Time to wake up to the false dawn of Africa's renaissance

There are small moves forward, but a great ocean of suffering persists which eats away at hope
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The Independent Culture
AND SO another terrible few weeks for Africa. Weeks when the old "heart of darkness" cliches galloped from one headline to another, when the tentative hope about an African renaissance vanished into the rainforest and even the most loyal friends of the continent struggled to put any kind of positive spin on the news from down below.

We have had thousands butchered in Sierra Leone, Hutu rebels murdering tourists in Uganda, Laurent Kabila arresting diplomats and locking up his political opponents in Congo, and God knows what kind of brutality and corruption across the river in Congo Brazzaville. Up in the Horn of Africa Ethiopia and Eritrea are engaged in a full-scale war; Mugabe's goons are torturing journalists in Zimbabwe; and Daniel arap Moi's cronies are suggesting that the Kenyan constitution be abandoned and that he be allowed to run for a third five-year term.

I was going to stop with my examples there, but what the hell. Take a quick glance through the Africa news on any of the wire services and consider the sorry evidence.

I see that in Burundi the Tutsi army is rampaging once again; in Guinea the opposition leader is on hunger strike in prison; in Sudan oppression and suffering continue much as usual. Right in the heart of the continent something of the order of nine African armies are engaged in a major war for strategic dominance of the Great Lakes region. Nine armies and an ocean of miserable, terrorised civilians are being driven back and forth across the landscape by the rampant soldiery.

But if you confront any of the tyrants, they will invariably tell you that it is all the fault of colonialism. For sure, historical responsibility for the drawing of insane borders lies with the Europeans who caused the scramble for Africa; we know that the racism and greed of the colonial era created a dangerous mix of anger and inferiority; and that when independence came the people of Africa were, by and large, left to the mercies of a new ruling class that had neither the training or the inclination to rule in a just or competent manner. And, yes, the Western powers and the Soviet bloc did their best to destroy Africa in the Sixties and Seventies by sponsoring their favoured dictators.

But at the end of all this, we are confronted with the responsibility of African leaders for African problems. To look back and blame outsiders may offer a measure of mental comfort, but it strikes me as being rather similar to the tactic of a child who has been brought up in an abusive home and blames the anti-social behaviour of his adult years on his parents. There comes a time when the past ceases to be an alibi, and here, at the turn of the 20th century, we have surely reached that point.

The other familiar complaint is that the Western media only ever show the bad side of Africa, that we have a racist obsession with war and famine, that our reporting is based on outdated views of the continent. There is a partial truth in this view, but it tends to avoid the main issue.

I come from an island where the habit of murder has brought us massive media attention. For more than three decades, the news from Northern Ireland was invariably dominated by violence, the threat of violence and the attempts to end the violence. And while I have heard myself carping occasionally about the foreign media's obsession with the IRA and their loyalist enemies, I know they were right to focus on the violence and the suffering. That was the fundamental reality, and it affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Ireland's sectarian crisis was not the creation of the media, nor was it caused by journalists wanting to show only the bad side of Ireland. The same goes for the former Yugoslavia or any other troubled area.

The media can distort and misrepresent. They can make things worse. The absence of context and the oversimplification of issues (particularly in countries such as Rwanda) can create an atmosphere in which Western governments simply throw their hands up and refuse to engage with Africa. But please don't imagine that if we stopped reporting the famines and wars of Africa, they would disappear. They would be out of sight and out of mind but would, I suggest, be even more prolonged and vicious.

We face an utterly depressing reality in Africa. There are small moves forward here and there but a great ocean of suffering persists, which year by year eats away at hope, and pushes Africa and the Africans further away from our concern and interest.

Do you remember the "African renaissance"? Just two years ago our pages were full of optimistic words about a continent that finally seemed to be pulling itself out of the mire. Do you remember the editorials and the features lauding the new African dawn? They seem embarrassing now.

How desperate we were to believe in the idea of a continent-wide rebirth, of an Africa whose leaders would prove just and decent and whose people would enjoy freedom from fear and hunger. The era of what Wole Soyinka called the "Toad Kings" - Mobutu and friends - was over, we believed. The old monster was driven out of Zaire and died in exile but, surprise surprise, a new monster replaced him. We wanted to believe that Laurent Kabila was our kind of fellow, a new African who would bring stability and the rule of law to the Congo. And so we refused to acknowledge his dubious past; we embraced the politics of wishful thinking.

Kabila was just another despotic crook, but in our rush to believe in an African renaissance we supported him. Now that he has started locking up Western diplomats (he has been locking up his own people since he came to power), we start to ask questions about the nature of the regime we once enthusiastically supported.

The natural answer to all of this is to point to relative success stories in countries such as Uganda, or to mention Nigeria's recent transition to democracy. But, as Nigerian history has shown, it takes a great deal more than a successful vote to ensure the stability and viability of democratic institutions. Just ask the people of Kenya what difference having the vote has made to their lives, or whether it has hindered Moi and his cronies as they plunder the country.

The test is not at the ballot box but among the civil servants and soldiers and big businessmen, from whom real democracy should demand honesty. Corruption, and the greed it represents, is Nigeria's and Africa's greatest crisis.

The fundamental idea that underpins the Just Society - that government must rule for the common good - has been entirely subverted in much of Africa. The Big Men rule for the good of their families and their tribe. Only when the power elites find themselves being made accountable can we truly talk of African democracy.

There are no African quick fixes. But more than ever we need to engage with the continent, to support the governments that are trying to find a way out of the mess and to pressurise those who hold their people in contempt. Giving debt relief is one way of dealing with the problems of poverty, but only if we are sure that the people benefit and not the warlords. And more than anything we must engage at ground level among the organs of civil society where brave human rights activists and newspaper editors are fighting for justice. We must put our development money into grass- roots projects and steer it away from the crooks at the top. Africa is full of brave men and women, people whose dignity leaves us feeling awestruck. It is time we recognised them as the real leaders of their countries.