Black Africa criticizes Reagan stand on South Africa
Black Africa's "honeymoon," however reluctant, with the Reagan administration is over -- some would say before it even began. Whether this disillusionme nt, sparked by President Reagan's recent remarks on South Africa, spells the beginning of a more fundamental deterioration in US-African relations -- with substantial political and economic consequences -- is not yet clear.
Nevertheless, without having his top African policy advisor in place, or holding a single meeting with a black African head of state, Mr. Reagan, with his pledge not to "abandon" South Africa, has managed to alienate even moderate black states that had adopted a cautious wait-and-see policy toward the new United States administration.
In its place has come a predictably angry hail of criticism, treats, and probably more important, confirmation of what Prof. Ishaya Audu, Nigeria's minister of external affairs, recently called "a lurking fear" among Africans that the Reagan administration would shelter South America from international pressure for granting independence to Namibia.
America's guarantee to the South Africans, wrote the government-owned Cameroon Tribune recently in an unusually pointed commentary, "is why, when the OAU [Organization of African Unity] asks the UN security Council in April to impose obligatory economic sanctions against South Africa, the South African foreign minister can already proclaim that a veto will stop the motion."
Mr. reagan's remarks, particularly his designation of South Africa as an old ally and supplier of strategic minerals, were widely publicized in West Africa -- and universally denounced.
However, it remains to be seen whether a hostile African media, which already had stepped up criticism of the Reagan administration over increased US arms shipments to El Salvador, is a harbinger of specific political or economic sanctions.
Edem Kodjo, the usually pragmatic secretary-general of the OAU, said last week in ghana that the organization may have to "review" its relations with the US in the light of the Reagan views, but he did not elaborate.
On a visit to the US last fall, President Shehu shafari of Nigeria, by far the most important black african nation of the US, made clear his willingness to use oil to bring Western countries into line on the Namibian issue.
President Shagari, however, has made no public statement on the Reagan position, though he did tell the Nigerian congress shortly after the US president stated his views that "It is obvious that the Namibian problem can no longer be resolved by negotiations," a position adopted by the OAU foreign ministers meeting two weeks ago in Ethiopia.
According to a variety of sources, however, Washington is gambling that current political and economic conditions -- especially in West Africa -- will limit the damage to US- African relations to angry words.
For one thing, say these sources, Nigeria's stridency, and that of other moderate states in the region, is likely to be tempered by the danger posed by Libyan troops in Chad, a neighbor of Nigeria. All the governments in the area were badly shaken by Libya's announced intention to merge with Chad, thus putting a heavily armed radical state on their doorsteps.
The fact is that not even giant Nigeria is immune from the threat, which further increased the feeling of vulnerability in the area -- a vulnerability that, as one Western diplomat said, may make the Africans more amenable to "agree to disagree" on Namibia.
Moreover, except for oil, major African commodites such as coffee and cacao, are suffering from oversupply on world markets. Foreign exchange earnings have slipped seriously at the same time as inflation and, especially, interest payments on Western-financed capital project have increased.
"Nigeria wants us to do something on South Africa -- a some-what distant problem for them," explained one US source in the region, "but they also want investment in their oil industry. Do they want to send such a signal [a threat to cut off oil shipments to the US] to the international investment markets?"
But the belief that West African countries, particularly Nigeria, will limit their displeasure for US support for South Africa to words "is a very big mistake," according to a Nigerian with close contacts to official policy in Lagos. Because of his position, he asked that he not be indentified.
"You should know that we have always based our relations with a country or an individual on whether they have dealings with South Africa," he said. "We can sell our oil to other countries than the US. It [a cutoff] might not be smooth, but we are willing to make a little sacrifice for people sacrificing everything. There will be a reaction in Lagos," he concluded flatly.
Both he and those here who follow Nigerian affairs closely also warn that Nigeria's presumed need for Western support to oppose Libya in Chad may be an overreaction. Already there is strong criticism in Nigeria for what is viewed there as President Shagari's "pro-French" policies of opposing Libya.
In an open letter to the Nigerian congress, a leading leftist intellectual has accused the policies of being part of a French-led NATO plot to split both OAU and OPEC, and to drain money normally bound for southern African liberation groups into massive arms purchases. The accusation, according to Nigerians here , has wide support in the country.
"The Libyan policy is not set," said the Nigerian source, reiterating the point several times in an interview. "There is some thinking in [official circles] in Lagos that now is the time to nip the French presence in Africa."
In addition to the immediate disagreement over South African sanctions, indications of the Reagan administration's future positions elsewhere in Africa are also angering some black states. The decision to send helicopters to Morocco, for example, was roundly condemned by many backers of the Polisario Front guerrilla group fighting for independence of the former Spanish Sahara.
"Anyone who encourages war in Africa, declares war on Africa," Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere stormed."
Even more controversial is the likelihood that the Reagan administration will resume aid to Jonas Savimbi, leader of UNITA, a pro- Western guerrilla group fighting the government in Angola. Mr. Savimbi is generally viewed by even conservative Africans as a rebel and worse, a pawn of South Africa, from whom he gets most of his aid.
His reputation was not enhanced when two mercenaries who defected from South African units fighting in Namibia claimed South African battalions were regularly called upon to protect UNITA forces from attacks by Angolan government troops.
Nevertheless, US policy appears to be moving to a rapprochement with Mr. Savimbi, based on the thinking of Chester A. Crocker, Mr. Reagan's designated assistant secretary of state for Africa. What consequences such a move will have for US oil investments in Angola can only be surmised.
But US sources, acknowledging that it is an optimistic outlook, point out that even during the bad years of the Nixon-Kissinger era, generally considered here to have been the low-water mark for US-African relations, oil deliveries from even the radical states continued to flow.
Africans, on the other hand, argue, not altogether convincingly, that after years of frustration on southern African initiatives, this time will be different.
But regardless of whether the strains between Africa and The US result in specific penalties, it seems at least reasonable to wonder if a US policy based on minimizing damages is a legitimate, or even a desirable, method of dealing with black Africa.