News of internal conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda, and Liberia lead many to conclude that Africa is rife with unrest and killing. It is important to keep the continent in perspective. Africa consists of 52 distinct nations and a population of 900 million. The tragedies of a few do not represent the whole. Positive elements provide balance to the picture.
In an uprising in Burundi in 1972, I asked an African foreign minister why Africans did not speak out more forcefully in condemning the tribal warfare then engulfing that nation. He replied, "If we call attention to the problems of other Africans, Europeans will say, 'That's Africa.' But when you speak out about the troubles in Northern Ireland, people don't say, 'See, that's the way Europeans are.' "
He had a point. People generalize about Africa on the basis of current internal conflicts in six of the continent's 52 countries: Chad, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, and Somalia. Similar generalizations are not made about Europeans on the basis of the wars and terrorism taking place in Ireland and Bosnia. Current local wars in Asia are even more numerous.
Africa is a disadvantaged continent. It is, perhaps, remarkable that there are not more conflicts. Most countries inherited tribal divisions, artificial boundaries, and development problems. They faced independence with weak governmental institutions; colonial rule tended to be authoritarian. The faade of democratic rule that European governments left behind eroded in favor of rule by individuals and the military. Corruption drained resources and undermined confidence in government; the continent's largest nation, Nigeria, is an example.
Each of the current conflicts has distinct local roots not necessarily typical of the rest of the continent. The clashes in Chad and Sudan grow out of an old confrontation between Muslim and non-Muslim groups along the Sahara desert's northern rim. The troubles in both Sierra Leone and Liberia stem from confrontations between indigenous people and resettled American and British slaves. The unrest is further complicated by efforts of politicians and the military to control rich and often illicit trade in gold and diamonds. Rwanda and Burundi suffer from the age-old resentment of the Hutu majority against domination by the Tutsis. Somalia represents a rare nation-state in disintegration. Angola's remaining struggles are a vestige of issues unresolved at the time of decolonization.
These conspicuous problems, however, are balanced by positive trends. Nigeria's military regime is under more and more pressure to return to democracy. This pressure includes rare criticism from African-American leaders. The Republic of Benin, the site of many coups, held a democratic election on March 18 followed by a peaceful transfer of power.
On March 29, Sierra Leone's military rulers turned over power peacefully to a civilian president after an election. Although the honesty of elections in many places is in dispute, democratically elected officials rule in Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Ivory Coast, The Congo, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia.
Economic bright spots exist, also. The press reported in April that seven of France's former colonies - Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo - in 1995 posted average gains of 6% in their gross domestic product. Benin, Malawi, Namibia, Uganda, and Zambia in 1994 had more than 4% increases in their gross national income. Mozambique, only recently recovering from a civil war, showed national-income growth of 22%.
Some of the world's most oppressive regimes have been eliminated in the Central African Republic, Guinea, and Ethiopia. The former Ethiopian rulers are currently on trial in Addis Ababa for their crimes against the population.
The most spectacular progress of all, of course, is in South Africa, where a peaceful transition from white-majority rule has been effected. Under the remarkable leadership of Nelson Mandela, that nation is seeking to bridge the gap of decades of racial separation and antagonism. A decade ago, predictions of what is happening there today would have been ridiculed.
Except for France, concern for Africa is low on most Western governments' priority list. If neglect is based on an assumption of hopelessness because of the tragic events in a few countries, it is worth taking a second look at the rest.