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Can a New Africa Emerge After Decade of Decline?

November 09, 1986|David Lamb | David Lamb, a Times national correspondent, covered Africa and the Middle East for eight years and is author of "The Africans" (Vintage Books).

Historians may one day look back on the 1980s as Africa's Decade of Decline, yet from the string of disasters, culminating with Ethiopia's famine, there appears to be a new realism emerging in black Africa. For the first time, African leaders have admitted in public forums that although some problems are inherited and some are beyond their control, many have been aggravated by--to use the words adopted at a summit in Addis Ababa last year--"some domestic political shortcomings."

Next March will mark the 30th anniversary of colonialism's death in black Africa. On March 6, 1957, the British left the Gold Coast after 113 years and that prosperous West African colony became the independent nation of Ghana, the first of 48 African colonies that eventually would break the yoke of European rule.

Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, had studied in the United States in the '30s and '40s and when he left New York after World War II to lead the movement that would free an entire continent, he wrote: "I saw the Statue of Liberty with her arm raised as if in personal farewell to me. (I said silently) 'You have opened my eyes to the true meaning of liberty. I shall never rest until I have carried your message to Africa.' "

Nkrumah, who was overthrown in 1966 and later died in exile, remains a legendary figure in Africa, even though many of his repressive, socialistic policies laid the foundation for the political instability and economic deterioration that helped propel Ghana--and black Africa as a whole--into today's steep and steady decline. Sadly, for the legend-builders, it was always easier to dwell on the romance of Africa than to confront its realities.

And the realities of Africa in 1986 are cruel; what has happened there in recent years is tantamount to the effects of a world war. In terms of economic collapse, environmental loss, inadequate leadership and rampaging birth rates, Africa's crisis is unique, and now, three decades after so much was promised and expected, it seems appropriate to ask a troubling question: What went wrong?

That, in an indirect way, is one of the questions the nine-part TV series, "The Africans," sets out to answer on the Public Broadcasting Service. To hear Ali A. Mazuri, the documentary's writer and sole commentator, tell it, Africa has only the exploitative West (from the slave-traders and colonialists of the past to the multinational corporations and arms merchants of the present) to blame for its disastrous condition.

Although Mazuri's perceptions of Africa are very different from the ones I gathered during eight years traveling the continent, his comments make an important contribution to our understanding of a region that seems to catch our attention only during times of famine and revolution and superpower confrontation. First, we are seeing Africa through the eyes of an intelligent, articulate African, a perspective all too often missing in Western media; second, we are well-reminded that Western policies, like those of the Eastern bloc, are often self-serving, narrowly focused and, yes, exploitative.

But distancing oneself from the West--and thus, from the legacy of colonialism--is not in itself a significant yardstick of achievement, as Mazuri seems to imply it is. The revolutionary Algeria he points to as "one of the few post-colonial successes" was, I found, a weary, economically crippled country whose youth viewed the 1962 victory over France as an increasingly irrelevant platform of policy. The decay of Zaire has as much to do with the corruption of the Mobutu regime as with a decline in copper and cobalt prices. And the execution of former President William Tolbert's aides in Liberia--I was in Monrovia that day--was not so much an example of "Western carnage" as it was the vindictiveness of the semiliterate army sergeant who had overthrown Tolbert and disemboweled him in his bed.

Certainly, the West must share responsibility for Africa's failure, but so must the Africans themselves. As for the Europeans: They carved up Africa with artificial boundaries and left a parliamentary system that simply did not work in the tribally oriented politics of young, struggling nations. They left economies based on a single cash crop that were intended to help Europe, not Africa. And they left--after 500 years, dating back to the Portuguese settlements in Mozambique and Angola--a continent dreadfully unprepared for the burdens of nationhood. Zaire, for instance, had only a dozen university graduates among its 25 million people; Guinea-Bissau (formerly Portuguese Guinea) had not a single African doctor, lawyer or accountant; Mozambique had an illiteracy rate of 90%.

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