Some African Success Stories

JONATHAN POWER

December 11, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

Bamako, Mali. -- Are we going to write off Africa as a continen of discord and destitution, of disaster and desperation, degradation and disrepair, where nothing works and feuding warlords divide the little that remains? This may be some people's Africa, but it is not mine.

Go down to the seafront in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a country that lives at peace with itself, has never known a coup, much less a war, and seems, as the sun starts to go down, to erupt with spontaneous energy.

Every beach swarms with flailing arms and legs, rhythmically stretching and pulling, thousand upon thousand. It is exercise time. The streets are jammed with joggers. Poverty abounds, as it does everywhere in Africa. The encircling shantytowns dwarf the still-maintained elegance of downtown Dakar. In the countryside, the crops are withered by the remorseless onslaught of sun and aridity.

Nevertheless, the Senegalese exhibit the most important ingredients of life: optimism, energy and momentum. The outside world may feel Africa is down and out, but manifestly that is not the feeling in Dakar.

For a rather different, but even more significant, measure of vitality, read the local newspapers and listen to the radio, not just in Senegal but right across French-speaking Africa, where in the last few years governments have been rapidly growing both more tolerant and more democratic.

Senegal's weekly, Le Politicien, is the grandfather of Africa's proliferating satirical press. Founded in 1976, it has all but eclipsed the government daily that used to dominate. In its early days, its barbed style landed the editor in prison more than once. More accepted now, it continues to thrive, spawning imitators at home and abroad.

In oil-rich Gabon, the satirical paper La Griffe (The Talon) wages regular warfare with the head of state, Omar Bongo. In August he issued a stern warning: ''Let the insults, attacks and provocations stop. Let the press confine itself to what is worth knowing.'' La Griffe has left deep scars in its exposes of corruption and malpractice. But the warning has neither intimidated nor changed it. It continues to sharpen its claws.

Here in Mali, its Marxist regime only recently interred after an army coup and the calling of elections, a new democratic government in May was to pass a law authorizing private radio and television stations. The film-maker Cheik Oomar Sissoko started the first. But it hit so hard that the government buried its democratic pretentions in petty retaliation.

First, it presented the station with a $10,000 bill for ''dues'' for the Malian Bureau of Authors' Rights. It followed with a series of power cuts, which took the station off the air while government radio continued to broadcast. The Department of Energy explained the cuts as the work of bats which had gnawed through the power lines. This prompted the satirical weekly, La Cigale Muselee, to observe that ''We must hope that the presenters are not eaten by lions, the archives by ants and the water supply by hippopatami.''

Contrast these events with a story from Equatorial Guinea, where the old ways of doing things persist. The current issue of Index on Censorship, a London-based magazine that fights for persecuted authors, reports in its current issue on Placido Mico, the brave 29-year-old editor of an underground paper, who quite fearlessly has kept the light of press freedom burning long after everyone else has gone to ground.

Earlier this year he was seized by members of the presidential guard, led by the president's son-in-law. Then the president's brother directed the torture session where he was beaten while suspended upside down, his arms tied around a metal bar. Only a massive outcry by friends abroad, mainly in France, won his release.

Do not forget, in this time of war, famine and military rescue, that Africa has its share of vibrant personalities and brave souls. This continent has energy and bravery a-plenty. Those who damn its future, seeing only Somalia and Liberia, are looking through the wrong end of their telescopes.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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