“BLASPHEMOUS” was how the information minister described an article in the Zimbabwe Independent complaining about President Robert Mugabe’s habit of commandeering commercial passenger jets for
his own use. It was a revealing choice of adjective. Mugabe’s henchmen do not really think their leader divine, but they often suggest that he is infallibly righteous, and that those who defy him should be smitten.
The Independent’s blaspheming scribes were perhaps lucky to be released on bail last week. Zimbabwe provides a dramatic illustration of how statist economic policies, corruptly enforced, swiftly impoverish. In the past five years, Mugabe’s contempt for property rights has made half the population dependent on food aid, while his cronies help themselves to other people’s land and savings, and build helipads for their own mansions.
But Zimbabwe’s curse is also Africa’s. The main reason the continent is so poor today is that Mugabe-style incompetent tyranny has been common since independence. The most important question for Africans now is whether Mugabe represents not only their past, but their future as well.
There are encouraging signs that he does not.
The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders rate media freedom in Africa. Human Rights Watch reports on Africa. The IMF and the World Bank give economic information on various countries. Afrol.com posts rolling news and country information.
Consider first the advance of democracy south of the Sahara since the end of the cold war. In the 1960s and 1970s, no African ruler was voted out of office. In the 1980s, one was. Since then, 18 have been, and counting. That still leaves a lot of countries where polls are rigged and dissidents disappear, but it is surely a sign that some African governments are becoming more accountable to their people.
Africa’s media, too, are shaking off their shackles. Under most of the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, independent newspapers and radio stations were simply not allowed. Today, they are as numerous as they are irreverent. Television is still largely state-controlled and journalists are still persecuted “occasionally in most countries, systematically in places such as Zimbabwe and Eritrea” but, overall, the mighty are subject to greater scrutiny than before, which makes it a bit harder for them to abuse their power.
In the past couple of years, Africa has also grown more peaceful. During the cold war, the great powers fought a series of proxy battles on African soil, arming and aiding each other’s clients’ enemies with scant regard for the African lives their meddling cost. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Africa’s strategic importance waned. Its wars, however, did not. Without their superpower backers, some states crumpled, leading to new and exceptionally bloody struggles in countries such as Congo and Liberia.
Fortunately, several of these conflicts seem at last to have run their course. Angola and Sierra Leone are at peace. The pointless border clash between Ethiopia and Eritrea has stopped. Congo’s war, the worst anywhere since the Second World War, is formally over. Liberia’s warlord, Charles Taylor, has been driven into exile. Even in Sudan, which has known only 11 years of calm since 1962, government and rebels are on the verge of signing a power-sharing deal.
This sudden outbreak of tranquillity has various causes. Angola’s war stopped because one side won. Others have ended because both sides were exhausted, or because outsiders cajoled them into putting down their weapons and starting to talk. If Sudan’s rulers make peace this year, it will be largely because they are terrified of what George Bush might do to them if they do not.