Prosperous Africa? Long after Independence, Signs of Hope amid Gloom

The Christian Science Monitor, May 21, 1997 | Go to article overview

Prosperous Africa? Long after Independence, Signs of Hope amid Gloom


Three decades ago the founder of the global-minded Club of Rome wrote a prophetic book. In essence, it forecast that Western technology, communications, investment, and trade would:

* First, break through the Iron Curtain and bring the Soviet bloc into the free world's economy.

* Second, pull Latin America into a growing free-market system. * Third, include Asia. * And, finally, draw in sub-Saharan Africa. The book made misjudgments (e.g., the Asian Tigers roared in before the East bloc and Latin America.) But its central insight about global growth spread by trade, investment, and telecom was correct - except, to date, for Africa. Overall most of the 43 principal sub-Saharan nations have seen their economies shrink in the quarter century since the first oil shock in 1973. Food production has declined in more than half of the African states. Civil wars persist. Hunger, genocide, and massive refugee problems have accelerated the economic decline. Several waves of optimism have been dashed. First, that the replacement of strongman "fathers of their countries" meant an end to "one man rule." Second, that aid flowing from superpower competitors in the cold war would create modern economies in strategically located nations. Third, that "breadbasket" lands like Sudan and Zimbabwe would feed the continent. Fourth, that big nations with rich resources - notably Nigeria, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Angola - would get their acts together and lead the region out of poverty and despotism. Instead, entrepreneurial Nigeria plunged backward into dictatorship and stagnation despite oil riches. Zaire took decades to shuck its embezzling boss. Angola has had trouble moving past its several-times-ended civil war. As Financial Times analyst Michela Wrong wryly notes, such mineral rich nations gave potential a bad name. Their potential wealth in oil, copper, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, and farmland lies untapped or in the hands of inept, debt-laden state firms. World Bank statistics show Zaire's economy to have plunged back to its 1958 level as population tripled and inflation zoomed to 9,800 percent before settling back to a recent 750 percent. New leader Laurent Kabila and his diverse coalition face a daunting task, especially in view of overblown public expectations. But, economic successes in South Africa, Botswana, Ivory Coast, Mauritius, and, lately, Uganda and Tanzania indicate the region is not doomed to economic and political purgatory. …

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