Amid the deluge of hagiographic obituaries being published about Ronald Reagan who died on June 5, this year, there is the distinct possibility that what Reagan meant to the United States and Americans might be misconstrued as what the two-time President meant to the rest of the world. Sobering as death is, some home truths are important for a proper evaluation of Reagan's place in the pantheon of world leaders. Ronald Reagan was no friend of Africa. Probably the only time he ever set foot on the continent was in October 1981 when he joined his predecessors, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, to attend the funeral of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian President who was assassinated during a military parade in Cairo.
Reagan's attitude towards Africa is best illustrated by his Administration's responses to the continent's battle cry of the season. The Reagan Years (1981-1989) coincided with the peak of the decolonisation struggle on the continent. Apartheid South Africa was at its murderous best. Up north, the Frontline States were under siege. In defiance of various United Nations Resolutions, South Africa continued to occupy and deny independence to Namibia. In Angola, a fratricidal war that exploded with independence in 1975 was being stoked by the South African Defence Force which sided with Jonas Savimbi's UNITA. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and the other icons of the anti-apartheid struggle were still languishing in jail.
The Reagan Administration chose its friends. But they were Africa's hated men: Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, South Africa's Pieter W. Botha and UNITA's Savimbi. In January 1986, at a time when President Reagan was cancelling most appointments because of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, Savimbi was Reagan's guest in the Oval Office. Savimbi also met with Secretary of State George Shultz and Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The UNITA warlord was flattered with a customary media interview for presidential guests of honour. Two months before he arrived, President Reagan, in November 1985, approved covert military aid worth more than US$15 million for UNITA. Among the assistance were Stinger missiles, never before obliged to rebel groups, but which were delivered through Mobutu's Zaire. Within weeks of mobilising financial, logistic and hardware support for Savimbi who, by Angola's standards, was a terrorist, President Reagan ordered American planes to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi, because of Muammar Gaddafi's support for terrorist groups.
Reagan made Savimbi important, armed him and thereby prolonged the Angolan civil war, one of the longest and most savage wars on the continent. Savimbi's first diplomatic coup occurred when he visited Washington DC in December 1981 and met with General Alexander Haig, who was then Secretary of State. Haig had assured Savimbi that the Reagan Administration would find ways to by-pass the so-called Clark Amendment, which forbade US overt or covert support for any group in the Angolan conflict. By 1986, when Reagan plunged full-scale to support Savimbi, the rebel warlord was still being treated at arm's length by more knowledgeable and more concerned European leaders.
Buoyed by American support, by March 1986, Savimbi's UNITA launched its most ferocious attacks against positions of the MPLA-led government. The rebels attacked and took over a diamond mining town; and thereafter, it was one audacious attack after another. In 1980, the Angolan government earned about US$234 million from diamond exports. By 1986, there were no diamonds to market. Savimbi was reaping the blood diamonds. The 3000-km long Benguela rail line was sabotaged out of commission, with spill over consequences for land-locked Zambia and Zimbabwe which depended on the railway link for some of their imports and exports. Significantly, it wasn't until the Clinton Administration that the MPLA government was recognised in Angola. When he tested his popularity at the polls, Savimbi's nose was bloodied. Offered the post of Vice President, he spurned it, and returned to the trenches, where he eventually died.
By the time of Savimbi's ignominious death two years ago, there were various estimates of between 500,000 and one million Angolans who had been killed in the civil war since 1975. Four million others were either refugees in neighbouring countries or internally-displaced persons. The Angolan economy had been wrecked beyond recognition. Today, amputees still hobble along the streets, they being the grim evidence of the devastating impact of land-mines. Many would remember the late Princess Diana for her campaigns against land-mines. But we must never forget that UNITA which seeded Angolan land with mines was backed by the Reagan Administration. It was a matter for deep regret that up to the time of his death, Savimbi was not hauled before a war crimes tribunal for his countless atrocities against humanity. Slobodan Milosevic did not mastermind up to a quarter of the heinous crimes committed by Savimbi, yet the former leader of Serbia is being advertised as an example of the civilised world's revulsion against war crimes. Except the subtext, of course, is to suggest obliquely that Serbian lives are more valuable than Angolan lives, then the same standard of treatment ought to have applied to all other war criminals and their backers, just as Charles Taylor is now being justifiably hunted.
