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RECLAIMING AFRICA : Continent's Problems Need African Solutions

July 10, 1994|Basil Davidson | Basil Davidson's most recent book on African history is "The Search for Africa" (Times Books)

LONDON — The really jolting thing about the latest French adventure in Africa is not that it has Rwanda as its scene. Even if something has needed to be done about Rwanda, the French have never had any responsibility for the affairs of tropical East Africa. Nor is it surprising that the United Nations should have given France the go-ahead, for the United Nations, as matters stand today, is not exactly strong on statesmanship. What is jolting goes much deeper in its implications. It is that Africa, as a continental presence in the world, is now automatically disregarded and written off. Nobody in the Western seats of power, as we see, any longer thinks that Africa's opinion is worth a row of beans.

As it happens, a different point of view was heard, last month, just when France had got itself poised to "save Rwanda." A long way from Rwanda but still very much inside Africa, 42 African heads of state--a record attendance--assembled in the sunlit city of Tunis. They were there to celebrate the 30th "summit" of Africa's otherwise forgotten continental forum, the Organization of African Unity.

This, in itself, was nothing of interest. For years, the annual "summits" of the OAU have come and gone on floods of useless demagogy, junketings that barely deserved the briefest mention. The world thought this, and the world was right.

But this time the world was wrong. First, because behind the verbiage of the OAU there is now a conviction, growing strong, that Africa's problems need Africa's solutions. Externally devised solutions have not worked. Africa's poverty and political decay are worse than ever, no matter what claims to the contrary are made by great world institutions supposed to handle these disasters. And, secondly, there is now in Africa a similarly strong conviction that Africa's solutions have to be devised and applied by Africans. Otherwise, the material interests of the outside world will continue to prevail.

All this was confirmed in Tunis with a new edge of urgency. There was heard a fresh language of flinty realism. And the symbol for this, a splendidly living symbol, was the presence at this "summit" of a new head of state, the South African President Nelson Mandela, proof in person that Africa's problems can be tackled only by Africans applying their own solutions. What peace in South Africa was ever even thinkable through all the 27 years that Mandela sat in prison, and non-African interests held the stage?

All through those years, moreover, mockery of the OAU became a knee-jerk media reaction. Yet, the economic and technical cooperative projects of the OAU achieved a record not so easily despised, whether in the vital fields of inter-African communications or in those of banking facilities. Nor were these decades disfigured, as in some other continents, by frantic inter-state warfare. The peace was not brilliant, but the peace was usually kept.

A success, therefore, the OAU? No continental organization having to cope with the various miseries of the colonial legacy could be that. Yet, the Africans in Tunis could still be sure, against whatever "external atmosphere" of indifference or scorn, that their OAU remains a necessary and indispensable means by which those most concerned--those, above all, concerned--can lessen these miseries.

If this still sounds utopian, think back a little. When the OAU was launched, in 1963, the proposition that Africa's problems required Africa's solutions, and not the outside world's solutions even while the outside world can greatly help, was common ground for everyone who took Africa's prospects seriously. Who better than Africans could know their own strengths and frailties, who more likely to reinforce the first and lessen the second?

And it stands on the record, through those early years, that this all-African forum was repeatedly effective: in settling border disputes between newly independent states, in fostering a vivid consciousness of the need for joint policies and common action, even in forging useful plans for economic expansion. Yet, the legacies of the colonial past, of long years of total dispossession by foreign powers, stood powerfully in the way of these bids for progress. Increasingly undermined by those legacies after about 1975, the politics of Africa have been dragged into catastrophes of brutality.

With bandits and careerists climbing to power, the OAU and its "summits" collapsed into a theater of empty talk, a scenario of the absurd. Patriotic Africans had to watch their communities paraded in the flippant images of commentating chatterers whose real ignorance of African realities was exceeded only by their odious condescension. Spectating from afar, there were even those commentators, among the louder-mouthed, who called for a "new colonialism," just as if the old colonialism had solved problems instead of creating them.

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