The catalog of horrors that is Africa knows few boundaries. Genocide and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Darfur have ripped a hole in the heart of the continent, on top of two wars in Congo and southern Sudan that have left 5 1/2 million dead. Militias -- the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda -- have specialized in the amputation of limbs and the abduction of children. And echoes of last year’s civil wars in Burundi and Liberia continue to haunt residents of Africa.
The world responds to these atrocities with statements of grave concern that are rarely backed by substantial action. Instead, feckless military observer missions provide front-row seats to the slaughter, and planeloads of humanitarian Band-Aids reassure us that we are indeed doing something.
Why is Africa so susceptible to these complex emergencies? And how can people maintain interest and compassion when the problems seem so endless and intractable?
It must be noted that the positive stories emanating from Africa usually don’t make the news. Most countries are democratic or are moving in that direction, such as Senegal and Mali. Military coups -- as in Uganda in the 1980s and Nigeria in the 1990s -- used to dominate the landscape but now, for the most part, are an anachronism. The majority of African countries -- like Botswana and Mozambique -- are posting positive economic growth rates with the help of responsible fiscal policies. A number of African governments are playing important roles in the war on terrorism, and increasing numbers are addressing other transnational threats, such as disease and environmental degradation.
Yet the horrors continue to grab the headlines. With millions of Africans on the knife’s edge of daily survival, vulnerability is extreme. Some countries are beset by war and organized criminal networks that control all the political power and economic opportunities. International and regional piranhas -- including neighboring governments, rebel groups, multinational corporations and arms dealers -- fund predatory militias to help them gain control over the production and distribution of diamonds, oil or other prized commodities. In the absence of effective governing institutions and in the face of a global economy stacked against them, conflict-ridden African countries are easily sucked into free-for-alls to determine who controls the few avenues for wealth creation.
So how can we respond? First, we need to directly confront the major killer -- after HIV/AIDS and malaria -- that is threatening Africa: the criminal networks that destabilize African countries, loot resources and topple governments. We can demand accountability from these rogue states and militias. Valuable lessons are being learned in our counter-terrorism efforts that could be used to confront Africa’s killers.
In extreme situations, we need to be prepared to use military force to counter crimes against humanity when they are being committed, not just to pick up the pieces afterward. The good news here is that the embryonic African Union is beginning to find its way in this regard. Given much greater support from the U.S. and the European Union, African deployments of military force could help prevent future Rwandas and Darfurs.
As the body counts mounted in Darfur, I worried that the usual compassion fatigue would lead people en masse to avert their eyes. Rather, the opposite is occurring. Local groups are springing up in the United States to raise awareness about the crisis and to encourage a more assertive U.S. government response. Private civic organizations and leaders have banded together to demand a greater American role. Hollywood actors and student activists are also getting involved.
So hope is by no means lost. The challenge will be to build a more lasting coalition to prevent and respond to Africa’s most graphic tragedies once Darfur’s bleeding is staunched.