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People power brightens bleak year for Africa

HDN | 12/26/2000 12:00:00 AM |

While the headlines suggested a continent at war with itself, the underlying image was one of nations struggling to reconcile internal differences in a way which was not that different from Serbia, Indonesia or Colombia. Nicholas Phythian Abidjan -

  • While the headlines suggested a continent at war with itself, the underlying image was one of nations struggling to reconcile internal differences in a way which was not that different from Serbia, Indonesia or Colombia.
  • Nicholas Phythian

    Abidjan - Reuters

    In many ways, it was another bleak and turbulent year in Africa. But woven in among the now-ritual images of war, of ethnic and religious rivalry, of disease, famine and floods were images of populations turning out and making their views heard.

    Some voted, some spoke out, others marched as people power started to make itself felt in the world's poorest continent.

    Some made their point with machetes and clubs.

    But while the headlines suggested a continent at war with itself, the underlying image was one of nations struggling to reconcile internal differences in a way which was not that different from Serbia, Indonesia or Colombia.

    "African societies have piled up conflicts without resolving them," says Senegalese historian Mamadou Diouf. "I think that conflict, and violent conflict at that, offers a way out."

    Diouf, taking part in a radio debate, argued that the Africa which emerged from the post-Cold War 1990s was an Africa in which societies were starting to solve their own problems.

    "Africans are now capable of paying for their own civil wars, without help, and of finding ways of negotiating, which, while not easy, can lead to new settlements," he added.

    New settlements there were. Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement this month, a formal end to a bloody two year border war.

    South Africa's Nelson Mandela used his own considerable prestige to rally Burundi's warring parties round an August deal.

    Lost opportunity

    But there, as in Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Angola, a deal is one thing and lasting peace another.

    "The year 2000 was a lost opportunity for the African Renaissance," lamented South African political scientist Herman Hannekom, resurrecting U.S. President Bill Clinton's rallying cry during a landmark 1998 visit to the continent.

    "The Congo war has gone on unabated, there was more trouble in West Africa with Ivory Coast and tensions in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone."

    Turbulent elections in Zimbabwe and once stable Ivory Coast, ethnic and religious clashes in Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation, and an enduring conflict in Sudan compounded the impression of a continent in terminal decline.

    Devastating floods in Mozambique, famine in Ethiopia and an Ebola epidemic in Uganda provided further images of despair.

    But in the midst of the sorrow and the pain, pictures of a Mozambican mother who gave birth above the floodwaters in a tree offered an image of hope.

    In Senegal, veteran President Abdou Diouf offered another by stepping down with dignity after failing to win re-election.

    The spectacle of civilian protesters, marching against the guns of hardline soldiers loyal to Ivory Coast's military ruler General Robert Guei, offered yet another.

    The protests, which ousted Guei after he tried to rig an October presidential election, recalled people power protests in the Philippines, Romania and latterly Serbia -- before degenerating into ethnic bloodletting.

    Images of hope

    For Zimbabwean political science professor Masipula Sithole the rumblings of people power offer a rare sign of hope. "The only bright spot I see in Africa at the moment is that there are more and more ordinary people coming out to confront and take on some of the despots we have on the continent."

    U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a national of Ghana, latched onto people power during a mini-tour of Africa.

    "People are beginning to understand their rights," he said. "We are seeing pressure in these countries for democracy as it was originally intended -- power surging up from below and not surging down from above with leaders dictating to them and getting away with it each time."

    The case of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who faces legal action to bring him to account for human rights abuses committed during his rule, has given would-be dictators food for thought, but other factors are at play.

    "Conflict fatigue has really been felt in the last decade or so," Moustafa Hassouna, a Kenya-based writer on African affairs, says of a shift towards peace in the volatile Horn of Africa.

    Even anarchic Somalia, left to its own devices since the ill-fated U.S. and U.N. intervention in the early 1990s, has taken tentative steps towards peace this year.

    Next year may provide clues as to where they lead. On the economic front, an oil price bonanza brought a windfall to some governments, but combined with a slump in farm community prices to squeeze most ordinary Africans harder.

    In South Africa, the continent's economic giant which exorcised some of its demons under Mandela, President Thabo Mbeki suffered a setback in municipal elections but the next national elections are not until 2004.

    In North Africa, a region largely spared major upheaval, Algeria saw fresh Islamist killings and attacks by Libyan mobs on migrant black African workers left Muammar Gaddafi's plea for an Africa without borders looking hollow.

    By that time, however, Gaddafi had hustled the continent onto the road to an African Union at a summit which renewed faith with the dream of many of its independence leaders.

    In the Olympic pool in Sydney, Eric "the Eel" Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea, kept faith with another dream.

    Wearing baggy trunks as opposed to a hi-tech bodysuit and swimming one of the slowest races in Olympic history, he showed a world obsessed with winning that taking part can also count.

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