COMMON wisdom has it that Africa is overwhelmingly burdened with leaders who are corrupt, incompetent, and uncaring dictators. At a time when millions have faced starvation, Africa's leaders are seen to be doing little to benefit their own people. Yet, last month while in Cameroon for the Silver Jubilee Conference of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), I was once again struck by how grossly oversimplified and largely inaccurate this oft-repeated stereotype is.
In recent years a new spirit has taken hold among the leadership of numerous African nations -- publicly acknowledged accountability for past errors; a willingness to shed failed policies and adopt pragmatic new approaches; a commitment to resolve the economic and agricultural problems of the continent; and most significantly, an acceptance that the responsibility for economic and social change rests with Africa itself.
Also largely unnoticed has been the emergence of a new generation of leadership which has come of age in the years since independence. Many of those in this generation place the highest political primacy in African self-reliance and self-sufficiency. In the words of Adebayo Adedeji, executive secretary of UNECA, the resulting policy reforms could spell the ``revolution of the century'' in Africa. They could also ultimately break the back of persistent hunger and underdevelopment on the continent.
In Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's government has committed itself to providing peasant farmers with low-interest loans, access to extension services, and other support. As a result, Zimbabwe has achieved record harvests and is exporting food to neighboring Afri can nations, even as far away as Ethiopia.
In Zambia, President Kenneth Kaunda, Africa's highly respected senior statesman, has sparked a national ``economic crusade'' to revitalize the country's economy. His efforts to encourage domestic food production and decrease dependency on imports have necessarily brought with them short-term hardship: The price of the country's basic foodstuff, cornmeal, has risen substantially, and gasoline prices have doubled. Kaunda's political courage in taking these difficult steps is obvious.
In Ghana, 39-year-old Chief of State Jerry Rawlings has risked alienating the middle class by raising farm prices, cutting urban food subsidies, and devaluing the currency. These much-needed reforms have led to four assassination attempts against him. Yet, coupled with increased rainfall, they also helped produce a bumper harvest -- enough to feed the country's population, with some surplus left over for export.
This movement for self-sufficiency is a continent-wide phenomenon.
In a landmark document -- the ``Addis Ababa Declaration'' -- 28 African heads of state declared last year that: ``We reaffirm that the development of our continent is the primary responsibility of our governments and peoples. We are, therefore, determined to take concrete actions and measures individually and collectively for the achievement of the economic development of our continent. . . .''
In more concrete terms, the declaration calls upon African governments to earmark 20 to 25 percent of their public spending for agriculture and food production by 1990. Several countries -- among them Zimbabwe -- have already made substantial progress toward that goal, and in Cameroon last month, senior officials of 50 African countries again endorsed this target.
The African economy is at the crossroads, Dr. Adedeji says, and 1986 is a ``fateful year . . . our year with destiny.'' Keenly aware that Africa cannot go it alone, that international financial and technical support will be required if the new direction in Africa is to be sustained and have a chance of success, Adedeji told the assembled delegates at the Cameroon conference:
``Africa must demonstrate in every practical way its recognition of the need to bear the burden of its development. It must convince the skeptical and increasingly cynical world of its commitment and determination by tightening its belt and putting in place appropriate austerity measures, as well as by accepting the self-discipline required to achieve an economic turnaround.''
As Africans shoulder the burden they must bear, the ball moves back in the donor nations' court. An early test is upon us, as the United Nations General Assembly convenes today in a special session on Africa, the first time the UN has focused solely on the needs of one continent. At the session, African nations will present a program of economic recovery which they themselves have devised, and for which they have pledged to provide 70 percent of the funding. How the donor nations of Western Europe and North America respond to this request for long-term partnership and assistance will send a strong signal to Africa's leaders, indicating to them the extent to which they can count on the international community to support them in the difficult course they are charting.
Nearly a year ago, President Abdou Diouf of Senegal, chairman of the Organization of African Unity, addressed a conference of the heads of state of more than half of Africa's countries. ``At stake,'' he said, ``is our credibility before our own people, before the entire world, indeed before history.'' At this critical time for Africa's future, a time that former World Bank president Robert McNamara has called ``the opportunity of a decade, if not of a generation,'' President Diouf's words speak to us all.
Joan Holmes is the global executive director of the Hunger Project, an organization of more than 4.3 million individuals committed to the end of the persistence of hunger by the end of the century.