Leading article: Flickering beacons of hope

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The irony is that both Tanzania and Ethiopia have been held up as beacons of hope in this troubled continent. The leaders of both countries were members of Tony Blair's Africa Commission which drew up a blueprint for the way forward on the continent. What hope for Africa when such luminaries appear part of the problem?

Context is important here. After the dark years of Emperor Haile Selassie's feudal regime and the Stalinist reign of terror of President Mengistu, Ethiopians today enjoy greater political participation and freer debate than ever before in their history. The prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is the darling of Western liberals for his intellectually open manner and his gradualist devolution of power to the regions. But his people are clearly less impressed. At the last election, opposition parties made considerable inroads, and some claimed they beat the ruling party. For reasons which are unclear after six months of quiet, protests erupted again yesterday.

The problem is deep-rooted too in Tanzania, again one of the West's model African governments with its free primary education, campaign against corruption and adherence to IMF economic prescripts. The divisions between the two political parties in Zanzibar are between the descendants of the island's Arab slave traders and the native Africans. Teargas and water cannon were fired on the streets yesterday, and at least five people were arrested. But then 17,000 people died when the African majority overthrew the Arab elite in 1964, and 37 people were killed at the last elections in 2001.

None of this is to make excuses. Mr Meles needs to make overtures to his opponents and perhaps hand to them some of the disputed parliamentary seats. Benjamin Mkapa, the Tanzanian President, should curb the security forces in Zanzibar - for even if the island were to go over to the opposition, his majority on the mainland would secure his position. On a wider canvass, the African Union's peer review process, which the Commission for Africa so enthusiastically endorsed, should extend its remit to cover the fairness of elections. But progress in Africa, from such a disadvantaged baseline, will perforce be a slow business. It would be naive to assume otherwise.

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