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Starved For Safety

March 31, 2004

Starved for Safety


ADRĀ, Chad — So why is Africa such a mess?

To answer that question, let me tell you about a 34-year-old man who limped over to me at this oasis in eastern Chad. "My name is Moussa Tamadji Yodi," he said in elegant French, "and I'm a teacher. . . . I just crossed the border yesterday from Sudan. I was beaten up and lost everything."

Mr. Yodi, a college graduate, speaks French, Arabic, English and two African languages. During the decades of Chad's civil war, he fled across the border into the Darfur region of Sudan to seek refuge.

Now Darfur has erupted into its own civil war and genocide. Mr. Yodi told how a government-backed Arab militia had stopped his truck — the equivalent of a public bus — and forced everyone off. The troops let some people go, robbed and beat others, and shot one young man in the head, probably because he was from the Zaghawa tribe, which the Arab militias are trying to wipe out.

"Nobody reacted," Mr. Yodi said. "We were all afraid."

So now Mr. Yodi is a refugee for a second time, fleeing another civil war. And that is a window into Africa's central problem: insecurity.

There is no formula for economic development. But three factors seem crucial: security, market-oriented policies and good governance. Botswana is the only African country that has enjoyed all three in the last 40 years, and it has been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. And when these conditions applied, Uganda, Ghana, Mozambique and Rwanda boomed.

But the African leaders who cared the most about their people, like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania or Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, tended to adopt quasi-socialist policies that hurt their people. In recent decades, Africans did much better ruled with capitalism than with compassion.

These days, African economic policies are more market-oriented, and governance is improving. The big civil wars are winding down. All this leaves me guardedly optimistic.

Yet Africa's biggest problem is still security. The end of the cold war has seen a surge in civil conflict, partly because great powers no longer stabilize client states. One-fifth of Africans live in nations shaken by recent wars. My Times colleague Howard French forcefully scolds the West in his new book, "A Continent for the Taking," for deliberately looking away from eruptions of unspeakable violence.

One lesson of the last dozen years is that instead of being purely reactive, helpfully bulldozing mass graves after massacres, African and Western leaders should try much harder to stop civil wars as they start. The world is now facing a critical test of that principle in the Darfur region of Sudan, where Arab militias are killing and driving out darker-skinned African tribespeople. While the world now marks the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and solemnly asserts that this must never happen again, it is.

Some 1,000 people are dying each week in Sudan, and 110,000 refugees, like Mr. Yodi, have poured into Chad. Worse off are the 600,000 refugees within Sudan, who face hunger and disease after being driven away from their villages by the Arab militias.

"They come with camels, with guns, and they ask for the men," Mr. Yodi said. "Then they kill the men and rape the women and steal everything." One of their objectives, he added, "is to wipe out blacks."

This is not a case when we can claim, as the world did after the Armenian, Jewish and Cambodian genocides, that we didn't know how bad it was. Sudan's refugees tell of mass killings and rapes, of women branded, of children killed, of villages burned — yet Sudan's government just stiffed new peace talks that began last night in Chad.

So far the U.N. Security Council hasn't even gotten around to discussing the genocide. And while President Bush, to his credit, raised the issue privately in a telephone conversation last week with the president of Sudan, he has not said a peep about it publicly. It's time for Mr. Bush to speak out forcefully against the slaughter.

This is not just a moral test of whether the world will tolerate another genocide. It's also a practical test of the ability of African and Western governments alike to respond to incipient civil wars while they can still be suppressed. Africa's future depends on the outcome, and for now it's a test we're all failing.  

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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