So some 30 government journalists, 20 from the independent press, and a few foreign correspondents in town by chance, spent three hours Feb. 1 asking a fairly wide range of questions. The president showed himself to be a crafty, confident and witty politician, unfazed by the questions, which became increasingly pointed as the conference went on. Even his own man -- one of the government press men -- shocked the room by asking when the army would return to the barracks.
The new government went one step further that night when it allowed the entire press conference to be broadcast on TV and then on radio. Unedited. A taxi driver, days later, turned to a foreign passenger and said: "You are the journalist who asked what the government will do about the poor. The president's answer was not correct. He said they should go back to their villages. But there is nothing to do back there."
The opening up of press freedoms in Guinea, Niger, Senegal and a score of other African countries emerging from repression has enormous importance. If the independent media take on the form of French and English language broadcasts and publications, that will deepen the gulf between elite and the poor. Unlike Southeast Asia, Africa's leaders and bureaucrats have largely failed to adopt economic policies that have benefited the majority of its citizens.
In the past two years I have been part of a small team of working American journalists to lead short, U.S.-funded training seminars for reporters from the government and independent press in Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea.
But because U.S. media have a deep fear of getting in bed with the government in any form, several talented colleagues with wide experience in Africa or fluency in French have been forced by their editors to cancel participation in the workshops.
If the birth of press freedom in these countries is to lead to responsible and effective mass communications, the United States can play a vitally useful role:
* U.S. media should allow newsmen and women to participate in workshops -- even if the funding comes from the U.S. government -- which aim at professional training similar in focus to U.S. journalism schools.
* The Voice of America, whose Hausa language service is widely valued as the only alternative to government programs in Niger, should expand its broadcast services to include other languages, such as Wolof, Malinke, Susu and Peul. Right now, millions who speak those languages get nothing except their own government's views.
* Aid programs might include newsprint for the independent press. Literacy campaigns often founder when there's nothing to read.
A senior U.S. official who deals with Africa policy told me recently that the rush of enthusiasm for democracy in Africa in 1991 and 1992 has turned to frustration as nation after nation stumbles over election fraud, ethnic politics, violence, rising crime and unstoppable poverty. Some Western advisers from the World Bank blame corruption and mismanagement by African governments; African leaders blame the legacy of colonialism and the falling prices of Africa's exports such as coffee and minerals.
It's clear that the French, who have long propped up their former African colonies with aid, advisers and troops to quell disorder, are withdrawing their commitment. Recently the Central African franc, which is backed by the French government and used in 14 countries, was devalued by 50 percent. Increasingly, the United States, despite its focus on aid to Eastern Europe, is seen as the last source of aid, advice and investment.
Even if it takes many years and there are many setbacks, Africa has a decent chance to win the race between population and development and to avoid turning much of the continent into a series of Somalias. To nourish the best of what these nations hold in their cultures and environments and to help them create an informed public able to respond to such challenges as AIDS, changing markets and political choice, a timely and abundant sharing of our glut of media resources is a wise and cost-effective policy to follow.
Europeans such as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel said that Radio Free Europe's broadcasts nourished their successful drive toward democracy. A similar investment here can have similar impact and will cost less than emergency humanitarian or military aid after things fall apart.
Ben Barber is a free-lance writer.