LONDON -- France's minister for overseas development, Jacques Godfrain, startled an international conference recently by suggesting that ''Africa is on the way to becoming the dragon of the 21st century'' -- following the pattern of the ''dragon'' economies of Asia.
Thirty years ago, he said, few people predicted Asia's present stunning success. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were at war. Thailand was riven by internal conflict. Malaysia and Indonesia were battling communist insurrection, and South Korea was still emerging from the ruins of a debilitating war.
Engines of growth
''Today these countries have become 'dragons' with an annual growth of 7 percent or more,'' Mr. Godfrain said. ''It is going to be the same story with Africa.''
Forget the distractions of Rwanda and Somalia, Mr. Godfrain argued, and the devastation of AIDS. Purged by the medicine men of the International Monetary Fund, Africa now ''has good quality economic indicators. Growth is around 5 percent and trade is balanced. Revenue from agriculture, which accounts for 95 percent of production is good. Inflation is down.''
Yet, the executions by Nigeria last week of nine political activists and the fiddling and prevarication in Tanzania's general election make it difficult to exude optimism and gratitude that the decades of African economic calamity are behind us.
Half a loaf
The West, particularly the old metropolitan powers, Britain and France, appear to have settled for trading off political reform in favor of economic progress. As long as the African strong men balance their books, privatize their economies and prune their budgets, not too many questions will be asked about human rights.
From Yoweri Museveni in Uganda to Daniel arap Moi in Kenya to Frederick T.J. Chiluba in Zambia to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe to that old tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, who has survived every fad and pressure, the word is the same: Get the economy reformed and the West will go along with the political status quo.
Nigeria shows the weaknesses of that strategy. The largest country in black Africa mocks reform, both economic and political. The state has been looted. ''What remains in Nigeria,'' Martin Woollacott observes, ''is pure predation, the seizure of national assets by those who control the means of violence and the ruthless suppression of any who oppose the process.''
Lock and key
One man has the experience and the courage to rescue Nigeria. Olusegun Obasanjo in the late 1970s took the country from military rule to democracy. He is now firmly under lock and key. So is Moshood K. Abiola, who won the 1993 presidential election but was cheated of his victory.
The world has a stake in Nigeria's future. Despite years of military rule, it remains Africa's most vital state, where literature, art and a tradition of tolerance vie actively with the crassness of an oil economy that serves only to enrich the strongest and most amoral. The executed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Nobel laureate novelist Wole Soyinka have regularly embarrassed both the politicians at home and the Western oil men who prop them up.
Above all, Nigeria compels notice because its political repression shows how even great oil wealth cannot by itself lead a country to prosperity.
The Commonwealth, that strange response to Dean Acheson's observation that ''Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role,'' is where the Nigerian buck apparently has stopped. In New Zealand over the weekend, leaders of most of the countries of the former empire discussed a plan to clamp Nigeria with a severe range of sanctions. Even the pragmatists, the peddlers of economic growth, have nothing to lose. Nigeria is going nowhere, except downhill.
Don't cry for Nigeria. Its rulers deserve the world's contempt and the Commonwealth's clout. Its people have paid a terrible price. Without a return to democracy, they have neither an economic nor a political future.
Until the rule of law returns to Nigeria, the African ''dragon'' is so much wishful thinking.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.