Africa's return to our planet: The carnage in Rwanda belies a continent set on rebuilding itself, says Richard Dowden

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The Independent Online
WHEN British aid agencies launched an appeal for Rwanda a month ago it seemed likely that they would be embarrassed by the result. Once again Africans were killing each other in large numbers and with singular brutality for no comprehensible reason. Many predicted that people would not be induced to write out another cheque for another man-made disaster in Africa, and that the horrific piles of bodies in Rwanda would lead to the further marginalisation of the continent.

After Somalia, Angola and Mozambique, Rwanda seemed to confirm the worst fears of the most cynical Afro-pessimists. And no one could argue that events were hyped by the media. Cameramen I met there had been told by their editors to stop taking pictures of corpses. Why should people be told another story of inexplicable murder in Africa?

Rwanda even seemed to cancel out the optimism generated by the election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa. Since the killings began more than a month ago, many people have felt - and some have said - 'That's what Africa is really like. How long before it happens in South Africa?'

To suggest at such a time that Africa is about to get its act together may sound far- fetched, but Nelson Mandela's call for a new birth for Africa at the meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in Tunis this week reflected a new African realism about itself. Giving his first address to the OAU, President Mandela said: 'We must . . . say that there is no obstacle big enough to stop us from bringing about a new African renaissance.' He did not blame or demand from Western countries - the usual fare of OAU speeches. There was no list of grievances and no demands for more aid. His message was that Africa must solve its problems.

Stranger things have happened. President Mandela of South Africa is one of them. To think that Africa can find solutions to its wars, refurbish its economy and find food for areas of drought and famine is to indulge in the euphoria that swept South Africa last month. But that euphoria grew out of real change and real hope. And however unreal the expectations it might have engendered, it is no less real for that. If it has fired some self-respect and idealism in the rest of Africa and some optimism about Africa in the rest of the world, so much the better.

For five years at least the continent has seemed to be drifting away from the rest of Planet Earth. As the rest of the former 'Third World' - most of Asia and South America - began to turn their economies round and even take off, African countries sank deeper and deeper into debt and depression. The continent seemed to be refusing to develop. So why should the outside world pay any attention? Africa is no longer of any strategic importance. The marginalisation of Africa seemed irrevocable.

So what has changed? Nothing in the macro sense. It will still take 40 years at present growth rates for the standard of living of most Africans to get back to what it was in the early Seventies. The flow of aid is diminishing, the terms of trade are worsening, per capita income has fallen by 25 per cent in most of Africa in the last decade. Meanwhile the debts increase and so does the population. What has changed is perception and some straws in the wind.

South Africa's emotional return to the human race was shared by millions watching on television. Suddenly everyone could identify with a country that used to be untouchable and a long way away. When South Africa came closer to us the huge expanse of continent in between seemed no longer so distant either. It was squeezed into our consciousness.

And we will see more of it. Next year has been designated 'Africa 95' by the Royal Academy - essentially an art and music festival, which is also spawning television programmes about life in Africa. These will at least keep Africa on the map.

Far more significant is the new commercial interest in Africa. Capitalism fled Africa in the Eighties. Direct investment in sub-Saharan Africa failed to rise, remaining about dollars 1bn a year. The flight of capital was probably five times that over the same period. Despite a huge outflow of capital from South Africa after the elections, there is renewed interest in southern Africa by overseas funds after the political change. Dr Rob Weinberg of the brokers S G Warburg says: 'I believe mining houses will use the First World facilities of South Africa as a springboard for new ventures in Africa, which is a cornucopia of mineral resources . . . This could lead to much higher than expected growth all over the continent.' Warburg's has also noted the success of the new stock exchanges in Ghana and Zimbabwe.

One country which is already quietly booming is Uganda, a land that looked like Rwanda less then 10 years ago. This year the Ugandan shilling began to rise against the dollar. It has been helped by aid which now provides over half its income and a booming coffee price, but these have generated new confidence and vigorous economic activity.

Politically, Uganda does not score highly in the democracy stakes because it does not allow multi-party democracy, but President Yoweri Museveni has tried to include in the political process anyone who has support in the country. Mr Mandela is pursuing the same policy, a new departure in Africa where the political winner has tended to take all and slam the door on every other contender. The criteria of political good behaviour in Africa should perhaps not be 'democratic' in the Westminster sense but inclusive.

All these disparate factors suggest that in the right conditions African countries can pick themselves up remarkably quickly. The right conditions include the attitude of the rest of the world. And the British public seems determined not to abandon Africa. The Rwanda appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee has raised pounds 4.25m in a month - four times as much as the appeal for Yugoslavia launched in March.