For Africa, the only answer lies within: A new generation of leaders is neither blaming nor relying on the West, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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The Independent Online
Sophie and I were room-mates at university in Uganda in the early Seventies.

She was a bright, bold and ambitious student, optimistic about herself and her country. Twenty-three years later, although her laugh can still fill a large room, her faith has fled.

Her husband, Richard, was 'taken away and I suppose killed' by one lot in power; their son was a few months old then. Her father was tortured and killed by another regime, and this year her only daughter died of Aids.

People like Sophie can find little justification and even less hope for the condition of most African countries, and since the eruption of Rwanda and tensions reported in Burundi and Nigeria they feel not only deep apprehension but shame that the gruesome stories just go on and on. Some even mutter that they wish the Wazungus - whites - were back.

Whatever the chaos that was left behind after decolonisation, the time has come, say many thinking Africans, to take responsibility. As Sophie puts it: 'How long can adults blame their parents for what is wrong with their lives?

Yes, we were divided, kept down, but does that mean that we can find no way of moving on? Other places have.'

And now, the prophetic and lush voices of the writers of Africa have taken up this call in a way that resonates as powerfully as the writings of Leopold Senghor and others when they were fighting for liberation. Ben Okri's new poem, Song For Rwanda, speaks of Africa, . . . dying of the policies Of soldiers and leaders, who Dream of nothing But mastering the coffers, While the innocents die On the margins of our age Die of the continent's Refusal to think itself Into a higher destiny . . .

Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize winner, enraged about Rwanda, said recently: 'In Africa today there is an absolute failure of vision and leadership, yet the initiative must come from within. For God's sake why should the Americans or others be asked to send in their troops when we in Africa have not been sufficiently agitated to do anything about this blot on our sense of humanity?'

He has been equally forthright in his denunciations of the military dictatorship within his own country, Nigeria. For his troubles, his passport has been confiscated and calls to him now are simply intercepted and cut off.

This revitalised collective self-examination may turn out to be the best thing to come out of the tormented continent. It is giving people clarity and courage, making them much more discerning and less credulous. This means they see through simplistic interpretations of their recent history and, most importantly, they are able to think creatively about the future needs of Africa as they face up to the horror of the growing devastation around them.

In spite of its considerable human and natural resources, seven children die in Africa every minute. Three hundred million people are living in absolute poverty, many more than 30 years ago. But all the greed and mismanagement of corrupt leaders could not have achieved this level of degradation without the collusion and greater avarice of Western power brokers. Morally bankrupt leaders such as Zaire's Mobutu have their palaces built with American money.

Yet, because of the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank and the IMF, health and education services have been decimated. And now, the humblest of Africans understands how it all happens.

Samual (not his real name) once a farmer, now a waiter in Kenya, ruminates outside his hut in Mombasa: 'America and Europe are interested only what they can get. They give us the aid, and control us. They tell us to buy their cigarettes, so we do. They tell us not to spend on health, so we die.

They talk about democracy, free trade. That will solve nothing, especially with our criminal leaders.'

African intellectuals, particularly those who are forced to live abroad, have also grown more sceptical and astute and are prepared to think the unthinkable. Dr Mohamed Suliman of the London-based Institute For African Alternatives says: 'Since the Eighties, which has been a lost decade for Africa, we have had to think. Once we were all hypnotised. We felt we had to overcome our 'primitive' heritage, throw off our backwardness, leap forward into Westernised thought and ways. Now we are thinking about new models of government, of development which will not destroy us or our environment.'

The African academic Professor Ali Mazrui is also posing iconoclastic questions. Has the time come, he asks to move the 'Imperial soul' from where it has resided, from Europe, and latterly the US, to Africa? Should the Organisation of African Unity, say, intervene - even with force - under the banner of Pax Africana in countries that are out of control and use sovereignty as a shield? And why are we so dogmatic, he wants to know, about the way we think about Africa: 'Tribalism is not necessarily a pathology.

This excessive enthusiasm we have had for the nation state has just encouraged hatred. So why don't we take two steps back and re-tribalise countries and then create federal structures? Perhaps if we succeed in giving people back a secure identity, they can learn to live with ethnic diversity which is a challenge for the whole world.'

Soyinka advocates another radical alternative. He thinks that the borders which have made countries dysfunctional ought to be redrawn as a matter of urgency.

The historian Basil Davidson wrote earlier this year about the need for Africa to make organic connections with its past, instead of trying to live up to the expectations foisted on it by colonisation and decolonisation.

President Museveni's transformation of Uganda is a good example. His High Commissioner, Professor George Kirya, explains: 'In our country, we need to recognise the existence of tribes, so we need to have unity and diversity.

And people at the grassroots level have a chance to vote, not for a party, but individuals that they can hold accountable.'

The new leaders are thinking in terms of power transfer, regional co-operation and human rights, too. So conscious are they of the need to put their houses in order, that few of them glibly talk of neo-colonialism or Western bias. Professor Kirya, for example, believes the image of Africa will not change in the eyes of the Western media until they see positive transformations.

Others argue that it is not Western interference, but indifference that will prove to be a catastrophe for Africa. But the West, afraid these days of refugee flows and needing new markets, would be unwise to be indifferent.

Too much is at stake, says Samual: 'Africans are changing, we have suffered too much, and people in your country must help us to move forward. Maybe they will because they want the lions and elephants to survive.'