Trouble never far away at conference

Published Dec. 8, 1996|Updated Sept. 21, 2005

You can't go home again, and maybe you can't go back to Africa either, but I tried last week when French President Jacques Chirac came here for the 19th France-Africa summit.

For several years in the early 1960s I lived and traveled across a continent then achieving its political independence from its European colonial masters of mainly Britain and France.

Burkina Faso is near the end of the line, a landlocked area of savanna between the jungle and the desert, the fifth poorest in the world. The paved roads to the north stop here. Others go to the now teeming cities of Africa's west coast.

While a lot of things have changed, the old Africa was still alive in dusty streets not all that different from the time it was the French colony of Upper Volta.

In the capital of Ouagadougou (pronounced wah-guh-DOO-goo), Ouaga for short, women carry their burdens on their heads and their babies on their backs in the dusty streets and marketplaces.

Souvenir vendors and persistent boys harass tourists with everything from trinkets to authentic Mossi and Dogan masks. T-shirts and business suits alternate with flowing robes. Even in mid-winter, middays are sweltering.

Chirac and the 45 other leaders, now including those from English-speaking countries as well as the core of 20 French former colonies, were hard put to keep their noses above the flood of events in Africa.

Tutsi rebels, believed backed by Rwanda, were advancing farther and farther into neighboring Zaire, determined, they said, to go as far as the capital of Kinshasa. Zaire's troops were fleeing. Ugandan troops had crossed into Zaire.

All this, many feared, could call into question the borders drawn by the European colonial powers in Berlin in 1885. Once Pandora's box was opened, no one knew where it would stop.

In the Central African Republic, the main base of French forces in Africa, other rebels were trying to overthrow President Ange-Felix Patasse for the third time since April, French troops notwithstanding. On Thursday, they were forced to open fire. On Saturday, the U.S. State Department urged Americans there to leave the country.

Patasse felt too besieged even to come here for this conference of France and some 20 of its former African colonies, joined this time by ministers of 25 other African states.

The main theme was supposed to be about "good governance," as a condition for development, aid and investment.

Chirac, a longtime Africa booster, emphasized this. His African listeners, many if not most of them dictators in one degree or another, at least paid lip service. Niger's seat, for example, was filled by Gen. Ibrahim Barre Mainassara, who carried out his coup there only in January. From neighboring Nigeria came Gen. Sani Abacha, who is far less welcome in English-speaking forums.

And who should step off a big presidential 707 from Togo but Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema, the former French Master Sgt. Etienne Eyadema, whom I had sought out and interviewed a couple of days after he led the 1963 coup that killed the highly literate elected President Sylvanus Olympio as he tried to climb over the wall to safety at the U.S. Embassy in the Togolese capital of Lome.

Talk in the corridors revolved around possible African candidates to become secretary-general of the United Nations now that the United States has adamantly vetoed Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali for a second term. Several leaders had favorite sons.

In the end, the leaders called for an international conference of the potential belligerents around Africa's Great Lakes _ Zaire on one side, and the Tutsi inclined states of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania on the other.

The leaders backed France in demanding the urgent deployment of an international military force to help several hundred thousand refugees still reported to be wandering around in the bush, a force that only the day before the Canadian named to command it said was no longer necessary.

On Friday night the leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali, Gabon and Chad went to the Central African Republic to try to defuse the confrontation between Patasse and his opponents. Chirac said France wouldn't take sides but would only protect foreigners and uphold law and order, which they apparently were doing when they opened fire against the rebels on Thursday night.

When the conference opened, Eyadema nervously read a speech announcing a draft of an African intervention force to oppose, among other things, future coups, a draft he said Togo prepared with French help.

This hinted at the incipient rivalry underlying several issues here between France and a United States that France sees as trying to poach on its traditional African preserve on behalf, among other things, of its businessmen.

In a very recent American version of the same proposal, the United States would supply the arms and equipment for a force from a few selected countries. Under independent command, it would intervene at the behest of the U.N. Security Council.

In the original French-African version, no country would be ruled out and the command would be up to the U.N. itself and the Organization of African Unity.

Rivalry also lay behind the explosive situation around Africa's Great Lakes.

The United States is suspected of training and arming the Tutsi-led government of Rwanda. France backs Zaire, which the Tutsi rebels seem to be trying to dismember.

Neither France nor the United States would welcome or benefit from a war that would set Africa ablaze, so the United States, too, should favor the conference Chirac and his African allies are now trying to arrange.

Critics may regard it as coming years late, but Chirac said again here that the colonial days are over, that France is adapting its policy to present times and that no longer should any single country intervene. This kind of talk causes nervous leaders to worry that France may be less eager to come to the rescue of friendly dictators.

Chirac continues to pride himself that France is by far the largest aid donor to Africa _ and per capita the highest aid donor in the world _ in contrast to a United States, where Congress finds little left for the poor after supplying Israel and, to provide some balance, Egypt.

Chirac went on to warn that unless Africa can be helped to develop jobs at home, Europe could be swamped with Africans seeking a better life. This touches a chord back in France, where the extreme right is whipping the sentiment against immigrants and immigration.

In any case, the memories of years in Africa came flooding back along with my conviction that its time of troubles will not soon be over.

At a final scene, Chirac was welcomed with native dancers, beating drums, acrobats and tribal chiefs in colorful robes when he laid the foundation stone at what is to be Ouagadougou's pediatric hospital.

Welcoming Chirac, the mayor remarked that he had seen foundation stones laid before for projects that never took place and "let's hope that this is the good one."

Africa can only hope the same for its future.