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Documentary : Out of Africa--and Back--Finds Faded Hopes : Three decades later, famine, corruption and terror have replaced optimism as the watchwords of the continent.

October 13, 1992|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAKAR, Senegal — A little more than 30 years ago, in the winter of 1962, I flew from New York on a dark night slashed with snow and landed in Dakar the next morning in sun so glaring it pained my eyes. The brightness seemed a fitting metaphor for a first moment in Africa. It was the time of optimism and hope, when African peoples were snapping their shackles to take a rightful place among the world's independent states.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Dakar to cover U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the 28th annual summit conference of the Organization of African Unity. I had not worked in Africa for almost 20 years. I had last covered an OAU meeting in 1973.

No one proclaims optimism about Africa anymore. Famine, corruption, terror, tyranny are its watchwords now. Africa may not even be at the nadir of its fortunes. It could sink more.

Yet Dakar has barely changed in 30 years. It is still a poor and hectic city of fading grandeur, the colonial capital of all of French West Africa before independence, but only the capital of small peanut-producing Senegal now.

The grand plaza downtown, called the Place de l'Independance, looks exactly as it did in 1962, distinguished by the elegant Chamber of Commerce in grand French colonial style and by parallel rows of dank, lusterless high-rise apartment buildings. These flats still house diplomats, European businessmen and rich Africans.

The city--with a population of more than a million--seems more crowded, more faded than before. The tiny Citroen Deux Chevaux no longer dominates the avenues--cars are larger, though more battered now. Fewer men sport the ample, dignified Senegalese robes known as boubous; there are more trousers and shirts. Perhaps this is a sign of modernity or, since boubous are expensive, a sign of poverty.

The stalls around the fraying downtown market still brim with goods and foods, and the textile shops on nearby streets are as ubiquitous as ever.

Only one change struck me. Senegalese youths jogged along beach paths on the corniche that leads to town. Others lifted weights or did calisthenics. Senegal boasted no visible joggers or weightlifters or gymnasts 30 years ago. News of the Olympic prowess of Kenyans, Tanzanians and Ethiopians had obviously seeped westward.

There is something warm and pleasant in finding a city trapped in time. By any measure of development, it's true, three decades of stagnation hardly count as achievement. Yet, compared to the doleful statistics from the rest of Africa, Dakar is far ahead by standing still.

The OAU sessions, still prone to posturing and bombast, carried me back to that 1973 summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia--and to a depressing irony.

African leaders were once loath to acknowledge starvation and suffering in their midst. Emperor Haile Selassie's attempts to hide the shame of famine in upcountry Ethiopia had embittered the university students in Addis Ababa and ensured their implacable contempt for him.

But a breakthrough of sorts occurred at the 1973 meeting. During a closed session, the African leaders voted to call on the world to help the continent's starving. The OAU press officer announced that decision later, but, when the press corps asked him for copies of the resolution, he had to admit in embarrassment that he didn't have any. They would be ready in a week or so. It seemed as if Africa wanted to cry out for help, but not too loudly.

That press officer was Mohammed Sahnoun of Algeria, who is now the U.N. official in charge of relief operations in Somalia. By all accounts, he is doing a heroic job in dire, dangerous straits and does not hesitate to cry out loudly for help to a nation crushed by one of the worst catastrophes in African history.

As we talked about Sahnoun in the lobby of the Hotel President on the beach outside Dakar, a U.N. official, who has flown in and out of Mogadishu, despaired of the horror in Somalia and its inanity. "Not only are they from the same tribe," he said about the warring subclans. "Not only do they speak the same language and have the same ethnicity. There is not one single shred of difference between them ideologically. They are only interested in power, and it cannot be shared."

The conversation made me recall my first visit to Mogadishu 25 years ago and an interview with then-Somali Prime Minister Abdirazak Haji Hussein. With both the United States and the Soviet Union eager to seduce Somalia because of its strategic location, the country on the Horn of Africa received more foreign aid per capita than any other nation on the continent in 1967--and showed almost nothing for it.

"Our problem is how to make use of the aid we have now, not get more of it," Prime Minister Abdirazak explained. "It's easy to receive aid, but it's not equally easy to make use of it."

Somalis had a reputation for frankness. No other African leader would say that then.

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