Leading Article: Africa is not a lost continent

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The Independent Online
THE horrors being perpetrated in Rwanda and Burundi will, sadly, reinforce a widespread view that Africa is a lost continent, so barbarous, so deeply sunk in tribal conflict and so remote from our concerns that nothing can be done to help it. Rescuing the lives of white nationals is about the only reason for becoming involved.

This may be uncomfortably near the truth where some African countries are concerned. Certainly the ancient enmity between the Hutus and Tutsis, which is at the heart of the conflict in Rwanda, is beyond hope of early resolution. The slaughter of Belgian members of a United Nations force only highlights the helplessness of the international community. In any attempt to rank the world's trouble spots according to their potential to benefit from outside help, Rwanda and Burundi must rank low.

But Africa is not uniform. It is a patchwork of more than 50 states struggling - some with a degree of success and sincerity - to find ways of containing the pressures of ethnicity within existing frontiers. In this respect it is becoming a paradigm for the rest of the world, for many of its colonial frontiers are as illogical or unrelated to ethnicity than those of former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union and parts of Western Europe.

In a recent paper for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Kamal Shehadi writes that 'the one remaining global ideological dichotomy is between ethnic pluralism and ethnic isolationism'. He argues that the survival of democracy depends on re-examining the doctrine of self-determination and developing more flexible approaches to concepts of state sovereignty and inviolable frontiers.

He is right. One of the most useful contributions the international community can make to world peace is to work against the tendency to equate the right of self- determination with the right to form an ethnically homogeneous state. This is a recipe for continuing conflict, and for stagnation in those few areas where the ethnic homogeneity can be achieved. Democracy alone is not the universal answer; majority rule too often means the domination of one tribe, religion or ethnic group by another.

The UN is increasingly aware that peace in many areas will depend less on the presence of blue berets than on constitutional arrangements, election systems and even frontier changes that help people of different races or beliefs to live together. The role of blue berets may then be to supervise the result.

Africa is one of the least promising places in which to develop plural societies, but South Africa is trying, and if it is successful the example may carry. Meanwhile, it is more helpful to see Africa's ethnic problems in their global context rather than to dismiss them as an inevitable barrier to the progress of the world's poorest continent.