Africa's Dilemma

June 23, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — The problem of Africa is very simple. It is not tribalism, poverty or AIDS. It is that in most of Africa there is virtually no educated professional middle class of the kind that makes modern societies and economies work.

This is a problem in developing countries generally, but is peculiarly acute in Africa, where until the last century society was pre-literate, its economies ranging from the hunting-and-gathering or simple agricultural or pastoral communities, to the advanced trading kingdoms of west Africa. In many respects African societies were also complex and sophisticated, of considerable artistic richness. But in the 19th century they were helpless before the Europeans who colonized them and brutally destroyed what, until then, they had been.

A century later, in the great wave of anti-imperialism and decolonization that followed the second world war, Africa's societies were launched into independence, with the ambition to become modern nations based on one or the other of the only two political and economic models available to them: the liberal democratic and the state socialist. Nearly all chose the latter. This led to fiasco. As Conor Cruise O'Brien -- a friend of Africa's -- has written, African socialism ''has no success stories to tell.''

Since communism's collapse, Africa's elites have nearly all placed their faith in the democratic and free-market model of development, encouraged to do so by pressures from the World Bank and IMF. This has produced mixed economic results, but has provided no solution to the basic political problem that no ''civil society'' exists of the kind that elsewhere makes democracy function.

In the absence of responsible and politically active middle classes, these countries have mostly experienced arbitrary personal rule, usually based on the dominance of a particular ethnic group, or they have been governed by their armies.

Armies at least have disciplined structures and problem-solving habits, and possess basic administrative and engineering skills. They offer careers to men of action -- who sometimes possess few other qualities. Military problem-solving has consistently turned into military dictatorship, leading to rivalries and coups, and too often to the eventual victory of the cruelest and most ruthless. Hence the ''Emperor'' Bokassa, Idi Amin in Uganda and the ''revolutionary'' -- actually factional -- wars that have ravaged Zanzibar, Angola, Liberia, the Sudan and Ethiopia. Even so passionate a friend of African liberation as Basil Davidson, author of more than 20 books on post-colonial Africa, has admitted that conditions today are often worse than they were in 1950.

Thus the Nigerian Nobel Prize laureate, Wole Soyinka, and some Western commentators now challenge the post-colonial taboo on changing Africa's national frontiers -- established by the colonial powers in 1885 and only slightly altered since. New borders could be made to coincide with ethnic fron

tiers. This is an argument we are familiar with from Eastern Europe. Rwanda today, like the former Yugoslavia, demonstrates where it can lead.

Basil Davidson insists that the nation-state is totally artificial in Africa, and that if it were abolished, ''participatory structures within a wide regionalist framework'' would take its place -- which seems to me entirely sentimental.

The dilemma of Africa is that it needs development in order to be able to develop. To build a modern society and modern economy it needs exactly the ''civil society'' that only generations of development will produce. The African continent was not

allowed to live and change at its own pace, so as to produce its own modernizing elites.

Even today, as one Ethiopian intellectual has said, ''you have B.C., A.D. and the 21st century'' all coexisting, ''and in some places, like the southern Sudan and Somalia, it's even more B.C. than it was five years ago because of civil war.''

I remarked in a book last year that much of Africa would benefit from a disinterested international neocolonialism that could allow the time, and allocate the resources, for the development of civil society. This was described by a New York Times critic as a ''decidedly eccentric'' idea, and by Dr. O'Brien as preposterous. However, it is the assumption that lies behind the rather desperate and disorganized international efforts being made to save the Somalis from themselves and, now, to prevent Rwanda from accomplishing its own genocide.

However, eccentric or not, it is an irrelevant idea. The advanced world -- as we call it -- has other things to do than recolonize an Africa that demanded, and demands, to be its own master. It has little interest in providing the funds and effort that might deflect the interlinked demographic, economic and health catastrophes Africa confronts. It is interested in certain African economic resources and raw materials, but it will continue to avert its eyes from the larger tragedy of African political society in the 20th -- and 21st -- century. It will also ask, not without cause: What else can it do?

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.