In Africa, perils threaten gains


Challenges: Natural disasters, AIDS and political problems deepen the continent's long struggle between hope and despair.

March 10, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Once more, the world cries for Africa.

This is a continent where joy seems permanently hostage to tragedy, where setback lies ever in ambush of progress.

A baby, born in a tree, is snatched to safety with her mother by a helicopter rescue crew, just after the newborn's grandmother is swept out of the branches to her death by the raging floodwaters of Mozambique.

There, in a flash, is the human dimension of the continent's all-too-familiar fate.

As for the family, so for the country, and also for the continent: hope and despair, permanently twinned in a perplexing partnership that too frequently brings disappointment to the best efforts at improvement.

Africa's recent calendar is a timetable of trauma. Man and nature, between them, have contrived to give the African experience a one-step-forward-two- steps-back overlay.

Mozambique, until it was drowned in recent days, was a place of promise. Sixteen years of civil war had given way to peace. Pro-Soviet Politburo-style government had yielded to democracy.

Though one of the poorest states in Africa, it was enjoying the fastest economic growth rate -- 10 percent annually from 1995 to 1999, with the gross domestic product per person advancing 52 percent.

Inflation had been tamed from a runaway 70 percent five years ago to single digits. The country was, in its own African way, enjoying a boom.

Its neighbor South Africa, once its apartheid-era foe, was its friend. The Maputo Corridor was being developed along a new highway between the capitals of the two countries. Where guerrillas once crossed the border to kill, now convoys of commerce were meant to ply the route to trade.

Then came the rains to wash it all away. It will be years before Mozambique fully recovers from the human and economic cost of the disastrous deluge.

Even more disastrous for the continent is the plague of HIV and AIDS, spread mainly by unprotected sex. It is creating a generation of orphans, forcing grandparents to become nurturers and inflicting miserable death on the millions of victims.

Alongside it, tuberculosis is surging. Malaria, too, is making a worrisome comeback in places where it was all but eradicated.

Mozambique's disaster is natural and unpreventable. HIV and AIDS in Africa also appear all but beyond control. But other continental disasters have been precipitated by politics and greed and could surely have been avoided.

Look west to Angola, which should be one of the richest places on Earth with its mineral resources, mainly oil and diamonds. There the 4-year-old promise of peace was betrayed by the 1998 renewal of a civil war between the government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and the UNITA rebel army of Jonas Savimbi that has held the country's well-being hostage for most of the past 30 years and, again, refuses to let go.

Now glance north to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The 1997 overthrow of the shameless kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko by rebel leader Laurent Kabila produced hopes of a true democracy that would strengthen the much-vaunted but elusive "African Renaissance."

Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa, was among the first to praise and support Kabila. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was more cautious. He was wrong. She was right.

Kabila has turned out to be as bad as, if not worse than, Mobuto. And the former Zaire remains a country in agony. Democracy is nowhere; the chaos of war is everywhere, with a half-dozen other countries engaged in the fight.

If Kabila was wrongly identified by many as a member of the "new generation" of enlightened African leaders, there can be less doubt about the place of Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

He is an advocate of an Africa where self-sufficiency replaces aid dependence, where problem-solving is done in-country rather than internationally, where natural resources are used to benefit the many rather than the few.

His idea of democracy may be based on his party's supremacy, but, with the likes of Idi Amin in its recent history, Uganda knows progress when it sees it.

And, indeed, Museveni is one of the most widely respected of Africa's leaders. He has turned around his country's faltering economy, making it a showcase of the "new Africa," and himself a figurehead of continental renewal.

But fate again intervened a year ago. On March 1, 1999, a gang of Hutu rebels massacred eight tourists on gorilla safari in the Bwindi National Park, killing not only the foreigners but the country's vital tourist industry.

It was a major blow to Uganda's development. Museveni, in an effort to repair his country's image, recently visited the gorilla sanctuary to declare it safe. But the damage will take years to repair, impairing Uganda's development and its contribution to continental renaissance.

Heading west, one reaches oil-rich Nigeria. There, in February 1999, the military ceded power voluntarily to the democratically elected government of President Olusegun Obesanjo amid a groundswell of optimism.

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