How to end Africa's bloodshed: Tough action to protect democracy is the best possible Western aid, says Richard Dowden

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The Independent Online
'B URUNDI is on the brink' has been repeated so often in the last few days that it is already a cliche. In a way, Burundi has already been over the brink. Last October some 250,000 people were massacred. But it could restart at any moment, creating a refugee catastrophe as big as Rwanda's.

Ultimately only Burundians can prevent this, but the rest of the world can help, hinder or prepare. At present the American, French and British governments are pumping out self-congratulatory 'news' about how many Rwandans they are saving. Jerked around by television, politicians are quick to respond to pitiable victims - and claim credit for it. Where were they in April, when Rwanda toppled into hell? And where will they be when the TV cameras have left? Preventing disasters requires politicians to engage with the real world, not TV images. Ensuring that the disasters are not repeated needs long-term commitment.

Like Rwanda, Burundi probably needs some sort of international trusteeship to save it from further cataclysm. Its citizens are at mortal risk from the failures of their politicians. Outside intervention is essential. Other countries, particularly in Africa, are beginning to slide down the same slope, but the rest of the world is not prepared to act to preempt catastrophe.

For the past four years the US, Europe and Japan have repeatedly stated their commitment to political reform and democracy in Africa. But has the rhetoric been followed by policies to defend and promote democracy? Contrast US policies on Haiti and Nigeria. Washington threatens to invade Haiti to restore democracy but on Nigeria, another country heading for disaster under military rule, it 'reviews' defence sales, 'restricts' Nigerian military attaches and expels five Nigerian officers from US training programmes.

In Europe, France is now more pragmatic in its approach to democracy in Africa, but Britain still talks

of 'good government'. Baroness Chalker, the Overseas Development minister, recently reaffirmed the policy in blunt terms: 'Where a government wants aid to help with a transformation to democracy, to strengthen its institutions, to weed out corruption and incompetence - we will give it. But where a government turns its back on democracy, ignores accountability, flouts human rights and allows corruption to flourish, our aid will only be of a humanitarian nature to help the people in real need.'

The Baroness did not hide these harsh words halfway through her speech. They were the opening lines, and she delivered them as only the ex- headgirl of Roedean could. 'Good government' she defined as legitimate, accountable, competent and respecting human rights and the rule of law.

The present government of Nigerian fails on every count. The man elected president last year languishes in prison. Nigerians have gone on strike for an end to military rule, Nigeria is on the brink of chaos, but the Baroness sits awkwardly on the fence.

Britain's signals are weak and mixed. On the one hand we banned Nigerian military officials from visiting Britain, on the other we are delivering 150 tanks to the Nigerian military, Britain's pounds 14m aid package is unscathed and Nigeria's military attache stays on in London.

The ban on visits by Nigerian soldiers is a farce. The only Nigerian known to suffer from it is the naval cadet Martins Aligwe, who came top at Dartmouth Naval College last year but was not allowed to return to Britain to collect his prize. Meanwhile several senior Nigerian officers, somehow multimillionaires on army pay, have visited their money and homes in London.

Nigeria is big and intractable with little record of democracy, but there are no excuses for Britain's betrayal of Gambia. From 18 February 1965 until 23 July 1994 this tiny country of one million people was ruled by Sir Dawda Jawara, a model of democratic rectitude. His rule has been legitimate, accountable, competent and he respected human rights. Through all the years of Africa's one-party states, he allowed other political parties to campaign and criticise and won six free and fair elections. There is no evidence that he has been corrupt.

Gambia has had long and friendly links with Britain. Thousands of British tourists go there every year. Sir Dawda is a personal friend of the Queen and visits Britain regularly. In 1981, while Sir Dawda was attending the Royal wedding, a group of soldiers and civilians seized power. Senegal sent in 3,000 troops, the British sent the SAS and Sir Dawda was restored to power. No one was executed. Britain left behind a small training force, which kept an eye on the Gambian army. Two years ago Britain found this small contribution too expensive and, despite the requests of Sir Dawda, it was withdrawn. The training team was replaced by 70 Nigerian soldiers. Having your democracy protected by the Nigerian military is like entrusting your budgerigar to the cat. When the coup took place, the Nigerian soldiers were nowhere to be seen.

If there was ever a case for action to restore and protect democracy in Africa, Gambia is it. Britain condemned the coup but imposed no sanctions. The pounds 4.8m aid stays in place. In Banjul last week the new government banned politics, authorised detention without trial and banned publication or broadcast of political views and possession of political documents. The message to any young officer in an African army is, 'Take over. You have nothing to fear from the outside world except words.'

To protect democracy in the world Britain should work to establish international guarantees for elected legitimate governments. Constitutions of newly democratic states could be ratified internationally and their governments supported with aid. If such a government is overthrown, the new government would be ostracised, isolated by an escalating package of sanctions, including withdrawal of diplomats and aid, refusal of visas and freezing of assets. Military intervention should not be ruled out.

This would not only strangle the present illegitimate governments but warn anyone tempted to grab power in future. We know the result of giving free rein to bad government and allowing instability to flourish. It is called Somalia, Angola, Liberia or Rwanda. And soon, perhaps, Burundi.

(Photograph omitted)