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10-08-2015, 22:54

RECENT TRENDS

Not all the news in Africa has been bad. Stagnant economies have led to the collapse of one-party regimes and the emergence of fragile democracies in several countries. Dictatorships were brought to an end in Ethiopia, Liberia, and Somalia, although in each case the fall of the regime was later followed by political instability or civil war. In Senegal, national elections held in the summer of 2000 brought an end to four decades of rule by the once dominant Socialist Party. The new president, Abdoulaye Wade, promised to introduce comprehensive reforms to stimulate the economy. Perhaps the most notorious case was that of Idi Amin of Uganda. Colonel Amin led a coup against Prime Minister Milton Obote in 1971. After ruling by terror and brutal repression of dissident elements, he was finally deposed in 1979. In recent years, stability has returned to the country, which in May 1996 had its first presidential election in more than fifteen years. Africa has also benefited from the end of the ColdWar, as the superpowers have virtually ceased to compete for power and influence in Africa. When the Soviet Union withdrew its support from the Marxist government in Ethiopia, the United States allowed its right to maintain military bases in neighboring Somalia to lapse, resulting in the overthrow of the authoritarian government there. Unfortunately, clan rivalries led to such turbulence that many inhabitants were in imminent danger of starvation, and in the winter of 1992, U.S. military forces occupied the country in an effort to provide food to the starving population. Since the departure of foreign troops in 1993, the country has been divided into clan fiefdoms while Islamic groups struggle to bring a return to law and order. Perhaps Africa’s greatest success story is South Africa, where the white government—which long maintained a policy of racial segregation (apartheid) and restricted black sovereignty to a series of small “Bantustans” in relatively infertile areas of the country—finally accepted the inevitability of African involvement in the political process and the national economy. In 1990, the government of President F.W. de Klerk (b. 1936) released ANC leader Nelson Mandela (b. 1918) from prison, where he had been held since 1964. In 1993, the two leaders agreed to hold democratic national elections the following spring. In the meantime, ANC representatives agreed to take part in a transitional coalition government with de Klerk’s National Party. Those elections resulted in a substantial majority for the ANC, and Mandela became president. In May 1996, a new constitution was approved, calling for a multiracial state. The coalition government quickly collapsed, however, as the National Party immediately went into opposition, claiming that the new charter did not adequately provide for joint decision making by members of the coalition. The third group in the coalition, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, agreed to remain within the government, but rivalry with the ANC intensified. Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, drawing on the growing force of Zulu nationalism, began to invoke the memory of the great nineteenth-century ruler Shaka in a possible bid for future independence. In 1999, a major step toward political stability was taken when Nelson Mandela stepped down from the presidency, to be replaced by his longtime disciple Thabo Mbeki. The new president faced a number of intimidating problems, including rising unemployment, widespread lawlessness, chronic corruption, and an ominous flight of capital and professional personnel from the country. Mbeki’s conservative economic policies earned the support of some white voters and the country’s new black elite but was criticized by labor leaders, who contend that the benefits of independence are not seeping down to the poor. Still, with all its problems, South Africa remains the wealthiest and most industrialized state on the continent, and many of its citizens still support the premise that a multiracial society can succeed in Africa. If the situation in South Africa provides grounds for modest optimism, the situation in Nigeria provides reason for serious concern. Africa’s largest country in terms of population, and one of its wealthiest because of substantial oil reserves, Nigeria until recent years was in the grip of military strongmen. During his rule, General Sani Abacha ruthlessly suppressed all opposition and in late 1995 ordered the execution of a writer despite widespread protests from human rights groups abroad. Ken Saro- Wiwa had criticized environmental damage caused by foreign interests in southern Nigeria, but the regime’s major concern was his support for separatist activities in an area that had previously launched the Biafran insurrection in the late 1960s. In a protest against the brutality of the Abacha regime, Nobel Prize –winning author Wole Soyinka published from exile a harsh exposé of the crisis inside the country. His book, The Open Sore of a Continent, places the primary responsibility for failure not on Nigeria’s long