A Ray Of Light In Africa?

This column was written by Fred Gedrich.
Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, recently spoke before a joint session of the U.S. Congress and met with President Bush. As Africa's first elected female head of state, she talked about the rampant disease, poverty, illiteracy, corruption, and war which wrecked her country.

Unabashedly proud of her country's strong and historical American ties, and deeply appreciative of President Bush for helping rid her nation of a tyrant, she seeks to transform Liberia into a prosperous and powerful beacon of freedom and democracy for other African nations to emulate.

Freed American slaves founded Liberia in 1820. Situated in West Africa, the country is slightly larger than Ohio has a population of 3.5 million. Its capital, Monrovia, is named after former U.S. president James Monroe.

Yet Liberians live under very difficult circumstances: Their life expectancy is 39 years; their GDP per capita is $700, their unemployment rate is 80 percent; and they recently concluded a two-decade civil war which killed 250,000 people and displaced almost the entire population.

And, sadly, Liberia's tribulations appear to be the norm rather than exception for Africa. In one of history's cruelest ironies, centuries of torment didn't end for most African people after they forced European colonialists to relinquish power in the mid-20th century. Venal African leaders quickly filled the vacuum and have done little to develop their societies or emancipate Africans from their horrid existence despite vast continental riches. Worse yet, many of these leaders have enriched themselves at the expense of their countries by confiscating large amounts of wealth generated by private enterprises and foreign aid.

Some startling facts emerge when one compares Africa's 886 million residents to the 5.5 billion who populate rest of the world: The average African's life span is 53 years, versus 66 years elsewhere. Africa's AIDS population is a staggering 25 million strong, compared to 15 million in all other continents combined. Africa's GDP is $2,400 per capita, versus the rest of the planet's $10,200. And Africa's illiteracy rate is 42 percent, almost three times the world's 16 percent.

Matters have been complicated by the civil wars, genocide, and anarchy that have raged throughout the continent for decades. Angola, Congo, Mozambique, Somalia, and Sudan exemplify the madness that has killed, displaced, and terrorized tens of millions.

Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group co-founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, attributes many African problems to "kleptocracies, military dictatorships, and single-party personalistic regimes that dominate political systems and perpetuate the cycle of violence and debilitating poverty." Its 2005 report discloses that only 12 percent of Africa's residents (103 million out of 886 million) can be considered free.

The problem is fed by Africa's leaders, who are equally obsessed with maintaining their power and resisting outside interference. Libya's Muammar Gadhafi, the 53-nation African Union (AU) founder, does not want Africans to accept humanitarian assistance if benefactors attach conditions, such as requiring recipients to account for expenditures. South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki prevented his countrymen from using anti-AIDS drugs recommended by global health experts even though his country led the world with over 5 million cases of the deadly virus. The Organization of African States (the AU's predecessor) did not intervene to stop the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans. Most recently, the AU failed to stop Sudan's Arab leaders and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe from committing atrocities against minorities and political opponents.

Despotic African leaders shrewdly use their powerful 53-nation voting bloc in the U.N General Assembly to protect their interests. It allows them to get prime seats on the Security Council and the Human Rights Commission. They also align themselves with other tyrants in the Non-Aligned Movement, such as Fidel Castro and his Latin American allies, who desperately cling to failed Soviet Union-era socialist policies, adamantly oppose U.S. anti-terrorism policy in Iraq and elsewhere, and collectively vote against U.S.-supported positions in the General Assembly 87 percent of the time.

Fortunately, the hostile views many African rulers have toward the U.S. and its allies are not shared by the vast majority of their impoverished and oppressed subjects. Many Americans understand this and support President Bush's efforts to promote and expand freedom and democracy in Africa as well as his multi-billion dollar programs to help alleviate and prevent African disease, poverty, and illiteracy.

Liberia's president Johnson-Sirleaf espouses free and democratic governance and appears willing to challenge the continental status quo by forging closer ties to the U.S. and other Free World countries. As a mother and grandmother, a graduate of Colorado and Harvard Universities, and a former political prisoner, she also appreciates the value of life, education, and freedom. Africa's best hope is to develop more leaders like her.

Fred Gedrich is a foreign-policy and national-security analyst and former State Department official. He has traveled extensively throughout Africa and is a contributing author to the recently published "War Footing."

By Fred Gedrich
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online