Eye on Africa: U.S. must live its ideals
WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963. "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
As a boy growing up in Zaire, I watched with dismay the images of civil rights demonstrations on television. My young mind was marked by pictures of white police officers beating helpless black teenagers while ferocious dogs clung to their flesh. "That America is a hell of a place," I wondered.
Born after independence, I did not experience the brutal Belgian colonial regime my parents endured decades earlier. The little I knew about colonial oppression trickled down from their stories and history books. Moving images from Birmingham filled the gap.
With each passing year, King's message gains greater global meaning and pertinence. His cry for human dignity echoes across all four corners of the world.
King saw the global village and its interdependence 40 years ahead of his contemporaries. While his detractors insisted on the subjugation of the world by force, he saw the triumph of democracy over tyranny as the only way to world peace.
America has been on the wrong side of Africa's history for too long. For years, the United States supported Africa's colonizers and helped undermine independence movements. For another 30 years, America propped up dictators against their fellow citizens to win the Cold War. Today, the United States still misses the mark.
In this time of war on terror, the United States talks a new language but struts the same old gangster walk. From Djibouti to Uganda to Chad to Senegal, the United States runs military programs, acquiring new bases. Missing is an equally aggressive program for economic and political development. We still engage Africa the Cold War way - a sure way to failure in this new war.
Half of Africa's population lives on less than one dollar a day. Very high unemployment rates in many countries leave millions scrambling for survival. According to UNAIDS, 66 percent of the 38 million infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide live in Africa. Ethiopia alone counts 1.2 million AIDS orphans.
Because of the lack of resources and opportunities, AIDS has created a new permanent underclass, adding to the growing frustration and despair. Unless we aggressively address their needs, these orphans will be the next generation of child soldiers or perhaps worse.
Should we fail to solve this one challenge, we will come face to face with these children again under very unpleasant circumstances and on their terms.
As King said, "like so many experiences of the past we are confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of disappointment settled on us."
Freedom is not America's gift to the world; it is every human's God-given right. Like the demonstrators in Birmingham, Selma or Atlanta, millions of Africans yearn for freedom and human dignity. As a nation, the United States fails to appreciate their determination. Our sweetened diplomatic speeches fall short of their goal. From Egypt to Angola to Congo, they want freedom now: political and economic. Like King's freedom riders, they cannot wait.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Osama bin Laden chose Africa as one of the first battlegrounds in his campaign against the United States. In August 1998, his lieutenants simultaneously bombed U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, killing 258 and injuring more than 5,000. These are not Islamic states. Kenya is 78 percent Christian, and Tanzania's continental Tanganyika is only 35 percent Muslim.
With its poverty and frustrated populations, Africa remains a fertile recruiting ground for the likes of bin Laden.
It is a major mistake for the United States to take the Africans for granted. A new generation of African children developed their first image of America through the Abu Ghraib Prison pictures. Time is one commodity neither the Africans nor the Americans possess.
The world's downtrodden cannot wait for freedom and democracy. Neither can we. America needs to reexamine its policies and purify its soul. We are as safe as the relationship we build around the world.
Ours is an America with multiple personalities. One America is the democratic paragon born out of the Declaration of Independence. America sings the virtue of human rights. Another America supports dictators and turns a blind eye to the frustration of the oppressed.
One America extols the benefits of free trade, and the other pays its farmers millions of dollars to dump their goods on the world's market, keeping emerging democracies in poverty. That same America is surprised when immigrants seeking a better life reach its borders. It does not seem to understand why they come and hurries to enact tougher immigration laws.
"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." These words express a reality that America chose to ignore for too long concerning Africa.
Like Southern leaders in 1963, we often refuse to address the root cause of the problem, focusing instead on the outward expression of frustration. Like Northern leaders, we think the Southern problem will not affect us. It will.
In the fight for human dignity, we are either with the oppressed or with the oppressor.
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