to shape them to fit its particular cultural and political circumstance."


By Kathleen O'Toole