WHILE the gory and brutal turmoil in South Africa has grabbed the daily headlines, the recent military coup in Uganda, in good part the result of tribal rivalries, calls attention to another, less well-known but very important part of Africa -- central Africa, once known as the heart of ``The Dark Continent'' because of its isolation. This is an area that the Soviet Union is trying hard to penetrate. While we often think of Africa as a single entity, there are actually three distinct and quite different Africas, each the product of a different evolutionary history:
Arab Africa. Bounded in the north by the Mediterranean and in the south by the Sahara and stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea is Arab Africa. Its inhabitants, though differing, are joined by the Islamic religion and a common language. Nationalism comes naturally to them, for they are the products of ancient and highly developed civilizations that flourished centuries ago from Egypt to Morocco.
European Africa. At the southern end of the continent is European Africa, originally sparsely inhabited but colonized during the past 500 years by the Dutch, Portuguese, and British, who imposed their European type of colonial rule on the inhabitants. Until recently European Africa consisted of the Union of South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique. But with the end of the colonial era after World War II and independence for Angola, Mozambique, and
Southern Rhodesia, European Africa has shrunk to the Union of South Africa.
Central Africa. Sandwiched between Arab North Africa and European southern Africa, stretching from the 20th parallel north to the 20th parallel south, lies the great expanse of central Africa. Today this important region includes more than 30 nations, many of them small and relatively unknown, such as Benin, Niger, Chad, and Mali. To understand why central Africa is so unstable and different from the north and the south, one must recall its unique history.
In contrast to the ancient and highly developed national civilizations in North Africa and the 500-year-old European systems in the south, the peoples of isolated central Africa were never exposed to the outside world until late in the last century. Their political and other institutions had never risen above the tribal level. If colonialism had not intervened, national systems might have one day evolved from tribal structures. That was not to be, however, for in the late 19th century the European col onial powers pushed into central Africa with only one thought in mind -- to grab as much territory as possible. There was no thought of tribal or ethnic borders as they pushed forward until they ran into the forces of competing European powers, which led to incidents and tensions between them.
To avoid the danger of colonial rivalries in Africa escalating into conflict in Europe, the European colonial powers called the Berlin Conference of 1885 to divide up central Africa. In the ensuing division, no attention was paid to traditional tribal boundaries or homogeneity of race or language. Each country was simply awarded the territories that its forces had seized. The result was colonial borders that fragmented tribes, dividing them among several different colonies. So when colonialism ended and
the old colonial borders became the new national borders, the populations of the new states consisted of fragments of tribes, some of which had been enemies since the beginning of time.
During the colonial period this mattered less, as colonial power maintained order and discipline among the differing tribal groups. However, with independence and no experience of nationhood, and with supreme allegiance still to the tribe rather than to the new nation, maintaining stability for such divided societies posed great problems. Small wonder that so many newly independent nations of central Africa are experiencing severe growing pains which stem from the unhappy mixed heritage of colonialism a nd tribalism.
What does the future hold for the new central African nations? What can be done to help them?
In the short term continuing instabilities seem inevitable, as tribal rivalries and jealousies dominate the internal politics of many of these countries. Longer-term, however, as new generations come along and with increased education broadening their outlook, tribalism should wane, with a new sense of nationhood gradually growing. Meanwhile, the United States and other developed nations can encourage the process of evolution from tribalism to nationhood in these countries, most of which are frightfully
poor, by keeping their markets open to their products and by giving them economic assistance so that there is a larger economic pie for the different tribal groups to share. This should help to lessen tensions between them, which are aggravated by poverty.
Douglas MacArthur II, a consultant and lecturer on international affairs, is a retired career ambassador who served as US coordinator for the Belgian-American military rescue operation in Zaire in 1964.