In the wake of President Reagan's transition, there has been a replay of the video footage of his address in which he exhorted: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Reagan was speaking of the Berlin Wall, which divided West and East Germany. In his eulogy last week, President George Bush Jr. declared: "Ronald Reagan believed that God takes the side of justice and that America has a special calling to oppose tyranny and defend freedom." Indeed, on the eve of the 1980 presidential elections in which he defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter, Reagan had derided Carter's record on combating tyranny abroad. According to Reagan, "If the Carter Administration 'stands with the victims of repression', the people of Cuba, Panama, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the mainland of China have yet to hear about it." Relative to Africa, however, all these were hypocritical grandstanding.
If Reagan was concerned about tyranny and repression, his administration did not seem to think that apartheid South Africa was a bad idea after all. Shortly after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, Archbishop Desmond Tutu appeared at a committee hearing on Capitol Hill. In a presentation that ignited an unprecedented applause by the committee, Tutu said: "In my view, the Reagan Administration's support and collaboration with (apartheid) is equally immoral, evil and totally unChristian... You are either for or against apartheid and not by rhetoric. You are either in favour of evil or you are in favour of good. You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can't be neutral." But Reagan was unmoved. To the bewilderment of all who knew of the steaming cauldron that was apartheid, President Reagan in 1985 said that P.W. Botha's "reformist administration" had "eliminated the segregation that we once had in our country". That was five years before Mandela was released from prison and nine years before the first non-racial elections that formally ended apartheid.
As subsequent events showed, Reagan's remark in 1985 was no accident. It was a calculated plot to denigrate the struggle for a free South Africa and thus maintain the status quo. Wearied by the orgy of repression in apartheidom, the US Congress voted for limited sanctions against South Africa in 1986. But President Reagan vetoed the sanctions, whereupon Congress overrode his veto. Yet the Reagan Administration was lethargic or lukewarm about enforcement of the sanctions. Coincidentally, Reagan has passed on at about the time Mandela said he was retreating from the public arena. It would have been instructive to hear Mandela's comments on Reagan's destructive legacy in Africa.
Reagan apologists might argue that his administration's policies towards Africa were mediated by Cold War political calculations. So, the US backed Savimbi's UNITA because the Cubans and Soviets backed the MPLA government. A kleptocrat like Mobutu was a welcome guest in Washington, because he could be used to hedge against the East bloc. And the liberation movements, whose ideology was often tinged with Marxist ideology and rhetoric, were undeserving of the assistance of the Reagan Administration. Whatever it was, Africa was hurt, and badly so, under Reagan.
Nevertheless, there is a persuasive suggestion that, beyond Cold War real politik, Reagan's disposition reflected his bigotry, benign as it was. Reagan gained national prominence in the US when in 1964 he co-chaired the California Citizens for Goldwater. Now, who doesn't know that Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a failed presidential candidate, was a racist elegantly dressed as the father of modern conservatism
In launching his campaign for the White House, Reagan kicked off in Mississippi, where racist zealotry was the norm. There, Reagan declared that he believed in states' rights, which has been translated to mean that Mississippi was right in its segregationist policies and the Federal government wrong in interfering with those policies. Civil rights activists in the US could not possibly have fond memories of the Reagan presidency which sought to tamper with the Voting Rights Act and then emasculate the Office of Civil Rights.
Whatever good leadership qualities Reagan exhibited, and there were many, the world must not forget that his administration helped build Saddam Hussein into the monster that he eventually became. Yes, Reagan's ultimate legacy on the international plane was the precipitation of the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War. But the world is not necessarily a safer or better place. Africa suffered then, and its agony, deepened during the Reagan presidency, hasn't been lifted today.