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Africa taking turns for the worse

Corruption, rights abuses seen on rise

JOHANNESBURG -- The African Union received credit last week from many corners, including the US State Department, when it blocked the appointment of Sudan's leader as head of the organization. In making their decision, members cited concerns over Sudan's human rights abuses in the western Darfur region.

But there was little mention about the AU's choice for the rotating one-year presidency, Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso, leader of the Republic of Congo. Sassou-Nguesso is no democratic star. He retook power in a civil war in 1997 that killed 10,000 people and now is accused by domestic critics and international creditors as overseeing wide-scale theft of the country's oil revenues.

The trends of democracy, ending conflict, and fighting corruption in Africa -- with a few notable exceptions such as the inauguration earlier this month of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf -- have in large part taken turns for the worse, analysts say.

The problems span several critical nations in eastern Africa.

Ethiopian troops killed more than 40 protesters and jailed several thousand demonstrators after rallies to protest election results last year. Uganda's two-term president, Yoweri Museveni, last year persuaded his party to amend the constitution, allowing for a third term, and then oversaw the arrest of his main opponent on what critics say are trumped-up treason and rape charges.

In Kenya's ever-deepening corruption crisis, the country's main corruption fighter, John Githongo, fled to London a year ago after threats on his life. A report by Githongo accused four ministers of trying to block his investigations. The BBC reported yesterday that he is considering returning home to testify in parliament.

In West Africa, young loyalists of embattled Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo attacked United Nations offices earlier this month and took over the streets of the commercial and administrative center, Abijan, for several days while police stood by. In Nigeria's oil-rich Delta region, armed gangs have taken hostage four foreign oil workers for more than two weeks, and last week attacked an Agip oil station, killing eight people.

Perhaps most worrisome, a triangle of conflict -- reaching from Sudan's Darfur region to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to the fight in northern Uganda between the government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army -- has in recent weeks become more violent.

About 20,000 Congolese citizens fled into Uganda in the past 10 days to avoid the fighting. Now, Uganda is threatening to push its fight against the Lord's Resistance Army into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Some analysts say sub-Saharan Africa may be entering a period like the one that plagued the continent in 1998, when wars raged in several countries, from Sierra Leone to Angola to Eritrea and Ethiopia. In those conflicts, violent groups took note that international donors took almost no strong steps to punish the instigators.

''In looking back 20 years, you see periods of relative tranquility in Africa that lulls everyone into a false sense of security," said John Prendergast, senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, a centrist think tank devoted to solving conflicts, in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

''There's often a domino effect once one conflict erupts. Other actors are emboldened. The potential exists for this to happen as it did in 1998. A lot of it is calibrated by whether there is much of a response," Prendergast said.

Many blame both power-hungry leaders who refuse to step down and criticize the United States, as the lead outside power, accusing Washington of not standing up to its principles of promoting democracy and liberty.

''What the West is doing in Sudan and Africa in general regarding human rights and democracy is lip service only, and by doing so, they are prolonging these dictatorships," said Gasim Badri, president of Ahfad University for Women in Sudan and a critic of the Sudanese government, by telephone from Khartoum, the capital.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir accused Jendayi E. Frazer, the assistant US secretary of state for African affairs, of quashing Sudan's bid for chairman of the African Union. Frazer recently traveled to Ethiopia in a first step to defuse renewed border hostilities with Eritrea.

But, Prendergast said, ''the United States hadn't done anything substantial to respond to that situation for four years, until the last few weeks."

The United States, he and several Africa specialists assert, particularly has not wanted to confront Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on his violent response to demonstrators because of Zenawi's assistance in the global fight against terrorism.

Last month, Frazer said the cause of the violence is ''the responsibility of the opposition, as well, because when the opposition takes stones and pelts the police forces, they have to respect the rule of law when they are demonstrating freely." Ethiopian officials thanked Frazer for her ''measured" criticism.

Badri, the Sudanese analyst, said he was disappointed in the US response to Ethiopia, as well as many other conflicts in Africa, including Sudan.

''Ultimately, these Western governments are interested in their own interest," he said. ''They're not interested in the wills of the people."

Still, some say the Western and African pressure to sideline Sudan in the AU debate was helpful. If Sudan's leader had been elected, they said, the perception of Africa as run by dictators would only be heightened.

''They managed to squirm out of a dilemma," said Paul Graham, executive director of the Pretoria-based Institute for Democracy. ''But then again, I don't think the choice of the Republic of Congo was on the basis of giving it to the country most deserving."

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com

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