Western inaction over Africa is insulting and, frankly, racist

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The Independent Online

Everyone now seems to be agreed that Britain has done a good job in halting the military rot in SierraLeone and securing the airport. Judging by the chorus of press comment and political statements, most also seem to think that this is enough, that Britain should not be "sucked into" a long military campaign in Sierra Leone; particularly not under United Nations command. African problems should be left to the Africans to sort out is the cry.

Britain is not the only rich Western member of the Security Council which would prefer that African countries carried out peace-keeping in war-torn African countries. The United States and France also feel the same.

Each of these governments does not want to lay itself open to a charge that it is playing with white lives in order to save those of blacks. The trouble, though, is that they won't give the Africans the means of carrying out the peace-keeping they don't want to do themselves. They won't even provide transport cheaply to the UN, when it asks them to ferry its troops to trouble spots.

The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, told the New York Times in an interview published on Saturday that when the United States offers planes to fly in other countries' troops, "the US offers are usually three times the commercial rate".

According to the New York Times, the Clinton administration has said it would provide transportation, "but only for a fee, and that has proved too high" for the tight United Nations budget. The United Nations "would have had to spend as much as $17 million to $21 million for an American military airlift of Bangladeshi soldiers to bolster the force in Sierra Leone. The organisation has now chartered a commercial airliner for $6 million to do the same job."

This parsimonious American attitude is to be compared with that of Canada, which is transporting Indian troops to Freetown free of charge on a Canadian government Airbus commercial charter, a Russian plane.

As a result of Western denial of support to the UN, the very countries they would prefer to do UN peace-keeping in Africa, such as Zambia and Kenya, have sustained casualties in Sierra Leone, which might discourage them from responding too readily to UN appeals for troops in future. Zambia is currently fearful of the eventual fate of 500 of its soldiers who have been captured by the United Revolutionary Front (RUF). Their capture can be laid at the door of poor equipment and a lack of field intelligence - both of which the West possesses in abundance.

The very speed and effectiveness with which the British troops carried out their mission in Sierra Leone demonstrates clearly that if only the United Nations would be supported effectively by the Great Powers, it could achieve the end everyone says is desirable - peace in Africa.

Why don't the Great Powers want to provide the UN with this support, when the Nigerians and other members of the Economic Community [of West Africa] Monitoring Group who had been keeping the peace in Sierra Leone, have made it clear that they withdrew partly because they could not continue, by themselves, to meet the high cost of the operation?

To many Africans, the unwillingness with which the West tackles the problems brought about by war in Africa is not only puzzling but insulting. This is because it was the West that persuaded the African countries that attained their independence after the Second World War, to join the United Nations and become enthusiastic contributors to the work of the organisation.

Soldiers from my own country, Ghana, have been going regularly to man the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) for over two decades now. And, for a time, the UN force commander in Cyprus was a Ghanaian called General Emmanuel Erskine.

Our soldiers have never asked themselves why they were being sent to countries "populated by whites". Nor did they worry about the fact that the mess they were putting their lives on the line to try and clear up was created by Britain and its Western allies. In one instance, when Ghanaian "blue berets" went to the Congo to clean up after the Belgians, we lost over 30 young men at a place then called Port Franqui.

Yet Ghana never stopped supporting the UN. It sent troops to Bosnia a few years ago, where CNN showed one of them chained to a lamp post - one of a number of hostages a Bosnian faction had seized and was using to make demands of the UN.

But whenever Africa needs the UN, the white Western members throw up their arms and suggest incongruously that Africans are the only people capable of saving African lives. That Britain subscribes to this racist idea of "selective life-saving'' is proved by the fact that Britain was able very quickly to put together an effective force to rescue British nationals caught up in the bloodshed in Sierra Leone, while leaving the fate of the people of Sierra Leone themselves largely in the balance.

If this discrimination is what Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and his Labour Party colleagues regard as an "ethical foreign policy", then I am afraid they have given it the wrong name. For it is, in fact, a racist foreign policy that stinks to high heaven. It not only makes a mockery of the high hopes aroused in the black people of Britain who voted for Labour in the last election, but it also shows contempt for the millions of white British people - other than certain Conservative politicians - who give evidence of their humanitarian instincts through their constant support for the international aid agencies, and by their patronage of such events as Band Aid and Live Aid.

There is still time for Britain to act to dispel the noxious notion of racism that its unwillingness to commit itself fully to the UN mission in Sierra Leone is creating. And whilst it is doing that, it might as well warn the United States - which has just sent its permanent representative to the UN to the Congo Democratic Republic on yet another peace-keeping initiative that seems doomed from the beginning - that it had better provide the resources, or watch the Congo mission turn into a second UN fiasco.