The Trouble with Africa

August 10, 1994

This is not the first time when news from Africa was pessimistic. But particularly troubling is a belt of anarchy and despair running across the continent roughly between the Equator to 10 degrees north. Somalia disintegrated. Ethiopia, under a dreadful Marxist dictatorship, succumbed to revolution. Southern Sudan is starved and persecuted by a vengeful Islamic dictatorship in the north.

Kenya is in the grip of a dictator. Uganda had its revolution, thanks to mercenary exiles from Rwanda who have just taken over their own country, after the most ferocious of several genocidal episodes there. Burundi, sharing the same ethnic stew, is on the brink. Rwandan refugees are burdening Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Zaire.

Mighty Zaire, preserve of the voracious U.S.-imposed dictator, Mobutu Sese Seku, disintegrated and hardly exists. The most populous African country, Nigeria, is beset by rebellion against a military class that continually agrees to democracy and reneges. Oil field labor unrest there is raising U.S. gasoline prices. To the west, American-founded Liberia fell apart and is occupied by a West African consortium of nations. Nigerian troops doing good in Liberia can do no harm at home.

AIDS began as a human disease in the center of this belt, heterosexually transmitted. It spreads misery and death wherever modern industry, such as mining or trucking, disrupts traditional village and family life.

A certain humility is required before outsiders make broad generalizations about what may have gone wrong. Independence and democracy were supposed to uplift oppressed former colonies throughout Africa. Then one-party states and socialism were. Then the Cold War rivalry of the U.S. and Soviet Union was making the trouble, along with racial war in southern Africa. The end of both has not extinguished the flames they fanned. World lending institutions, after fobbing debt on poor countries unable to repay, are imposing austerity and market reforms. The verdict on this latest nostrum is not in.

But not all news from Africa is bad. Secessionist Eritrea is a model new state. Malawi's ancient dictator gracefully conceded defeat in election and retired. Uganda's revolutionary regime is benign. South Africa is beginning its transition more positively than anyone predicted. Zimbabwe is working better than many expected, as is Namibia. Mozambique's civil war has subsided. The World Bank is giving good marks to countries following its advice, Ghana and Zimbabwe among them.

Not since the colonial scramble has Africa enjoyed so low a priority in major powers' foreign policy. Africa can expect little aid but no harm, where in the past it was given much of both. Most of Africa is poor and much is pre-modern. African development will proceed, under African direction, but not at the speed that once seemed mandatory.


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