Where Marx Left His Harshest Marks

In Africa, state-run economies make difficult transitions to free markets

IN what he terms the bad old days of socialist rule, mechanic Mohammed Kombo struggled to find a kilo of rice to feed his family. Soap and milk were luxuries better forgotten.

Ten years on in the new capitalist era, the shortages have ended. Mr. Kombo drives a visitor through the capital's markets brimming with everything from olives to electric blenders to running shoes.

But there is one big problem. Mr. Kombo doesn't earn enough to take advantage of the new selection. He eats what he can, which isn't much.

''Am I a freer man? In principle yes. But I'm still hungry,'' he complains.

Such is the story of states across Africa - Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Benin, Congo, Madagascar, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, and Zambia - that are shedding heavy state management of their economies.

On one hand, disastrous collectivist experiments and poor planning ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The way has been paved to freer choice in economics and politics.

But the cold war's end has often left a vacuum, as the perceived strategic importance of the world's poorest continent has dried up. Russian, Bulgarian, Cuban, and Chinese doctors, military advisers, and agrarians have mostly packed up and gone home.

New benefactors from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have often prescribed austerity measures that hurt initially. Mismanagement and corruption, which hobble most of Africa, make matters worse in formerly socialist countries, with their legacy of ruined roads and industry long starved of Western support.

''Socialism as policy was not a mistake. But the way it was practiced was,'' said Ali Ameir Mohamed, deputy secretary general of Tanzania's formerly Marxist Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution), which has ruled for 30 years. ''The models of Eastern Europe were wrong for an underdeveloped country like ours. We lost a lot of time in terms of development and are sorely trying to catch up now.''

The adjustment has generally been more painful here than in East Europe, as African nations started from a more impoverished base with less skilled administrators. They also face greater indifference from the West.

''There are no socialist success stories in Africa,'' said Tom Lodge, a political scientist from Johannesburg's Wiswatersrand University. ''These countries didn't just have incompetent governments, which is the generality in Africa. Many had large-scale warfare linked to the cold war. So they have a tough time.''

South African economist Alex van den Heever attributes much of the problem to the lack of resources and adequate planning by formerly socialist governments.

Following foreign models that didn't fit, they built roads and big hospitals they couldn't maintain. They ran up high government deficits, but didn't have domestic capital markets to finance them. They printed money that then was devalued. ''The planning was poorly conceptualized. Absolutely appalling,'' Mr. van den Heever said.

The best-case scenario is Ghana, cited as one of the few success stories in Africa overall. Its leader, Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings, threw aside socialism and adopted a program early on that drew crucial foreign investment.

Less successful is Guinea-Bissau, one of the world's poorest countries. The drought-stricken Atlantic island state of Cape Verde jettisoned its tepid experiment with one-party socialist rule several years ago, but survives only because of foreign aid.

In Tanzania, some facets of the economy have improved with reforms. But others are still ravaged from the days when it was starved of foreign investment.

Zambia, once a middle-of-the-road socialist state, embarked on a poorly conceived structural-adjustment program and privatizations that proved disastrous. A falling price in copper, its mainstay, didn't help. A popular outcry has erupted against a falling standard of living since President Frederick Chiluba came to power in the first democratically elected government in 1991.

Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique are struggling not only with transitions, but with the aftermath of devastating civil wars.

Angola's infrastructure is completely ruined. Land mines prevent agricultural self-sufficiency, keeping investors wary. Corruption drains potential oil wealth. ''Were our socialist policies erroneous? Maybe. But the main point is that the economy was destroyed by the war,'' Planning Minister Pedro Morais told the Monitor. ''Our priority is emergency reconstruction. We must rebuild bridges, roads, schools, and a health system from practically scratch, which will take years, decades. Carrying out privatizations is a subject of great debate.''

In Ethiopia, virtually no development occurred during a brutal 18-year dictatorship. The 1991 exit of pro-Soviet leader Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam heralded a new entrepreneurial spirit. But pundits say results will take a long time.

Mozambique held its first democratic elections last year which ended 16 years of war. But the economic liberalization launched in the 1980s has barely advanced.

Prexy Nesbitt, a Chicago-based expert on southern Africa, says the jury is still out, but that many formerly socialist states are moving into a more stable era. ''Measured in strictly economic terms, progress has not been strong. But it has been impressive considering the forces arrayed against them that were intent on eliminating them.''

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