Africa Beset

For much of Africa this year, immediate threats to survival dominated national agendas. In the extreme north and south, Libya and South Africa attacked the territory of weaker neighbors. Less noticed but far more widely devastating, a harsh drought destroyed crops across the continent, confronting more than 20 million people with the prospect of starvation. Declining rates of per capita food production over the last decade, coupled with escalating debt and falling returns on exports, left many African states at the margins of existence-at least according to Western calculations. And at year's end, a military coup abruptly ended four years of American-style democratic government in Africa's largest nation, Nigeria, renewing fears about political upheaval throughout the continent.

Partly in consequence of this general buffeting, African nations remained unusually silent in international and intra-African forums. Pounded by nature and the ongoing worldwide recession, aware of their military weakness in an international environment increasingly characterized by resort to force, African states as a group discernibly muted their activism on the continent-wide political issue of southern African liberation. After three years of diplomatic stalemate in the Reagan round of the Namibia negotiations, and in face of the continued use of South African military force against recalcitrant neighbors, the independence of Namibia seemed to have lost much of its salience as an issue.

For the Reagan Administration, that diminished African attention-paralleled by a U.S. focus on Middle East and Central American crises-came as something of a blessing. Apart from a midsummer alarm over Chad, and a major speech on southern Africa by Under Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, the momentum of the Reagan policy toward Africa appeared to have been largely exhausted. As hopes for a Namibia settlement dimmed, escalating military pressure on Angola from South Africa and the Pretoria-backed Angolan insurgent movement, UNITA, seemed to preclude any early departure of the Cuban forces from Angolan territory. In this context, year-end proposals by the Botha government for negotiated cease-fires both with Angola and with the Namibian SWAPO insurgents apparently aimed more at improving South Africa's image than at achieving an international settlement.

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