African `new dawn' leaves West wary

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The Independent Online
AS CLICHES go, it is probably one of the most frightening. When the Zambian President, Frederick Chiluba, spoke of the "dawn of a new era for Africa" heralded by the Congo peace agreement due to be signed today in Lusaka, alarms were probably set ringing from the Cape to Cairo. The continent's 50 or so countries have had many new dawns announced by their leaders in recent decades, and they have brought much blood and precious few blessings.

The accommodation reached on the same day in Sierra Leone between the democratically elected government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and the murderous rebels loyal to Foday Sankoh, whose contribution to the future of the country was to deprive many thousands of its people of their limbs, was hardly a cause for rejoicing either.

In their different ways, the two agreements show the international community turning its back on black Africa, and so drawing a line across the Sahara, south of which the writ of internationally imposed decency will not run.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Zaire, the war that has raged for the past 11 months has drawn in Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad on the side of Congolese President Laurent Kabila, and Uganda and Rwanda on the side of the anti-Kabila rebels.

The most destructive element is the 40,000 strong Hutu militias based in eastern Congo, who were driven out of neighbouring Rwanda in 1994 after their orchestrated genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killing was halted by the Tutsis who now run the government in Kigali, and Rwanda's involvement in the Congo war is largely explained by its fear of a return of the interahamwe ("those who kill together").

The other participating countries are motivated by a mixture of fraternal ideological feelings, grasping economic interest, and the apparent fact that in much of Africa, the more insecurity a leader can generate in his country, the more secure he feels his own position to be.

The peace plan calls for: a stop to fighting within 24 hours of its signing; a joint military commission of the belligerents to administer the accord; the creation of a unified army after a 90-day national dialogue on the political future; and peace-keepers from the Organisation of African Unity or the United Nations.

But it allows the rebels to keep for the time being the huge swathe of Congo they have gained and gives no timetable for a pullout of foreign troops. It also leaves the disarming of the Hutu militiamen to President Kabila.

The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, backs the idea of a peace-keeping force, but the UN has hardly recovered from its ill-fated attempt to keep peace in Somalia. The 1993 shooting down of two United States helicopters by Somali warlords and the dragging of the bodies of US soldiers through Mogadishu have not been forgotten.

Western responses to today's planned signing have been cautious and sceptical. "We're going to carefully study any proposal for a UN peace-keeping operation, especially its mandate, before making any decisions about US support for the operation or a role in it," said the US State Department deputy spokesman, James Foley.

A statement from the current EU president, Finland said: "The European Union stands ready to give her support to the peace, reconciliation and democratisation process [in Congo]," without indicating whether the EU would be prepared to send peace-keepers.

The Tanzanian Foreign Minister, Jakaya Kikwete, was only expressing common sense when he said in Lusaka that the deal needed international support if it was to survive. But with the Yugoslavian President, Slobodan Milosevic, stretching Western resources it would seem unwise of Mr Kikwete to start counting his chickens just yet.

As for this week's Freetown deal, the blanket amnesty granted to the rebels for their years of mutilation, rape, amputation and kidnapping sits ill with the proper international resolve to hold Mr Milosevic to account for his war crimes.

The United Nations' special representative, Francis Okelo, who signed the accord in Togo, wrote in a disclaimer saying that the amnesty did not apply to genocide or crimes against humanity. UN officials said this meant the accused could be tried abroad. But in practice there is no international tribunal to try suspects unless an individual country takes the initiative against a suspect within its borders.

The US and the UN argued that a peace agreement was needed to end the eight-year civil war and thus stop future atrocities. "It's not a perfect situation. No one is saying it is perfect," UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said of the agreement. "This is what was possible."

Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, insisted yesterday that the amnesty would not apply to gross violations of human rights and called for a truth and reconciliation commission backed up by an "international body of inquiry" into the atrocities, established by the UN Security Council. But the prospects for any kind of justice in Sierra Leone are not good.

Perhaps the best that can be said is that at least Congo and Sierra Leone are starting to turn a corner, rather than pursuing all-out war in the manner of Eritrea and Ethiopia, or enduring the hopeless return to famine and destruction that the warring leaders Jonas Savimi and Eduardo Dos Santos are visiting on the Angolan people.

Today, the African leaders caught up in the Congo conflict may or may not show up in Lusaka. And if they do, they may or may not sign. But even if they do, the piece of paper will not mark anything like a "new dawn for Africa".