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Regional Outlook : Africa's Leaders Are Breaking Old Taboo : They're criticizing their own governments for the continent's desperate plight.


KAMPALA, Uganda — At a meeting of African politicians here recently, former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere broke a taboo that had managed to exist for 30 years: He openly criticized a fellow African leader.

The statesman so respected that even other African presidents commonly address him as mwalimu-- Swahili for "teacher"-- was speaking in front of an audience that included six other current or former African heads of state among hundreds of regional luminaries.

"Africa needs unity if it is to develop," he began quietly. Then he laid his hand on the shoulder of Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, the prime minister of Sudan, whose Islamic fundamentalist regime has been prosecuting a religion- and race-inspired civil war and turning a blind eye to the possible death from famine of 7 million of its people.

"But how are we to have unity," he said as the audience listened thunderstruck, "if we can't even have unity within our own countries, Gen. Bashir?"

Nyerere's remarks were one signal that the way Africa's post-independence leaders view themselves and their legacy is undergoing a sea change. As they contemplate an era of almost ceaseless decline and a surge in popular opposition and resentment, many are beginning to reappraise their own role in their continent's predicament. The conclusions they reach will go a long way toward shaping the Africa of the 1990s and the next century.

Central to their reappraisal is the acknowledgement that the governments they established upon independence have become increasingly estranged from their own people.

"There's no government established in African countries that the people would willingly fight for," said Adebayo Adedeji, head of the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa and a potential candidate to be Nigeria's next civilian president, in an interview during the conference. "We need African governments with grass-roots support and we should ask why they don't have it."

The question is critically important today because the last of Africa's independence-era patriarchs will soon be leaving the stage: Malawi's President for Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda is well into his ninth decade; Ivory Coast's octogenarian President Felix Houphouet-Boigny has pledged not to run for another five-year term when his current term ends in four years; and Zambia's Kenneth D. Kaunda and Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko face possibly unsurmountable political opposition.

Nyerere himself has gradually withdrawn from political life in his own country, ceding the presidency to a hand-picked successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, while retaining the chairmanship of the sole legal political party.

Their impending departure underscores how little they have done to prepare their people for the transition. Political skills in this region are rudimentary at best, and it may take years to instill Western-style confidence in political institutions across the continent. Meanwhile, the pressures and resentments engendered by dire poverty threaten to derail Africa's modest political awakening, as they encourage the resurgence of the old repressive systems.

"If we had a parliamentary system in place for 20 years, now we'd have politicians," said Adedeji. "Because of instability, political consciousness hasn't been developed."

There is no question that the current leaders' legacy is a baleful one. According to U.N. statistics, this year will be the 12th in a row that the standard of living of the average African has declined. In most accepted measures of the quality of life, sub-Saharan Africa occupies the bottom of the scale, accounting for nine of the 10 countries with the lowest life expectancies in the world, nine of the 10 with the highest infant mortality rates, and six of the 10 with the lowest literacy rates.

Today the continent is more dependent on foreign aid than ever--itself a special burden, for global demands on the developed world's resources are multiplying. At the same time Africa's strategic and economic importance is waning. Since the end of the Cold War, the region's geopolitical significance has been marginal. As for its economic role, last year Africa's share of world trade amounted to a meager 1.7%.

This year 27 million to 30 million Africans will face death by starvation--more than 10 times the potential victims from disaster in Kurdistan and Bangladesh, regions which have drawn far more global attention in 1991.

Rather than addressing or even acknowledging these problems, Africa's leaders have almost always been more concerned with their own power and personal security.

Even in this endeavor, they have mostly failed: Despite estimated annual military expenditures of $5 billion by sub-Saharan governments--in Ethiopia alone, the ousted Mengistu regime every year spent more than 60% of government income on the army--national security on the continent is the weakest in the world. During the independence era, Africa has experienced more than 60 coups d'etat.

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