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America Takes Tougher Line With Despotic African Leaders

Cold-war exigencies fade and US pushes harder for democracy

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THE Berlin Wall has fallen. The Soviet Union is no more. And the cold war is finally ending - in Africa.

Once the United States and the former Soviet Union vied for influence throughout the vast stretch of continent south of the Sahara. But one of the players is now gone from that game, and as a result the US has slowly but unmistakably changed the way it looks at sub-Saharan African nations.

No longer can pro-Western, "Big Man" African autocrats count on automatic US support. In recent months both Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi and Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko have seen their old friend the US turn cold in the face of their continued repression of democratic forces.

"It used to be we would say, 'We have to stick with Mobutu or Moi because if we don't the commies will come in, says Terence Lyons, an African expert in the Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Studies program.

The US is giving more support to democracy in Africa, at least rhetorically. African leaders worry that the words cover a general US disengagement from their problems, as Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union cry out for attention.

"We are not abandoning Africa," insisted Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen at a recent briefing for reporters.

Despite tight budget times, US aid for sub-Saharan Africa in 1993 will continue at the current level of about $800 million, Mr. Cohen said.

But there is no denying that Africa plays a far different role in US policy today than it did throughout the 1970s and '80s, when it was one of the primary proxy battlegrounds of the cold war. Back then, in an effort to check Soviet inroads, the US threw in with what Ford Foundation international program officer Michael Chege calls "many of Africa's most corrupt and vain regimes."

In Zaire, President Mobutu became a key conduit for covert US aid flowing to Jonas Savimbi, whose UNITA rebels were battling the Soviet-backed government in neighboring Angola. In Liberia, Samuel Doe had a key role in US-Africa communications hub. Kenya's Moi and Somalia's former president, Mohamed Siad Barre, allowed the US Navy port access and supported US planning for a Middle East rapid deployment force following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Now Angola is at peace. Liberia's Doe and Somalia's Barre have been overthrown by violent coups, and their nations are still wracked by violence and hunger.


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