The people of Africa, not its tyrants, need our aid

`A stable country seems to be defined as a place where a genocide, a famine or a civil war is not going on'
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I'VE SPENT most of my reporting career trying to persuade editors that Africa is a place we need to take seriously. In the old days of apartheid South Africa it wasn't so difficult. We were reporting an issue which - on the face of it - represented one of the last great moral challenges. It was easy to get people worked up about South Africa and the Frontline States. As simple as black and white. Beneath our moral indignation, of course, there lurked a subtle racism. We cared that whites were being beastly to Africans because ... well they were whites. As if we expected something better from them.

If that was not the case can anybody explain why we didn't take to the streets and protest when the Burundi army murdered 250,000 members of the Hutu majority in 1973? Or why the left sat on its hands and kept quiet when Mengistu unleashed his savage purges? The buffoon butcher Idi Amin did get us worked up. But it had less to with the unfortunate Africans who were being tortured to death in his jails, than with the prospect of providing shelter for thousands of Asians deported from Uganda.

Moral indignation was something which only clicked into action with the nasty Boers. And so we remember - quite rightly - the names of Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela and a host of other strugglers against apartheid. But can we name one victim of the horrors further north? Maybe Patrice Lumumba of the Congo - who was murdered by an unholy alliance of power-hungry locals and American intelligence. But I suspect even his name is not one that trips easily off the tongues of even those with a half-decent knowledge of foreign affairs.

We could weep for Africa all right. But it was the generalised and shortlived anguish that comes from being confronted with pitiful images of starving babies. It was right to react to these images with generosity. But the great melancholy eyes of the starving infants did not ask us to make a political, much less a moral, examination of the issues. It was enough to give and then wait for the news reporters to tell us that yes, thanks to the generosity of the British public, things were starting get better in some village or other.

The Western nurses and engineers became the eyes and voices of our Africa: they mediated this confused and brutal world for us. The aid community has a specific task to perform. It is not in the business of analysing the politics of failure which have led Africa to disaster repeatedly over the past 30 years. I happen to believe that the aid community, and Western politicians and journalists, need to do a lot more in the way of analysing their respective failures in Africa, but that is a debate for another day.

Now, as the century closes, the news from Africa is again wretched. A few days ago a country previously described as one of the most stable in Africa was thrown into chaos by a military coup. By the way, I am always very wary of that phrase "one of the most stable in Africa". Stable compared to what? Burundi, Sudan, Somalia? They are hardly the ideal benchmarks against which to compare any country. But that myopic insanity is where Africa flounders right now: you can look at yourself in a favourable light if there isn't a genocide, famine or civil war underway. I have even heard Kenya described as stable. There was a time when we used to describe Mr Mugabe's Zimbabwe as stable. Whenever you hear that word being used I suggest that a little closer examination might be very worthwhile.

At the moment we are all supposed to sit back in shock and contemplate the fate that has befallen the Ivory Coast, a former French colony that is now blessed with a military dictatorship. The Ivory Coast was a place where Western correspondents would set up base to report the horrors of neighbouring countries - and with neighbours like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea there were horrors aplenty.

You could travel into the zones of chaos safe in the knowledge that your base camp was comfortable and secure. Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, had a fine selection of food and wine. The annual growth rate was 6 per cent - a formidable figure by African standards. It was not the Africa of shakedowns and bribe-seeking soldiers. Not until a few days ago at any rate.

But if we look a little closer at this island of stability, the picture is rather different. We learn, for example, that the European Union gave $80m (pounds 50m) in development grant aid to Ivory Coast and that 37 per cent of this money cannot be accounted for. That works out at around $30m worth of missing aid. The civil servants who siphoned off the cash were fairly blatant. For example, a baby scales which should cost $40 (pounds 25) was in fact put down on the accounts as costing $2,445 (pounds 1,530). A clinic which cost $40,000 (pounds 25,000) to build is sitting idle because no electricity or running water were installed.

And then you remember that the Ivory Coast was the place once ruled by Felix Houphouet Boigny - for 30 years the old brute held his people in check with a reign of benign terror. As distinct from malign terror - the kind practised by Idi Amin or Jean Bedel Bokassa. Houphouet Boigny was the man who built the vast basilica in the jungle to honour the Roman Catholic Church. It was vainglorious extravagance on a par with Mobutu's palace at Gbadolite in the jungle or the Nigerians' brave new city of Abuja. But Ivory Coast was stable and the West let Houphouet Boigny get on with things (under the stewardship of the French).

We had a similar attitude to Moi across in Kenya. I remember a bitter row with a British diplomat who had served in Kenya and was preaching the value of supporting Moi. "You have no idea of what will happen to that country if he goes. Tribal warfare on a terrible scale," the diplomat warned.

I regret to say that as far as the consequences of Moi's departure were concerned he may well have been right. But the tribal warfare - and the military coup in Ivory Coast for that matter - are the direct consequence of our stupidity in supporting these oligarchs. We have given aid and guns and looked the other way while a generation of monsters trampled their people into the ground. Anything for stability and friends we could do business with.

We have sustained these characters for a variety of motives: the rape of Africa's natural resources, Cold War alliances and - in the case of France - delusions of imperial grandeur which haven't quite died away. There was also a little bit of post-colonial guilt-tripping.

It needn't continue like that. The people to whom our aid should be given are not the corrupt politicians and the bloody generals. Get the resources to the people in civil society - the non-government organisations, the human rights groups, the free newspapers - and then you start to repay some of the appalling folly of our behaviour in Africa. This needs imagination and courage. We must give up the pretence that the autocrats have anything to give us, least of all stability.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent