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New, Genuine Leaders in Africa
Thomas D. Zweifel

In the 1960s it was Latin America and Asia; in the 1970s India and Bangladesh. Since the 1980s Africa has held the unflattering title 'the world's basket-case.'

An outdated myth has blinded the thinking and policies of Western governments and corporations vis-à-vis Africa: the myth of a dark, still unknown continent, beset by overwhelming challenges and led by corrupt elites who squander our money for their golden bathtubs. For most Westerners, African leaders have a whiff of Idi Amin -- it is almost as if all German leaders were likened to Adolf Hitler.

This myth has produced a dangerous marginalization. Up to the end of the Cold War, assistance from both superpowers vying for Africa's attention was virtually certain; in recent years development aid has stagnated and actually fell by 13 percent in 1993. So did agricultural assistance from the World Bank: 1994 funding was a mere 15 percent of the $997 million given in 1990. Only five African nations have access to the information superhighway or are likely to gain access in the next decade.

Africa's deepening isolation was tellingly symbolized in July when UN secretary-general Boutros-Ghali visited Rwanda and neighboring nations, a region with over one million refugees. The trip was greeted with an uproar of indignation by Western governments: the top diplomat had abandoned Europe during the height of the Balkan crisis (and its under 25,000 refugees).

And no myth could be further from the truth. Unbeknownst to a world that does not seem to care, countless unsung leaders work silently on Africa's future: people like General Olusegun Obasanjo, who demonstrated his belief that "personal example can be a persuasive influence" in 1979 when he voluntarily transferred the leadership of Nigeria to an elected civilian government. He then started his own 32-hectare farm, which employs over 400 workers, producing vegetables, seeds and other crops as well as livestock; it provides training to local farmers and collaborates with crop and animal research institutes.

Last month Gen. Obasanjo was sentenced to a 25-year prison term in a secret trial by Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha, whose court accused the general and 39 other opposition members of plotting a coup. Despite protests by world leaders, today all 40 remain detained and without contact to the outside world; some have apparently been sentenced to death, others to life imprisonment.

Gen. Obasanjo is only the tip of an iceberg of men and women in all sectors of society, making peaceful change against daunting odds:

  • Professor Wangari Matthai took matters into her own hands. To counter environmental degradation, she founded the "Green Belt Movement" and employed 50,000 women in planting over 10 million trees in Kenya. Daniel arap Moi's government jailed the Kenyan award-winning environmentalist several times without trial, and only her international visibility, coupled with an international community which did care and intervene, freed her.

  • President Nujoma of newly-independent Namibia fought for his country's independence over thirty years as rebel leader of Swapo. Now, as Namibia's democratically elected president, he fights for reconciliation and rural progress. Within two years, maize production has increased by 50 percent and millet production by 75 percent.

  • Joyce Mungherera, nicknamed "General Joyce," built the Kenyan YWCA into one of Africa's largest nongovernmental organizations with 1.5 million paid members and 1,000 staff, and made it a force for literacy, family planning and improved incomes for rural women. When in the 1970s Idi Amin direcly threatened Ms. Mungherera with execution unless she closed down the YWCA, she continued underground.

No doubt, Africa faces enormous ills whose persistence breeds resignation around the world. The continent has witnessed at least 20 civil wars in three decades, not counting small-scale, smothering tribal wars. It is the only continent where food production per capita is declining (though rising in absolute numbers) as population grows rapidly (Rwanda leads the pack with its 8.5 percent fertility rate): the average African today eats 10 percent less than 20 years ago. Most African societies lack a significant middle class: countries tend to be steep hierarchies, from the head of state and government ministers at the top to rural women and children at the bottom. Gender inequality has women produce 80 to 90 percent of Africa's food, and in rural Côte d'Ivoire women work 47.6 hours each week (mostly unpaid) compared to 27.5 hours per week for men. An estimated ten million Africans are HIV-infected and two million have died of AIDS, both figures being two-thirds of the world total.

But while this is the only story we are getting, it is by no means the whole story. We do not hear about Africa's progress in drought prevention. We do not hear about the unprecedented wave of democratization and pluralism sweeping the continent (multi-party elections have been held in 34 of 42 sub-saharan countries). We do not hear about people like Gen. Obasanjo, Prof. Matthai, President Nujoma and Ms. Mungherera, who affirm that the responsibility to cope lies with Africans themselves. Says Gen. Obasanjo, who founded the Africa Leadership Forum to train future leaders: "In the last resort only we ourselves know what is really amiss with us and, what is more, only we as Africans can tell it as it is to ourselves. Our destiny ultimately lies in our own hands." He refused sympathy: "The people of Africa are a proud and resourceful people. They have an enormous reservoir of natural resources. What they need are capital investment and technical know-how." Indeed, Africa needs our investment in human development (schools instead of big dams); investment in all of Africa (not just South Africa) as an emerging market; investment with a long view (beyond the current quarter); investment in democracy and civic institutions.

Unless constructive African leaders are supported by Western governments and corporations, they will fail, and African countries will backslide: a disastrous prospect in an interdependent world in which all major issues -- environmental damage and AIDS, crime and drugs, population and refugees -- transcend national borders and have become global issues affecting each of us.

Thomas D. Zweifel is director of global operations at The Hunger Project, a nongovernmental organization and sponsor of the "Africa Prize for Leadership," an annual $100,000 award.

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