Regional Outlook : Africa's Leaders Are Breaking Old Taboo : They're criticizing their own governments for the continent's desperate plight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a meeting of African politicians here recently, former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere broke a taboo that had managed to exist for 30 years: He openly criticized a fellow African leader.

The statesman so respected that even other African presidents commonly address him as mwalimu-- Swahili for "teacher"-- was speaking in front of an audience that included six other current or former African heads of state among hundreds of regional luminaries.

"Africa needs unity if it is to develop," he began quietly. Then he laid his hand on the shoulder of Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, the prime minister of Sudan, whose Islamic fundamentalist regime has been prosecuting a religion- and race-inspired civil war and turning a blind eye to the possible death from famine of 7 million of its people.

"But how are we to have unity," he said as the audience listened thunderstruck, "if we can't even have unity within our own countries, Gen. Bashir?"

Nyerere's remarks were one signal that the way Africa's post-independence leaders view themselves and their legacy is undergoing a sea change. As they contemplate an era of almost ceaseless decline and a surge in popular opposition and resentment, many are beginning to reappraise their own role in their continent's predicament. The conclusions they reach will go a long way toward shaping the Africa of the 1990s and the next century.

Central to their reappraisal is the acknowledgement that the governments they established upon independence have become increasingly estranged from their own people.

"There's no government established in African countries that the people would willingly fight for," said Adebayo Adedeji, head of the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa and a potential candidate to be Nigeria's next civilian president, in an interview during the conference. "We need African governments with grass-roots support and we should ask why they don't have it."

The question is critically important today because the last of Africa's independence-era patriarchs will soon be leaving the stage: Malawi's President for Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda is well into his ninth decade; Ivory Coast's octogenarian President Felix Houphouet-Boigny has pledged not to run for another five-year term when his current term ends in four years; and Zambia's Kenneth D. Kaunda and Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko face possibly unsurmountable political opposition.

Nyerere himself has gradually withdrawn from political life in his own country, ceding the presidency to a hand-picked successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, while retaining the chairmanship of the sole legal political party.

Their impending departure underscores how little they have done to prepare their people for the transition. Political skills in this region are rudimentary at best, and it may take years to instill Western-style confidence in political institutions across the continent. Meanwhile, the pressures and resentments engendered by dire poverty threaten to derail Africa's modest political awakening, as they encourage the resurgence of the old repressive systems.

"If we had a parliamentary system in place for 20 years, now we'd have politicians," said Adedeji. "Because of instability, political consciousness hasn't been developed."

There is no question that the current leaders' legacy is a baleful one. According to U.N. statistics, this year will be the 12th in a row that the standard of living of the average African has declined. In most accepted measures of the quality of life, sub-Saharan Africa occupies the bottom of the scale, accounting for nine of the 10 countries with the lowest life expectancies in the world, nine of the 10 with the highest infant mortality rates, and six of the 10 with the lowest literacy rates.

Today the continent is more dependent on foreign aid than ever--itself a special burden, for global demands on the developed world's resources are multiplying. At the same time Africa's strategic and economic importance is waning. Since the end of the Cold War, the region's geopolitical significance has been marginal. As for its economic role, last year Africa's share of world trade amounted to a meager 1.7%.

This year 27 million to 30 million Africans will face death by starvation--more than 10 times the potential victims from disaster in Kurdistan and Bangladesh, regions which have drawn far more global attention in 1991.

Rather than addressing or even acknowledging these problems, Africa's leaders have almost always been more concerned with their own power and personal security.

Even in this endeavor, they have mostly failed: Despite estimated annual military expenditures of $5 billion by sub-Saharan governments--in Ethiopia alone, the ousted Mengistu regime every year spent more than 60% of government income on the army--national security on the continent is the weakest in the world. During the independence era, Africa has experienced more than 60 coups d'etat.

The African Leadership Forum, a Nigeria-based organization that sponsored the Kampala conference, counted 10 civil wars in that period, of which six were still raging as recently as last May (when rebel victories ended the fighting in Ethiopia). Fifteen border disputes involving 30 countries developed into direct armed confrontations, and a dozen African countries still have uneasy relations with their immediate neighbors.

"The seeming military security of the leader becomes the economic and social pauperization of the governed," says Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler of Nigeria and one of the few African leaders to have voluntarily relinquished power to a democratically elected successor. "Discontent is thereby deepened."

