A Starting Point for Africa

June 24, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — Rwanda, says the Nigerian Noble Prize-winning novelist, Wole Soyinka, ''is clinically dead as a nation.'' Africa's leadership has failed. All we see now, all over Africa, is ''the trail of skeletons along desiccated highways, the lassitude and hopelessness of emaciated survivors crowded into refugee camps, the mounds of corpses.''

He points in two directions. The ex-colonial powers, Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and Portugal ''lumped various peoples and tribes together in some places or sliced them apart in others like some demented tailor who paid no attention to the fabric, color or pattern of the quilt he was patching together.''

Second, he indicts those ''African leaders who have been too concerned with maintaining their power and authority within these artificial ponds created by colonialism. They have been so eager to preserve their status as king toad that they've never really addressed the humanity entrapped within these ponds.''

What a price is now being paid. Africa is the only part of the world producing less food per capita than it was at the beginning of the 1980s.

Africa used to have 4 percent of total world trade; it now has less than 1 percent. Schooling -- only 1.6 years, on average -- is the lowest in the world. The number of chronically undernourished has risen from 100 million in 1970 to 168 million 20 years later.

Money is leaving Africa at a rapid rate; so are its brains. Between 1985 and 1990 Africa lost 60,000 middle- and high-level technicians to Europe and North America. The stock of flight capital is over $200 billion, equivalent to 90 percent of Africa's combined national income.

Military expenditures have risen 35-fold in the 30 years since most African countries won their independence. Spending now totals $8 billion a year. Nearly as much per head is being spent on the military as on education.

It is fashionable to blame the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for the ''structural adjustment'' that they are forcing on many debt-ridden African countries. Much of this controversy is a highly theoretical academic debate, but one thing stands out clearly to the layman. The IMF and the World Bank, when they demand cuts in government programs, do not lean on military expenditures. To do so would be regarded as an interference with sacred sovereignty. The IMF does not even systematically collect figures on military debt, although circumstantial evidence suggests it often matches or exceeds conventional domestic debt.

African arrears on conventional debt are $46 billion a year, amounting to 55 percent of Africa's export earnings. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development measures the ratio of sub-Saharan debt to national income as 109 percent, compared to 37 percent for the developing countries as a whole.

If the rich nations still wish to do something useful for Africa, here is where to start. There is no way Africa can repay its debt. On an optimistic scenario, it will have to wait two generations to reach the standard of living it had in 1975. The debt hangs like an albatross around a skeleton.

Debt relief should be linked to cuts in arms expenditures. For every $1 cut in military expenditures, the West should cancel $1 of debt. At the same time there should be, over the next three years, a phasing out of all military assistance programs.

Then we should take up the idea of James Gustave Speth, the United Nations Development Program's new, bright American director, to provide the Organization of African Unity with $400 million for its new Peace Fund. This fund would be deployed in potential areas of conflict -- sending in peacekeepers and monitors in crisis-prone countries, before a conflict erupts uncontrollably.

And maybe it is time to take a look at Wole Soyinka's point about the colonial map of Africa. ''We should sit down,'' he says, ''with square rule and compass and redesign the boundaries of Africa. The horror of Rwanda has taught us we've paid too high a price for a very vaporous and whimsical notion of what constitutes inviolate territorial boundaries.''

Debt and boundaries, Africa's two crosses. Until the continent unburdens itself of these it will see neither much real economic progress nor the political stability that development requires.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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