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Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Viewpoint: Still hope for Africa
Food sellers in Lagos
Nigeria: Private sector trade has taken off
By Okey Ndibe

The news out of Africa is, almost unexceptionally, bad. That, at any rate, is how Africa is portrayed these days in much of the Western media.

Confronted with a dismal tableau of war, corruption and natural disaster, many voices in Europe and North America have reached for morbid metaphors. Africa is pronounced dead or dying.

But anybody remotely familiar with the complexity of Africa's experience would recognise these facile judgements for what they are. Africa's seemingly terminal symptoms have confounded the certitudes of casual observers and obituary writers before.

Woman hurt in Nigerian fighting
A victim of ethnic fighting - the result of impractical colonial borders
Africans themselves are under no illusions about the seriousness of the mess in which they are caught. One formidable obstacle takes the form of colonialism's most remarkable legacy: the arbitrary conflation of different cultural perspectives and peoples into national units.

Many African countries are only now confronting the fact of the internal incoherence of their claim to nationhood - and playing out their distress, often with dramatic violence.

Inner resilience... has served Africans through several centuries of a painful history

The colonial experience had few, if any, lessons in democratic deportment. Indeed, part of the current obsession with power among Africa's leaders is a carry-over from the vision of the colonial official as a creature of unbridled power.

Cold War legacy

The end of the Cold War was a turning point in Africa's combustion. As long as the war lasted, both the Americans and the Soviets, on the basis of ideological compatibility, propped up corrupt, sit-tight, repressive regimes.

So when Cold War receded, there was no shortage of freelance contestants for power - often well armed.

Wherein, you ask, lies redemption in all this grim picture? Most abundantly in the African resolve and spirit, in the inner resilience that has served Africans through several centuries of a painful history.

Senegalese woman votes
Senegal: Women play an important role in one of Africa's successful democracies
Foreign commentators on Nigeria all too often focus on the pernicious levels of corruption in that country. But a more moving story may lie in the flowering of private enterprise in the country, the effort made by many young professionals to create thousands of jobs for themselves and others. That genius, admittedly, is yet to achieve its potential, but nobody with a deep knowledge of Nigeria can fail to be impressed.

Making the most of little

While Nigeria's private sector marvel may be eclipsed by the wretched performance of the public sector, Ghana and Senegal exemplify the transformative capacity of good public policy. Each of the two countries, though in no way as endowed as Nigeria, has managed to do much with little.

My most compelling image is of big African laughter, resounding and deeply felt

They have nurtured themselves as fairly stable environments and shown a commitment to the establishment of infrastructures that ought to make foreign (and domestic) investment a plausible proposition. In both countries, women have made themselves an essential part of the fulcrum of social change.

In southern Africa, Botswana's success is even more admirable, partly because it has been sustained longer. That country's steady economic growth and democratic values rarely make front page news anywhere. Yet, Botswana's quiet progress stands as inspiration for other African countries currently haunted by corrupt leaders.

Face of promise

Like Botswana, South Africa is another face of promise and hope on the continent. Nelson Mandela's temperate leadership enabled the country to avoid the kind of racial convulsions that many analysts had predicted in the post-apartheid era. Under Thabo Mbeki, the country appears poised to take off on the path of economic growth.

Clearly, the vast majority of Africans dream about a richer, fuller life for themselves and their fellows. They cherish the democratic ethos and execrate dictatorships. Which explains the public exultation when Nigeria's General Sani Abacha and Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko died.

Whatever the strife, the true African spirit never ceases to strive

Africans desire transparency and accountability in public affairs. This is why the Nigerian public highly endorses the investigation into the finances of past military rulers. Africans prefer food to famishment, barns to bullets, life to death. They work hard and, on the whole, act with moral astuteness. They want their lives transformed.

Their nemeses are a tiny minority, albeit well-armed, desperate and depraved, like Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh. Many of these armed hordes, like the marauding thugs that have carried out Sankoh's orders, are youth caught in the web of hopelessness and peril - and trying, at a bloody cost to others, to put food in their stomach. Thanks to them, an enormous darkness seems to hover over much of Africa.


Still, my most compelling image is of big African laughter, resounding and deeply felt. It is the laughter of those who have suffered so much to know that you need not surrender to despair. The laughter I speak about can only come from a people who have suffered (and survived) enslavement, colonial bondage, neo-colonial subjugation, famine, internal repression, and civil wars.

Thabo Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki: Leading South Africa towards economic growth
It is, also, the laughter of those who have a stubborn pact with hope. It is laughter that speaks about a long view of life, a faith that, however impenetrable the darkness, light comes. Whatever the strife, the true African spirit never ceases to strive.

It is a shame that many in the West, ignorant about their complicity in this tragedy-in-progress, seem ready to declare Africa a hopeless case. The good news is that this kind of prognosis is hardly new.

The prediction of Africa's imminent collapse is a long-founded cottage industry. Africans will once again outlive the current frenzy of dour prophecies and gloomy forecasts.

Okey Ndibe is a Nigerian writer and academic, currently teaching in the United States. His novel Arrows of Rain was recently published by Heinemann's African Writers Series.

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