In a recent television interview, Colin Powell said that he spent a pretty good piece of time during his first two weeks as secretary of State involved in African affairs.
Apparently it wasn't enough. In the next breath he went on to say: "We cannot ignore any place in the world, and Africa is a huge continent in great need. There are some pockets of success and promise, such as South Africa, now Nigeria and Senegal and Ghana and Burkina Faso, and there are terrible, terrible situations like the Congo and Sierra Leone. So we have to be engaged."
Burkina Faso deserves a good bit of the blame for many of the terrible situations to which Secretary Powell referred. Under Blase Campore, an Army captain who has run the country since 1987, Burkina Faso has been the major conduit for weapons from Libya, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and elsewhere as they headed toward wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, and probably the Congo as well. A United Nations report last year said Mr. Campore had helped bust UN sanctions against Jonas Savimbi, the head of the UNITA rebels in Angola, by taking an envelope filled with diamonds from him in exchange for weapons and diesel fuel.
Campore, along with Liberia's president, Charles Taylor, are the major players in smuggling diamonds out of Sierra Leone. Desperate for the civil war there to continue so this lucrative trade would not be interrupted, Campore sent mercenaries from Burkina Faso to fight with rebels against UN peacekeepers. He also arranged false end-user certificates and transportation for tons of weapons that went to the rebels, the Revolutionary United Front. It didn't matter to him that the RUF is the most barbaric collection of thugs on a continent where the guys with guns rarely read the Geneva Convention. The RUF's favorite tactic, for instance, is to hack off the limbs of civilians.
Campore does not just encourage violence and gross violations of human rights abroad. He practices them at home. Opposition politicians and reporters are harassed, imprisoned, and, if necessary, murdered.
Prominent independent journalist Norbert Zongo and three people with him, were killed in December 1998. The prime suspects: the president's bodyguards. Mr. Zongo's crime: investigating the killing of the chauffeur of Campore's brother, apparently by the same presidential guards. No one has been convicted of either killing.
Burkina Faso is hardly an economic success story, either. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Eighty percent of its people are barely able to survive, growing enough to eat for themselves and little more. This, while Campore pockets the proceeds from his diamond rackets.
Why then Burkina Faso's inclusion as an example of promise in Africa? Apparently it began with a meeting Powell had on Feb. 1 with Joseph Kabila. He recently inherited the presidency of the Congo after his father, Laurent Kabila, was murdered by a bodyguard. His public relations people quickly brought him to Washington to demonstrate he is not the despot his father was. The briefing material prepared for the secretary suggested he urge Mr. Kabila to make the Congo a success and offered him several examples to cite. When the secretary began talking, the only country on the list that began with a "B" somehow got transformed from Botswana - a real success story - to Burkina Faso.
When Powell had the TV interview three days later and got a question about Africa, he repeated the mistake. The response came when Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts of ABC News asked where Africa would fall in the priorities of the Bush administration. They pointed out that as a candidate, President Bush had said, "While Africa may be important, it doesn't fit into the national strategic interests as far as I can see."
The description of Burkina Faso as a success story in the secretary's reply drew no reaction from the two commentators. Either they didn't notice - or didn't know any better, either.
Although Powell's heart appears to be in the right place - even if his country's is not - it will take more than good intentions to do something meaningful for Africa.
Bill Clinton made two trips to Africa and was famous for feeling its pain more than any other president in recent memory. Yet his administration accomplished little there.
In part, that is because of the myriad problems facing a continent that suffers greatly from utterly corrupt and ruthless leaders like Campore, Taylor, and the late Kabila. In part, it is because interest is no substitute for resources, and we devote precious little to helping Africa deal with its problems.
Candidate Bush was right. Africa is not of strategic interest and probably never will be. Secretary Powell is also right. We have to stay engaged. If we don't, only in those few areas of the world we deem of strategic importance will there be a superpower.
For the rest of the world, including all of Africa, there will be no superpower. In those countries, whoever is willing to mutilate the most civilians too often will prevail. For effective engagement, however, we have to have the right intentions, the right resources, and the right facts.
Dennis Jett, who served as US ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida and author of 'Why Peacekeeping Fails' (St. Martin's Press).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society