WE'VE heard a great deal about how the 1990s were supposed to be the decade of democracy for Africa. But for those of us working toward democracy in the region, this decade has also witnessed the brutal suppression of freedom of expression on the continent.
On Nov. 10, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian journalist and human rights activist, and eight associates were hanged by the government of Gen. Sani Abacha. A military-appointed judge found them guilty by association in the murder of four people last year, but it was clear to most observers that the murder charges were a thinly disguised excuse for cracking down on Saro-Wiwa's efforts on behalf of minority rights.
The West must stop looking to Africa as simply a source of raw materials and geopolitical nuisances, and reach out to those who are sowing the seeds of grass-roots democracy. Otherwise, there will be many more tragedies like Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Saro-Wiwa was leading his own ethnic group of some 500,000 Ogoni people in a struggle with the Abacha regime to establish their rights - in the same way minority groups are striving for self-determination all over Africa. Saro-Wiwa's execution was the tragic epitome of a long story of humiliation, attacks, and suppression.
Where was the international community while Saro-Wiwa's persecution was taking place? It was waiting until the worst had happened, and only then did it react. ABC News nominated Saro-Wiwa ''Person of the Week,'' but, as the anchor said, it was too late. He had been executed earlier that day.
Saro-Wiwa's execution was just one of many abuses against writers and journalists that occur every year in Africa, the majority of which are never publicized.
Koigi wa Wamwere, another of Africa's leading writers and human rights activists, languishes in a Kenyan jail. Koigi, named by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, was sentenced to four years in jail, where he's been flogged for a crime he denies committing. Several journalists (including a Christian Science Monitor freelancer), and paleontologist Richard Leakey were beaten by members of the ruling party for coming to observe Koigi's trial.
Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi has taken measures against both foreign and local journalists, ranging from threats of deportation to floggings and beatings. His government has taken violent measures against the Kikuyus in their efforts to assert their claims over tribal lands - reminiscent of the persecution of the Ogoni people in Nigeria.
Restricting the press
The Media Institute of Southern Africa has chronicled 89 violations of press freedom in sub-Saharan Africa alone since the year began. It notes a dramatic increase in attacks on press freedom in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Malawi, Swaziland, and Namibia. In these countries, governments are invoking legislation dating back to colonial rule in a bid to subdue the press, as well as to stifle debate and block public access to information.
Last month Tanzanian President Ali Hassan Mwinyi warned his nation's journalists of dire consequences if they continued to report on his failures as a leader.
It is too late to save Ken Saro-Wiwa and his friends. But there are hundreds of others struggling for freedom under dictatorships who can still be helped.