Eyewitnesses said it was horrifying. Bullets and artillery rounds whizzed through the air. Bodies lay sprawled amid broken glass and spent shells, luckless civilians caught in the cross fire of yet another African power struggle negotiated with weapons rather than words. Until a few weeks ago, Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, boasted calm tree-lined boulevards and Parisian-style cafés that served croissants and coffee to businessmen and diplomats. But the calm was shattered when President Pascal Lissouba sent his soldiers to the home of his political rival, former president Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, and tried to take away his private militia. As battle erupted, French troops led evacuations last week of more than 1,000 foreigners trapped in their homes watching the tracer fire streak past their windows.
About 3,400 km to the northwest along Africa’s Atlantic coast, the tiny republic of Sierra Leone was in the throes of a similar crisis. In Freetown, junior army officers had freed hundreds of convicts from the capital’s jail, including Maj. Johnny Paul Koromah. He was being held for participating in a coup, and when he was liberated he staged another one—against the elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Koromah joined up with leftist rebels, but they failed to maintain control of the city. As in Brazzaville, fighting in the streets led foreign
troops—this time American—to evacuate about 2,400 foreigners.
Across the Congo River from Brazzaville, President Laurent Kabila was still consolidating power in the country previously known as Zaïre and now, confusingly, as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The former rebel leader was also facing sharp international questions about the claimed massacres of Rwandan Hutu refugees in the east of the country. In toppling longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in May, Kabila had liberated the continent’s third-largest country, and, in effect, unchoked the heart of Africa. But his commitment to democracy and human rights, though declared, was still unproven.
The events in all three countries showed how the power of the gun is still paramount in much of Africa. But across the continent, there is an increasing determination to curb that power so that nations can finally advance in a new age of globalized trade. “The old ways must change from single parties and military dictatorships to pluralist democratic governments, and the means of changing this is the ballot,” says Sam Mwale, director of the Policy Research Group of Nairobi. “We need to decide what exactly democracy should be in an African context—and how we can have leaders who are secure with the ballot and don’t need to fear the boys in the barracks.”
As events last week showed, that is no easy task. In Brazzaville, it was the run-up to a planned July presidential election that precipitated the violence. Amid calls for a ceasefire, government forces and rival militias known as “Cobras” and “Ninjas” ruled the streets. Authorities said the death toll could run into the hundreds, even thousands. In Sierra Leone, people continued to flee Freetown in the wake of the May 25 coup. Residents said robberies, murders and rapes were frequently carried out by armed men, some believed to be criminals released in Koromah’s jailbreak. His coup ended, for the moment at least, a brief period of democracy for the impoverished but mineral-rich country. Kabbah was elected in 1996 after the first free elections in more than 30 years, while Nigerian troops separated warring factions.
Leaders vow to curb the power of the gun
But the Sierra Leone episode provoked an unusually stern response at a summit of the Organization for African Unity in Harare, Zimbabwe, early this month. “Africa can no longer accept the seizure of power by the gun,” said United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana, who attended the meeting. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, chairman of the organization and himself a former guerrilla leader, concurred. “We are getting tougher and tougher each time,” he said.
“There’s a new attitude to coups and illegal governments.”
The organization’s solution was hardly a masterpiece of consistency, however. Sanctioning military force to end the Sierra Leone coup, the summit entrusted the job to Nigerian troops, who have remained in the country. Their commander-in-chief is ruthless Gen. Sani Abacha, who came to power in 1993—in a coup. “There is massive irony there,” says Greg Mills, director of the South African Institute for International Affairs. “Abacha is trying to reinstate democracy which he does not have at home.” Mugabe and other organization officials reject that line of thinking, because Abacha has promised a presidential election in Nigeria by October, 1998.
Western governments remain involved in the continent as they have been since colonial days. But now, they are more likely to use financial pressure rather than military might to pursue trade and push democracy. In Kabila’s Congo, international aid will be linked to his dedication to democracy and his human rights record. Last week, he agreed to allow a UN team to investigate reports that his mainly Tutsi rebels have systematically killed thousands of Hutu refugees in recent months. And diplomats are trying to ensure that even though Kabila came to power by force, he will be legitimized with the ballot, as have leaders in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda. In his inauguration speech last month, Kabila vowed to hold pres-
idential and parliamentary elections in April, 1999.
Yet no matter what happens, Mobutu’s downfall has unleashed a host of possibilities for free trade in the region. His former enemies, leaders from Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia, all attended Kabila’s inauguration and are Kabila allies. Uganda’s president, Lieut.-Gen. Yoweri Museveni, said that with Kabila in power, a hole in Africa had been filled, paving the way for an African common market that could link the east to the west, and central Africa to the southern regions. As the old Cold War political rivalries fade into history, commerce is taking the dominant role in how the West views Africa, says Canada’s deputy high commissioner to Kenya, Paul Haddow. ‘We have moved from aid to trade,” he says. “Governments have to attract business. To do that, they have to have stable regimes.”
Many African leaders seem to understand that. “I think there is a second wind beginning to come,” says Robert Shaw, a member of the political opposition in Kenya, where President Daniel Arap Moi is under increasing pressure to liberalize. “It’s more than just democracy. It’s a new generation of people, more proactive with ideas and more willing to run a nation like a country rather than a fiefdom. Like Museveni. With him the country seems to come first rather than the leaders.”
Uganda’s Museveni took control after a coup in 1985. Last year, he was elected president, and a referendum on allowing political parties to resume activities is set for 1999. Although Museveni does not practise the democracy common in the West, he is seen by many as the new breed of African leader, who could ultimately help bring Africa the political stability it has lacked for decades. “Museveni is getting there,” says analyst Mwale. “Somewhere in the process for growth he will find a model that reflects Ugandan characteristics and will uphold the ideals of democracy, and he will make it work.” Western governments say they want to encourage African leaders to make their own decisions. In Brazzaville, French troops avoided taking sides, despite a history of political interference in Africa. In Sierra Leone, U.S. forces also concentrated on the rescue effort. To Mwale, the hands-off attitude is right. Democracy has faltered in Africa, he argues, because it is transplanted from the West. As Africans work towards building institutions reflecting their own history and cultures, he suggests, the next generation of leaders may finally build governments that can endure challenges from within.
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