A Cry from Africa: 'Why Has Everything Stopped Moving?'

November 15, 1992|By BEN BARBER

NIAMEY, NIGER — Niamey, Niger. -- On the dusty bank of the Niger River a few miles outside Niamey, a college student was standing in the cool evening air memorizing psychology notes for a final exam. He asked a foreign visitor: "Why has everything stopped moving? We are waiting for democracy for months. But nothing is moving any more. We are worried."

His voice is echoed by millions across the belt of 12 former French African colonies from Senegal to Madagascar which have scheduled their elections this year. For nearly all, it will be the first election in which a strongman's party is not the only choice. At the same time, these countries are witnessing the traumatic, confusing emergence of a free press and political parties, the drawing up of new constitutions and a fierce debate over the forms and meaning of that magic word of the 1990s -- "democracy."

Even Guinea's repressive, Marxist and anti-white regime is to allow election of a new parliament Dec. 27 and a new president in spring. But progress is often halting or reversed. The Central African Republic was to have held elections Oct. 25 but President Andre Kolingba suspended the vote while in process.

The current drive for democracy began in 1989, when the Eastern European nations overthrew communism. Dictators in Africa suddenly saw the foundation of their strongman rule since the 1970s crumble. The East Germans, Czechoslovaks and Soviets who had propped up the anti-Western regimes of the Cold War era were called home and fired, leaving a sudden gap.

France had traditionally underwritten stability by backing most of the dictators of Francophone Africa with little concern for their progress toward human or civil rights so long as things remained peaceful and business ties continued. At the end of 1990, however, French President Francois Mitterand issued a ringing declaration to the former French colonies in a speech that stated there would be "no development without democracy."

Mr. Mitterand's speech was a call to arms for the students and advocates of democracy across the continent. The way these countries reacted to the new thirst for democracy was quite different from Africa's former British colonies such as Ghana, Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania, where authoritarian leaders set up their own democracy process, adopting existing election mechanisms without any break in continuity, coup or transition government.

The basic framework was as follows: The thirst for democracy inspired a few hundred or a few thousand students and intellectuals to dem onstrate in the capital; the dictator sent his troops to restore order; a dozen or more demonstrators were shot; the army and police wondered out loud if this was really the modern way to do things; the dictator agreed to name a national congress to move toward democracy and let off steam; the congress declared itself in charge of the country and installed a non-political transition government to run the country; teams were named to write a new constitution and election laws; elections were set to usher in democracy.

It sounded great on paper. But in country after country, the process ran out of pavement quickly, tumbling into the sandy thicket of tribal divisions, illiteracy, poverty, media control and the lack of political traditions. Meanwhile the dictators, like wounded lions in a fable, hunkered down in their palaces -- in Madagascar it was built by the North Koreans -- and waited for the movement to founder.

Yet while U.S., British and other Western governments, banks, foundations, businessmen and consultants pour into Eastern Europe and Russia to defend "democracy" with aid, advice, computers and contracts, Francophone Africa's 70 million people remain largely ignored, especially since the end of the Cold War has eliminated any strategic importance to the West.

In the Madagascar Bookstore in Antananarivo, for example, the collected works of Enver Hoxha are still on sale. But the late Albanian dictator's Communist regime has already been overthrown and his teachings repudiated in his home country.

Too poor to republish their party propaganda texts, the leftist dictators of Francophone Africa still distribute color photos of themselves with the hunted, jailed or executed hard-liners of the vanished Communist empire.

It is true that the French retained a special mission and responsibility after independence, sending advisers to the police and military, paying their salaries and even sending troops to restore the status quo. France also props up the Central African Franc (CFA) which is a common currency to several of its former colonies. Yet some say it is only America -- untainted by its ties to the corrupt elites of the past -- that can nourish the new democracy in the region.

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