New attention to the role of governance in Africa's problems of development has come not only from the World Bank, which has been complaining about the corruption, tribalism and incompetence nurtured by the old closed system. It has also come from the African masses, who have taken to the streets by the thousands to demand change in Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Zaire, Kenya and a host of other places. And, most surprisingly of all, it has even come from the leaders themselves.

"We Africans have a duty to re-examine the type of leadership we offer to our people," says Uganda Vice President Samson Kisekka.

The recent African Leadership Forum summit in Kampala was a landmark in this process, as a raft of leaders spent a week hearing trade unionists, women's and student leaders, and political scientists tell them "they did things wrong," in the words of one participant. Presidents were lambasted for building up their militaries, throttling private enterprise and feathering their own nests. What made these themes exceptional was that they were articulated not by Westerners, but by other Africans.

"The fact that we have eight present or former heads of state here is a good thing," said Adedeji, who as U.N. Economic Commission chairman has been a leading African political and economic spokesman for a decade. "They may come to a conference just to listen to speeches and dismiss them, but you may be surprised at how much they are influenced. I don't think any of the heads of state here are entirely immune to the pressure for change."

Another unusual element of the session was its emphasis on self-inflicted wounds. African leaders have generally blamed their region's malaise on outside influences. These include 70 years of colonialism, which they argue imposed alien political and economic systems on their people; South Africa's apartheid regime, which financed rebel groups opposing the fledgling black nationalist governments on its borders; the rising costs of imported goods and declining prices paid for Africa's commodity exports, which produced a multibillion-dollar annual trade deficit, and Mother Nature, whose increasingly frequent and protracted droughts in parts of sub-Saharan Africa have produced constant famine.

Yet home-grown policies have exacerbated almost all of these misfortunes. African governments have suppressed farm prices to ensure that politically active urban populations get cheap food; the result is the collapse of African agriculture and an uncontrollable and costly mass migration from the countryside to the city. Self-styled "socialist" governments have discouraged private enterprise, destroying village economies. Centralized planning ministries have proven unable to adapt to changing global conditions by diversifying their countries' exports.

Even more than economic policies, Africa's political structures have wreaked havoc. The region's "failures in governance have been . . . accompanied by political repressions and intolerance exacerbated by glaring insensitivities to the misery of the majority of the people," said the Kampala conference's keynote statement, prepared by Felix Mosha, secretary of the African Leadership Forum.

Much of the repression, intolerance and insensitivity cited by Mosha is a direct outgrowth of the one-party state. Evidence is strong that tribalism and corruption flourish under the system. When there is only one route to political influence--the party--that route also becomes the only means to economic power, so both become concentrated among a few individuals.

These people are often from the president's own tribe--as in Kenya, where members of President Daniel Arap Moi's ethnic Kalenjin group is overrepresented among top officers in government ministries, state-owned businesses, and even the promotion lists of nominally private business and professional groups. That situation has provoked members of other tribes into anti-Kalenjin demonstrations.

The ruling parties in Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere stifle debate within their own councils, lest they display a lack of consensus leading to the public's questioning of their very legitimacy to govern.

The result is that African governments have stuck to outmoded and damaging policies long after they have failed, plunging their people deeper into poverty. Perhaps most important, people have come to feel that the only way of achieving real political change is through violence.

This has been well demonstrated in the last year, during which there have been no fewer than seven changes of government in Africa, surely a record for any similar period in the post-independence era. Five were violent, including one in Chad stage-managed by Libya, and two others, in Liberia and Somalia, that have all but destroyed the fabric of social life in those countries.

The outbreak of public unrest seen lately across the continent has the same roots--but in some cases, more encouraging results. The governments of Ivory Coast, Togo, Zambia and others have answered popular demands for multi-party democracy. Multi-candidate presidential or legislative elections have already taken place in four countries, and open polls are scheduled for October in Zambia and mid-1992 in Nigeria (currently being ruled by its ninth military government in three decades of independence).

As the dimensions of Africa's disaster grow and the grip of its old leaders loosens, young politicians are slowly emerging to question the old axioms. One is Laurent Gbagbo, who made history last year as the first man ever to run for the presidency of Ivory Coast against the patriarch Houphouet-Boigny. (He lost.)

Asked during the campaign how he responded to the argument that Africa's landscape of autocracies was a natural outgrowth of its heritage of strong tribal chieftains, he replied:

"There is not one Africa; there are many Africas. In my tribe, we don't have a chief. When something must be decided, all the people gather together in a big circle and we discuss it among ourselves. The people who talk about the tradition of big chiefs are just choosing selectively from among many traditions."

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