SECRETARY of State James A. Baker's global crisscrossing takes him today to Geneva, where he holds important talks with the foreign ministers of Zaire, the Ivory Coast and Ethiopia; they serve as rotating members of the U.N. Security Council. Obviously, the secretary's principal reason is to consult with them on a possible U.S.-sponsored resolution authorizing force against Iraq. But while a major U.S. objective is to gain favorable responses from the three African nations, Secretary Baker should also use the occasion to add some needed velocity to the winds of political reform now sweeping through Africa.

There are compelling and intertwining reasons for these African countries to support not only U.N. action that might lead to a peaceful resolution of the Persian Gulf crisis but democratic reforms on their own continent as well. The reality is that the absence of progress on both fronts seriously jeopardizes their fragile and vulnerable economies as well as the well-being of their people. Unquestionably, the Saddam Hussein-induced oil price increases have already put at risk what little modest recovery Africa began experiencing earlier this year. A violent clash or a prolonged standoff in the Persian Gulf would translate into a deepening economic crisis in Africa that would surely take its toll in human and political terms. If for no other reason than those, the U.S. initiative is worthy of support. But so are the fledging efforts to establish more pluralistic and democratic institutions in Africa, since under the authoritarian rule of many of Africa's aging leaders with their one-party regimes, the post-independence economic systems have been abysmal failures.

Fortunately, the requirements of economic reform are now being recognized. Nearly two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africa have already started the wrenching task of structurally reforming their inefficient and wasteful economies. But the transition to more market-oriented economic systems should be accompanied by widening respect for freedom of expression embracing human rights, political pluralism, press freedoms and independent judicial systems. International aid donors are now incorporating these ideas in their assistance packages. And earlier this month, Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told an American audience, "In this era of limited resources, we intend to pay special attention to Africa's democracies and to countries which are actively engaged in the democratization process. As we told our African interlocutors on more than one occasion, those countries which fail to respond to -- or, worse, suppress -- popular demands for democratization will find themselves in an ever more disadvantageous position in the competition for U.S. assistance and private investment." That's a message that bears underlining by the secretary of state today.