Rome — African nations, staggering under a massive $200 billion foreign debt, are set to call on the world's wealthy nations for help. At an unprecedented special session of the United Nations next week, African representatives will ask two things: $35.8 billion in new aid over the next five years.
Cancellation of billions of dollars of interest due on outstanding loans.
But the results of the New York meeting are likely to fall short of African expectations, say Western and African observers here. They do not expect the Western nations to approve the requested aid for the entire continent. Instead, these observers expect the session to lay the basis for more gradual, country-by-country progress on economic problems.
The May 27-31 session, the first to focus exclusively on the problems of a single continent, was requested by the Organization of African Unity to spur recovery in sub-Saharan Africa, following years of devastating drought and famine.
Detailed documents prepared by the OAU and the UN Secretariat will form the framework for the special session's negotiations. The OAU draft suggests the scope of the problems as the Africans view them:
``Nothing short of radical measures will be necessary to save the African economies from collapse,'' it states. ``An Africa that remains stagnant or perpetually backward economically is a threat to the [world's] security.''
According to the document, Africa will need $116 billion to modernize its agriculture, build new roads and rail lines, fight desertification, and increase literacy over the next five years (1986-1990). The OAU plan calls for African nations to invest 70 percent ($80.1 billion) of this total and for the international community to provide $35.8 billion in annual installments.
A key part of the OAU recovery program is a call for debt relief by rescheduling payment of some debts, converting others into grants, and lowering interest rates. Africa's total debt is estimated at about $170 billion. By the end of this year, according to some forecasts, the interst payments on Africa's debts will equal two-thirds of the money the continent receives in aid. Such an amount, the document states, is ``beyond the capacity and means of the African countries to service.''
``Different arrangements for debt relief must be made for each African country,'' says an African official. ``The poorest countries -- Ethiopia, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau -- would like their debts cancelled. But other countries like Camerooon, Zimbabwe, Algeria, can pay.''
A default on the loans is unlikely, say the observers, dismissing talk of African nations possibly forming a ``debt cartel'' to seek better repayment terms.
``Senegal President Abdou Diouf, who is currently the OAU chairman, has said the African nations would not consider extreme action, though this is the frame of mind in some countries,'' says Bahman Mansuri, an official of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Meanwhile, Africa confronts several problems as it recovers from the devastating 1982-85 drought and famine.
For the first time since the 1920s, a plague of four species of locusts is rapidly spreading over wide regions, from Egypt to South Africa, threatening millions of acres of cropland. Last month, locust swarms were sighted in Kenya for the first time since 1937.
Elsewhere, Africa continues to wrestle with the problem of moving food surpluses within the continent. In 1985, sub-Saharan Africa produced a record 54.5 million tons of cereals -- 36 percent higher than the poor 1984 output and above the long-term trend -- but food shortages remain.
Several million tons of exportable and domestic food surpluses in 12 countries stagnate. Money and transport are insufficient to move them where they are needed.
Finally, debate continues over Ethiopia's ``forced resettlement'' program.
In April, Dr. Rony Brauman of Doctors without Borders, a nongovernmental aid organization working in Ethiopia, charged that 100,000 Ethiopians had died as a result of ``mass deportations within Ethiopia.'' The group had earlier reported that 300,000 had died.
A UN official confirmed that deaths have occurred among the 670,000 Ethiopians resettled from famine areas, but termed the 100,000 figure ``astronomical.'' ``I haven't seen their figure confirmed publicly by any other organization,'' said Paul Mitchell, of the Rome-based World Food Progam. This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear monthly.