Commentary: 2009 offers new chance to help in Africa

It would be comforting to believe that the approach of a new year might bring with it an assurance of fresh beginnings.

Regrettably, the mere act of turning the calendar page does not present, either for individuals or for a nation, the blessing of a clean slate. The past is a burden not easily shrugged off.

Granted the prospect of new leadership in Washington offers encouragement, but that does not in any way lessen the number or the gravity of the issues with which the incoming administration must contend.

The immediate, practical ones are obvious.

Our country's economy is widely thought to be at the tipping point between crisis and catastrophe. Major industries are careening toward failure. Millions of Americans have lost their homes and millions more their jobs.

Our occupation of Iraq has become unbearable, both financially and in terms of public support, and the situation in Afghanistan hangs in the balance.

Policies of recent years have put us at odds with our longtime allies on a range of important issues. Much of the good will we used to enjoy in the world has been spent. Recovering those assets will demand effort and patience.

Perhaps most damaging of all, respect for U.S. leadership has been diminished to the point where our capacity to act has been seriously compromised.

Nowhere has this impotence been more apparent, or had a more horrific cost, than in our ability to play a decisive role in halting the stunning human tragedies now taking place in several failed parts of the African continent.

I had the privilege as a journalist to travel much of Africa more than 40 years ago, when independence was new and the continent was aflame with hope.

How heartbreaking have been so many of the changes since!

In Darfur in western Sudan, a five-year ethnic war of butchery and rape has killed an estimated 300,000 people and driven 2.7 million from their homes, with some 5,000 of the displaced dying every week.

"My administration called this genocide," President George W. Bush said a year ago. "Once you label something genocide, you obviously have to do something about it."

Yet nothing effective has been done.

In the once-prosperous east African nation of Zimbabwe, the shameless tyrant Robert Mugabe has wrecked the economy and put the impoverished population at mortal risk. As many as one-third of the country’s 12.3 million people face the threat of starvation.

The health and sanitation systems have collapsed, and much of the population is without clean water. According to the latest United Nations figures, the resulting cholera epidemic — a crisis that Mugabe claims does not exist — has claimed the lives of some 1,200 and sickened nearly 24,000, with 600 a day newly infected.

And deprived of drugs or treatment, 3,000 Zimbabweans a week are reported to be perishing of AIDS.

Nigeria, with more than 146 million people, is Africa's most populous country. Its climate is favorable for agriculture and there are major oil deposits in the east. It once was seen as having the chance to be the continent's great success story.

But a succession of corrupt post-independence leaders stole that early promise. And hostility between the major tribal groups has impeded real nation-building. From time to time, various of those groups play out their hatred in orgies of primal savagery.

For sheer scale and duration, however, the horror of the internal conflict in the Congo eclipses any of these other nightmares.

From 1998 to the present, caught between government soldiers and various rebel and tribal groups contending for power and mineral riches, an estimated 5.4 million Congolese have perished in massacres and from resulting disease and starvation.

The current rate of dying, from what the U.N. has termed war crimes, has been placed at 45,000 a month.

These are not the only tragedies afflicting Africa. But they are the worst.

The question of fault is endlessly argued. Does blame lie with the history of colonialism? Or with indifference of the great powers to Africa’s need? Or with the failure of African leaders of principle to speak out forthrightly against abuses in their own backyards?

It's a fruitless debate.

A stark choice is faced. Either a collegial effort must be mounted to bring an end to these spectacles of violence. Or else the international community can write the failed nations off as lost causes, look away, and let the horrors rage on.

The first of those courses is sure to be costly and the chances of success uncertain.

The second is unconscionable.

Without question, the willingness and capacity of the United States to exert moral and political leadership will be indispensable in any attempt to save these broken regions of Africa from themselves.

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