Africa struggles under load of economic problems

A succession of political crises in black Africa in recent weeks has obscured what many African and Western analysts view as a greater threat to stability on the continent: the worst economic outlook for most sub-Saharan countries since independence in the 1960s.

The failed coup attempt in Kenya, the collapse of the Organization of African Unity summit in Libya, and the increasingly bloody factionalism in Zimbabwe have generated real concern as well as headlines. But most Africans are more preoccupied with the effects of a vicious cycle of slumping export earnings, rising deficits, and mushrooming - in some cases probably unpayable - debt.

The squeeze has already provoked a couple of reschedulings. And several strong economies - like Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Gabon - have been forced to enact austerity measures that will limit, or preclude, economic growth.

That may be just the beginning. With no short-term improvement in sight, as many as half a dozen other governments could be pushed to ask for a postponement of debt repayments in the next year or so. And the World Bank, while acknowledging last week that as many as three-quarters of sub-Saharan countries will depend on Western aid for their ''survival,'' admitted that Western aid contributions were declining.

Western banks, which once viewed black Africa as a growth area for loans, have reduced obligations to the region and increased rates for the loans they do make.

A host of familiar and long-standing problems, like corruption, overpopulation, and disastrous agricultural policies, certainly have played a part in the poor performances of many of the region's economies. Nevertheless, bankers and businessmen claim the severity of the current crisis is due largely to a dramatic falloff in export earnings in the last two years.

Always dependent for economic well-being on increasing exports of raw materials, Africans have watched prices for everything from cocoa to copper to crude oil - in fact, every meaningful export from the region - fall sharply in that time.

With few indications that the Western recession is bottoming out, it is difficult to find any-ne - African or Westerner - predicting a rapid turnaround for commodities. ''I don't know what the solution is for cocoa,'' a major trader here said as he pored over bleak price charts for the last few months. ''Perhaps there is no solution.''

An African coffee expert could offer little more in the way of optimism. ''One has to hope,'' he said, while acknowledging that African producers are sitting on hundreds of thousands of tons of coffee, with virtually no chance to sell it in the near future because of depressed markets and overproduction.

Even oil-producing nations, once thought recession proof, have been forced to make painful cutbacks. Nigeria acknowledged recently that the oil revenue it was counting on to foot the bill for its ambitious $125 billion 1981-85 development plan will fall short by about half. Despite tight import and foreign exchange controls instituted in March, foreign reserves have slid to just over $1 billion , from $10 billion about a year and a half ago.

Gabon, once the Monaco of the west coast of Africa with its oil-fueled prosperity, has imposed successive austerity budgets in recent years, as oil production and demand for other exports - timber, manganese, and uranium - have all fallen.

As a result, bankers predict, its economic growth will stagnate this year, particularly if oil prices, already down an average of $4 per barrel from 1981, hold or slide further - as now seems likely.

Most sub-Saharan countries, however, would gladly switch places with Nigeria or Gabon. Following its worst-ever peanut harvest in 1980, Senegal found that its 1981 exports covered only about half its vital imports, especially food and petroleum goods.

Malawi and Sudan have both reEently requested similar debt relief, and many banking experts expect countries like Madagascar, Tanzania, and Zambia to have little choice but to do the same in the near future. International bankers hold out little hope that Zaire will remain current with its multibillion dollar debt - already rescheduled several years ago. At least some say Ivory Coast, once the ''miracle of Africa'' will not be able to avoid some sort of restructuring of its $5 billion plus debt.

Despite a clear need for more help from the West, Africans are likely to get less in coming years, according to both bankers and international officials. The World Bank report acknowledged that the US and Britain had reduced multilateral aid, and that the overall trend in aid would not keep pace with the need.

Bankers, alarmed at slowing growth rates, low commodity prices, and ballooning debts of many sub-Saharan countries, have imposed tighter lending criteria and in many cases raised commissions and interest rates on the loans they do approve.

With neither an increase in aid nor an economic turnaround in the offing, sub-Saharan Africa may fulfill what the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa called a ''worst case'' scenario at the economic summit of the OAU in Lagos in 1980. The UN group said that without a change in economic conditions - better then than they are now - the 50-member OAU might have only about 14 economically functioning members by the turn of the century.

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