What Did You Do During the African Holocaust?

ASMARA, Eritrea. This charming nation was hailed in the 1990’s as one of Africa’s brightest hopes, a symbol of an African renaissance. Its economy boomed, and Hillary Clinton dropped by.

It was an apt symbol of that evanescent renaissance, for Eritrea is now turning into a thuggish little dictatorship. It is imprisoning evangelical Christians, it jails more journalists than any other country on the continent, and the regime that once empowered women now rapes them.

The private sector has been regulated mostly out of existence, and aid groups are given a cold shoulder. The leader who liberated his people a decade ago is now starving them.

And in the same way, much of Africa has been caught in a tailspin. While our attention is diverted by Iraq, famine is looming over 40 million people on the continent, West Africa seems caught in an expanding series of civil wars, and much of Central Africa has been a catastrophe for up to a decade.

In Congo, in which I’ve had a special interest ever since Tutsi rebels chased me through the jungle there for several days in 1997, 3.3 million people have died because of warfare there in the last five years, according to a study by the International Rescue Committee. That’s half a Holocaust in a single country.

Our children and grandchildren may fairly ask, ”So, what did you do during the African holocaust?”

Some African nations, like Uganda, Mauritius, Ghana and Mozambique, are booming; they show that African countries can thrive. But the failures outnumber the successes: child mortality rose in the 1990’s in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia; primary school enrollments dropped in Cameroon, Lesotho, Mozambique and Tanzania; the number of malnourished children is growing across the continent.

”We are losing the battle against hunger,” warns James Morris, the head of the World Food Program.

So it’s time to rethink this continent. Africa itself has largely failed, and Western policies toward it have mostly failed as well.

Eritrea is a window into what went wrong. To be sure, even now it is an alluring country with a gentle people. President Isaias Afwerki avoids a personality cult; instead of a statue of him, the central square has a gargantuan pair of sandals, which symbolize the liberation struggle.

But Mr. Afwerki fought a senseless border war with Ethiopia beginning in 1998, and now an estimated half the budget goes to the military. The port is quiet because there is no trade with Ethiopia; most of the working-age population has been drafted into National Service, so families have no one to till the ground or earn a salary. A million Eritreans are at risk of famine.

There are no simple solutions to Africa’s problems, but there are some good ideas around:

*Western powers could guarantee the security of African governments that commit themselves to democracy. This idea, which would attract more investment for democracies, is detailed in a fine new book, ”Africa’s Stalled Development.”

*Liberals and conservatives feud over plenty, but they generally agree on the need for widespread debt forgiveness. Africa is asphyxiated by its $217 billion foreign debt.

*Think trade, more than aid. Incentives to build cheap factories in Senegal or Ethiopia could perhaps replicate Bangladesh’s success with clothing exports.

*We should phase out socialist agricultural policies in Europe and America. Western farm subsidies cost poor countries some $50 billion in lost agricultural exports. The best way for the U.S. to help a struggling democratic country like Mali would be to stop lavishing $2 billion a year in tax dollars on U.S. cotton farmers (whose average net worth is $800,000) so Malian peasants can produce for the world’s markets.

Would any of this work? I don’t know. But Africa is broken, and it needs high-level attention to help it fix itself. President Bush’s $15 billion AIDS initiative was an important step, and it proved surprisingly popular around the United States.

So perhaps there is even a political payoff in compassion for Africa, and this is also an area where we can work with Europe and rebuild trust, beginning at next week’s G-8 summit. Mr. Bush’s planned trip to Africa this year would be the perfect start for a major U.S.-led effort to help Africa find its footing — and nothing we could do in coming years would save so many millions of lives.

E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com


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