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Some African Leaders Use Bush Rhetoric to Their Advantage - 2002-09-11

Analysts say that in Africa, some governments are using President Bush's rhetoric and the changed global climate, to crack down on their own opponents. Some are also using the situation to end international isolation brought about by human rights records that have been roundly criticized.

In Liberia, for example, President Charles Taylor says rebels whom he calls "enemy combatants" will be tried in military courts, not civilian ones. His remarks echo President Bush's call for suspected terrorists to be tried by military tribunals.

Mr. Taylor's government is under U.N. sanctions for supporting rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone's just ended civil war.

Kayode Fayemi is the director of the London-based Center for Democracy and Development.

"Charles Taylor has been doing a whole song and dance about being anti terrorist, like erecting monuments in Monrovia about the tragedy," he said. "Anyone who knows him knows this is just an opportunistic approach during a time he is under attack. And Libya has been pro-America in its response. It gave a list of Libyan dissidents living in Britain to the British foreign office which it dubbed as terrorists."

Mr. Fayemi says many people in Nigeria suspect U.S. pressure was behind the attorney general's decision to declare Islamic law unconstitutional. Before that the government had allowed nearly two dozen mostly Muslim states in the north to adopt the Islamic penal code, which includes flogging and death by stoning for drinking and adultery.

Nigeria's government denies the decision was linked to the U.S. war on terrorism, but Mr. Fayemi says the attorney general's decision was announced shortly after President Olusegun Obasanjo returned from a state visit to Washington.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe is also using the rhetoric of terrorism to fight pro-democracy forces. The secretary of the Law Society was recently arraigned for conspiring to overthrow the government, a charge also faced by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

In another incident, the minister of information called a recently bombed private radio station a terrorist organization.

Brian Kagoro is the coordinator of a pro-democracy group called the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. He says labeling the opposition as terrorist allows the government to justify the use of force.

"It exposes the opposition in Zimbabwe to a great degree of risk in the sense that the international community and regional groupings, like the Southern African Development Community and the African Union, which would normally intervene, are constrained because of the position taken by the U.S. president," Mr. Kagoro explained. "Also, the fact that you do not use the usual legal framework to prosecute suspected terrorists, gives the justification to the dictatorship to deny activists their civil liberties."

Perhaps the country that has most benefited from this change in international politics is Sudan, with the world's only Sunni Islamic government. It once hosted Osama Bin Laden for several years in the early 1990s.

Recent press reports say his terrorist group, al-Qaida, is transporting gold reserves there from Afghanistan and Pakistan, a claim Sudan denies.

Gill Lusk is the assistant editor for the London-based newsletter Africa Confidential. She says the world is mistaken if it thinks the Islamic government in Khartoum once openly supportive of toppling secular governments in Muslim countries has changed.

"It has done brilliantly. Sudan has manipulated the whole thing and it is hard to see for the West and Arabs that they are being manipulated," she said. "Sudan has always been good at manipulating the opposition domestically; now it is doing it with outsiders, saying, 'Look, we've changed.' It has deluged American intelligence with information, but there is feeling that if it really gave up 'the gold', information, it would have to incriminate itself, so it can not have given up much."

Ms. Lusk says Sudan represents as real a danger to the world as Saddam Hussein of Iraq although she says many Africans feel that he is no worse than many of their own dictators the West left in power, unhindered. Ms. Lusk says Osama bin Laden is only part of a larger international network of movements with similar aims with Sudan as an epicenter. She says Saddam Hussein has cooperated with the system. "Saddam will collaborate. A few years ago, he collaborated between Sudan and Iraq to build chemical and biological weapons, that was part of the logic for the bombing of Sudan a few years ago," she said. "With Iraq, there was military and scientific cooperation. Iraqi experts came to work in a Sudanese military complex. And there was a lot of talk that Iraq was storing [material] in Sudan because it was afraid of being attacked. Now that is not being mentioned and it is being presented as innocent."

Other African countries are benefiting from the campaign against terror because of renewed interest in reducing the West's reliance on Middle Eastern oil.

Africa Confidential newsletter editor Patrick Smith says this is good news for countries with newly discovered oil deposits like Gabon, Ivory Coast and Chad.

"If America needs gas, what are the countries that provide it? There is far less support for Rwanda and less interest in Uganda," he said. "These are not resource-rich countries and their problems appear to be legacies of Clinton administration. So U.S. policy is geared to Nigeria, Angola, and South Africa, where there is real connection with U.S. needs. It is a more pragmatic policy."

The current conflict is called the war on terrorism and pro-democracy activists hope it does not allow home-grown despots to placate the West, while sowing their own terror domestically.