Africa's Salvation Lies Within Itself : Civil wars: Despots have refined what colonists started-- exploitation of ethnic differences to perpetuate their reigns.

To attribute the carnage in Rwanda and past massacres elsewhere in Africa to ancient tribal rivalries is unsatisfactory. These rivalries would always exist in Africa. The real cause is the exploitation of ethnic differences by autocratic governments to maintain their grip on power. The colonialists did this but, in the post-colonial period, despotic African heads of state refined the stratagem. Although Somalia is ethnically homogenous, former military dictators played one clan against another in attempts to perpetuate their rule. In Cameroon, Kenya, Sudan and other African countries, one tribe is played off against another, often resulting in violence and ruinous civil strife.

Last week, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed when their plane burst into flames. The Rwandan government has said rocket fire brought down the plane. Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprian Ntaryamira of Burundi were returning from Tanzania, where they and other African leaders had been meeting in another attempt to end years of ethnic warfare in their countries.

The deaths unleashed a wave of terror and carnage as disaffected elements of the army and police forces went on the rampage, murdering Rwanda's interim prime minister, three cabinet ministers, nuns, Jesuit priests and Belgian peace-keeping soldiers. Tens of thousands have been slain in the orgy of violence.

Two factors underlie Africa's never-ending political violence and civil wars that have devastated economies and produced human suffering on a massive scale and a horrendous refugee problem. (Africa's refugee count has reached 8 million, not counting those trapped in their countries.) The first is the proliferation of oppressive dictatorships, concentration of political power in the hands of the state or one person and the absence of mechanisms for peaceful transfer of political power.

In 1990, only four of the 53 African countries were democratic. Although this tiny number has grown to 13 since then, political tyranny is still the order of the day. Consequently in the vast majority of African nations, the only way to remove an incompetent, corrupt and oppressive regime from power is by waging a destructive civil war. Ironically, the overthrow of an oppressive regime does not end the violence or strife. A political vacuum emerges and fierce fighting erupts over the spoils of power or to fill the vacuum: Witness Ethiopia, Liberia, Somalia and South Africa.

The second factor has been the near-total absence of mechanisms or institutions for peaceful resolution of conflicts. The Organization of African Unity, whose mandate is conflict resolution, shirked this responsibility for much of the post-colonial period. As a result, a minor political dispute can escalate into a full-blown civil conflagration and rage for years until foreign powers intervene to impose a settlement or mediation. Unfortunately, foreign intervention does not always work, as recent experience in Somali attests.

The Somali mission, though a magnanimous humanitarian endeavor, lacked an African input and was reactive, rather than preventive. The mantra should be prevention. The international community should not wait until the violence degenerates into wanton carnage and destruction before rushing in peacekeeping troops and evacuating trapped foreign-relief workers. Where civil strife exists in any African country, the world community should insist on an African solution. It must have the following elements:

* The adoption of transition programs for democratic rule. The rules must be fair to and accepted by all parties before the elections. All parties must agree to abide by the results. In Burundi and Rwanda, for example, a national conference of all leaders--religious, political and traditional--should be convened. In both countries, a special constitutional provision should be adopted to rotate the presidency. The army, police, civil service, judiciary, educational institutions and political parties should be de-tribalized. A permanent supra-national commission should be appointed for this purpose.

* The establishment of mechanisms for peaceful resolution of conflicts. A commission or panel of retired judges from neighboring countries should, with the blessing of the OAU, adjudicate political disputes.

* Should these steps fail and war erupt, the OAU shall put together a peacekeeping force with troops from neighboring African countries. In Liberia, an OAU-backed peace initiative, supported with a $25-million U.S. grant, succeeded. The warring factions are being disarmed and an interim government will be installed next month.

In Burundi and Rwanda, the U.N. Security Council should pass its peacekeeping mandate on to the OAU. The solution to the cycle of wars lies in Africa itself and the ultimate responsibility of saving Africa with its leaders. If they are not willing to save their continent, there is little the world community can do.

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