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Our Hearts of Darkness


A nightmarish scenario indeed. It sounds so absurdly horrible that one might be tempted to laugh if all of these things were not actually happening right now — in Africa. In the Great Lakes region of central Africa, factions backed by six countries have been waging a bitter war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), looting Congo's lumber and mineral resources while they're at it. The opposition leader who chops off children's hands and forces them to serve in his rebel army is not a figment of my imagination, but Foday Sankoh, leader of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front, whose list of war crimes would make even Henry Kissinger shudder and who is now in jail on murder charges. The collapsed state run by warlords? That would be Somalia.

The legacy of colonialism dealt Africa a brutal hand. First came the European slave-traders. Then when the flesh trade went out of fashion, the "civilizing mission" began. The colonizers forced complex societies into stilted political units and played clans off against each other, paving the way for the ethnic implosion of the 1990s. When the Europeans finally "decolonized" in the 1950s and 1960s, they left in charge a group of European-educated elites who cared little for the people. The color of the yoke changed, but not much else — and most Africans never got a starting chance. The result has been failed states like Sierra Leone, DRC and Somalia.

The point here is not to suggest that Africa is a basket case. To the contrary, Africa is rich in human and natural resources and some African nations have thrived in spite of tremendous adversity. Although nestled in one of the world's most volatile regions, Ghana has remained stable and democratic. But for most Africans, the Ghana model is a distant beacon of hope. It remains the exception, with political, economic and social turmoil the norm. Fortunately, America is in a great position to help Africa recover. Sadly, we have done very little so far.

War, AIDS and diamonds fuel Africa's turmoil. Without much effort or expense, America can mitigate the impact of all three. There is a significant possibility that those diamonds in your jewelry came from a cave in Sierra Leone, and were picked by a 7-year-old girl working as a slave to some warlord who then exchanged those diamonds for machine guns. The "blood diamond" trade that links Sierra Leonean children with American consumers is responsible for fueling a war that probably would have fizzled out five years ago if not for the diamond revenue. In Angola, the Unita rebels sustained their war for more than 27 years thanks in large part to an annual blood diamond income of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Most diamond dealers in New York have no idea where their diamonds originally came from. If the principal diamond importing nations — of which the U.S. is the biggest — and the diamond industry could implement a tracking system to ensure that these blood diamonds do not get into the mainstream market, we could douse the fire that keeps these wars going.

Among the African nations that are not currently embroiled in political crises, many are suffering through a health epidemic that has doomed an entire generation. Of the global total of 36 million people infected with HIV in 2000, about two-thirds live in sub-Saharan Africa. Among the 3 million people who die of AIDS every year, 85 percent are from Africa. The U.N. estimates that if the epidemic is not controlled, Africa will lose 35 percent of its labor force by 2020.

To beat this deadly disease, African nations will need to devote resources that they do not have. African nations spend only $165 million a year to combat AIDS. But according to James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, an effective and comprehensive prevention program for sub-Saharan Africa would cost $2.3 billion a year.

How can poor countries pay for AIDS drugs when they are forced to pay nearly $15 billion a year to foreign creditors? America should help them in their struggle by writing off Africa's debt.

Forgiving the debt is not a stroke of charity — justice requires it. Many of the loans to Africa were illegitimate to begin with, used by rich countries to prop up corrupt, repressive or dictatorial regimes. South Africa's apartheid regime accumulated more than $18 billion in foreign debt in the 15 years before it fell. Today, a democratic South Africa is left to pay its tormentors' IOUs. By canceling the debt, we would both help Africa fight an epidemic and undo the mercantilist policies of the 1970s and 1980s that ravaged Africa's economy.

Some people seem to think that helping other countries involves sending in thousands of Marines and/or spending billions of dollars. But, in fact, we can do much good by simply being responsible consumers and lenders. If we stop buying blood diamonds and cancel illegitimate debts, we would put Africans in a position to help themselves.

Of course, it would be great if U.S. pharmaceutical firms stopped hoarding AIDS drugs and if Congress could approve a multibillion dollar Marshall Plan for Africa. That's probably what we would do if Europe suffered as Africa suffers today.

But we must begin by acknowledging that Africa matters. Not because there is a powerful African lobby in Washington. Not because it figures prominently in national security. Not because of the "African vote." Africa matters because human lives matter. Indeed, we must have hearts of darkness if we continue to turn our backs on Africa in her time of need. S

© 2002, The Harvard Crimson Inc.

Nader R. Hasan graduated this June from Harvard with a concentration in government.

This column appeared first in the Harvard Crimson May 24.

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