Africa is not in fashion these days. Most Western governments pay it scant attention, and even though crises there periodically make it into world headlines, the continent invariably sinks back into oblivion. Although Western opinion has vacillated since the end of the Cold War between Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism -- neither of which reflect reality very well -- the region has received neither the sustained analysis nor the political and economic commitment that other developing regions, from Asia to eastern Europe to Latin America, have enjoyed. Marginalized as the eternally dark continent, Africa has languished under Western ignorance and prejudice and Africans' own deep sense of helplessness.
The Clinton administration has made an uneven effort to change that. Despite the president's extensive tour of the continent in 1998 and his belated success in getting a watered-down trade liberalization bill through Congress earlier this year, his pleas to pay attention to Africa have fallen mostly on deaf ears. When the administration went so far as to declare aids a national security issue, three former State Department chiefs of Africa policy publicly disagreed.
Africans have hardly helped matters. The "new breed" of leaders heralded by Washington just a few short years ago as the stewards of an "African Renaissance" (Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda) are today all embroiled in or have just emerged from senseless wars that stretched from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. This has given Westerners yet another excuse to throw up their hands and, as Clinton said on his recent tour, wonder, "What is to be done about Africa?"
The question is a vital one, for Africa does matter -- whether or not one believes that aids is a national security issue. Drugs and disease do not respect increasingly porous national borders and impoverished and alienated youths make willing converts to religious extremism or terrorism. Peace and stability in Africa is therefore very much in the West's own interest.
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