list of dictators but on the very concept of the modern nation-state, which was introduced into Africa arbitrarily by Europeans during the later stages of the colonial era. A nation, he contends, can only emerge from below, as the expression of the moral and political will of the local inhabitants; nationhood cannot be imposed artificially from above, as was the case throughout Africa. In 1998, Abacha died, and national elections led to the creation of a civilian government under Olusegun Obasanjo. Civilian leadership has not been a panacea for Nigeria’s problems, however. Northerners, who had traditionally dominated Nigerian politics, became irritated at the new president’s efforts to address economic problems in the southern part of the country. In early 2000, religious riots broke out in several northern cities as the result of a decision by provincial officials to apply Islamic law throughout their jurisdiction. President Obasanjo has attempted to defuse the unrest by delaying in carrying out the decision, but the issue raises tensions between Christian peoples in the southern part of the country and the primarily Islamic north while threatening the fragile unity of Africa’s most populous country. The religious tensions that erupted in Nigeria have spilled over into neighboring states. In the nearby Ivory Coast, the death of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993 led to an outbreak of long-simmering resentment between Christians in the south and recently arrived Muslim immigrants in the north. National elections held in the fall of 2000, resulting in the election of a Christian president, were marked by sporadic violence and widespread charges of voting irregularities. In the meantime, pressure to apply the Shari’a is spreading to Nigeria’s northern neighbor Niger, where the president has opposed Islamic law on the grounds that it would unsettle his country. Christian churches have been attacked, and bars and brothels have been sacked or burnt to the ground. Currently, the most tragic situation is in the central African states of Rwanda and Burundi, where a chronic conflict between the minority Tutsis and the Hutu majority has led to a bitter civil war, with thousands of refugees fleeing to the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). In a classic example of conflict between pastoral and farming peoples, the no- madic Tutsis had long dominated the sedentary Hutu population. It was the attempt of the Bantu-speaking Hutus to bring an end to Tutsi domination that initiated the recent conflict, marked by massacres on both sides. In the meantime, the presence of large numbers of foreign troops and refugees intensified centrifugal forces inside Zaire, where General Mobutu Sese Seko had long ruled with an iron hand. In 1997, military forces led by Mobutu’s longtime opponent Lauren Kabila managed to topple the general’s corrupt government in Kinshasa. Once in power, Kabila renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo and promised a return to democratic practices. The new government systematically suppressed political dissent, however, and in January 2001, Kabila was assassinated and was succeeded shortly afterward by his son. Peace talks are now under way. It is clear that African societies have not yet begun to surmount the challenges they have faced since independence. Most African states are still poor and their populations illiterate. According to a World Bank report published in 2000, sub-Saharan Africa is the only major region in the world where the population is living less well than it did in the 1960s. But a significant part of the problem is, as Wole Soyinka contended, that the nationstate system is not particularly well suited to the African continent. Africans must find better ways to cooperate with each other and to protect and promote their own interests. A first step in that direction was taken in 1991, when the Organization for African Unity agreed to establish the African Economic Community (AEC). In 2001, the OAU was replaced by the African Union, which is intended to provide greater political and economic integration throughout the continent in years to come. As a first step, West African states have set up a peacekeeping force to monitor fragile cease-fires in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, where civil wars have caused widespread devastation. As Africa evolves, it is useful to remember that economic and political change is often an agonizingly slow and painful process. Introduced to industrialization and concepts of Western democracy only a century ago, African societies are still groping for ways to graft Western political institutions and economic practices onto a native structure still significantly influenced by traditional values and attitudes. As one African writer recently observed, it is easy to be cynical in Africa because changes in political regimes have had little effect on people’s livelihood. Still, he said, “let us welcome the wind of change. This, after all, is a continent of winds. The trick is to keep hope burning, like a candle protected from the wind.”

 

 

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