Islands of African tranquillity

Glen Allen July 29 1985

Islands of African tranquillity

Glen Allen July 29 1985

Islands of African tranquillity

Glen Allen

If the postcard-pretty East African country of Kenya has a national motto, it is the Swahili word harambe, which means “let us pull together.” And last year, when the arid desert wind that devastated their northern neighbors bound 17 million Kenyans in the same bone-dry grip of the worst drought the region had seen in 70 years, that is what they did —pull together.

While a mature and motivated bureaucracy organized relief efforts,

Kenyans themselves, on trucks, on bicycles and on foot delivered food held in reserve through a farsighted emergency measures policy over a wellmaintained system of roads. And according to Kenyan officials, not a single man, woman or child died.

Harmony: Lying against the grain of famine, corruption, coups and crime that punctuate life in most of Black Africa, Kenya is one of a handful of nations that has learned to cope with acts of God and live in peace and even some degree of harmony. They are the linchpins of African hope and they share common traits: well-rooted governments with strong, even prophetic leaders; a sense of nationhood that cuts across tribal lines; and an economic pragmatism that uses the capital and skills of their former European masters as fully as they were used themselves in the days before independence. They are Africa’s islands of tranquillity and they have survived and even flourished in spite of serious natural, social and political handicaps.

Kenya, for one, has endured its share of problems. Despite a landscape of rolling hills, vast grasslands and snowcapped mountains that attracts more tourists than any other black African country, only one-fifth of its 224,081 square miles is arable. It has forged its 21 years of life as an independent nation out of bitter and bloody Mau-Mau terrorism. Because of the steady postindependence rule of Jomo (Burning Spear)

Kenyatta, president from 1964 to 1978, the country attracted foreign investment without becoming the ward of any foreign power. The result is that Kenya, now the most highly industrialized nation in Black Africa—with a healthy annual industrial growth—has an inflation rate of only nine per cent, a welldeveloped health care system that resulted in an infant mortality rate of 92

per 1,000 (compared to 260 per 1,000 in Burkina Faso) and an education program that has brought literacy to 61 per cent of males and 38 per cent of females.

The hibiscus-lined streets of Nairobi front one of Africa’s most impressive collections of banks, airline offices, fine restaurants, hotels and theatres. While the city’s 1.2 million residents must endure an antiquated telephone system, which sometimes fails during heavy rains, and occasional short power blackouts, generally things work. Shortages of basic commodities and queues of shoppers, the hallmark of many African capitals, are not found in Nairobi. And although President Daniel arap Moi, Kenyatta’s chosen successor, turned the country into a one-party state in 1982, inviting protests and an attempted coup, independent observers report that the country today is relatively free of arbitrary arrest, torture and

imprisonment for political crimes.

Like Kenya, the southern nation of Botswana has managed to cement stability amid surrounding chaos. Granted independence from Britain in 1966, the former protectorate of Bechuanaland lies in uneasy proximity to the whiteruled might of South Africa and turbulent politics of Zimbabwe and Namibia. The Alberta-sized nation is swept by the

sand wastes of the Kalahari Desert, which consumes 80 per cent of its territory. And while a four-year drought has hobbled agriculture, Botswana’s hardy people have so far escaped widespread famine. Said one government official recently: “Our cattle aren’t gaining weight, but our people aren’t dying.” Scarce: When it gained independence Botswana was one of the 25 poorest nations on earth with just five kilometres of paved road and not a single public high school. The infant nation did not even have a capital; Bechuanaland had been ruled by British officials from the more comfortable city of Mafeking across the border in South Africa. Then, as now, water was chronically scarce. Indeed, the precious resource obsesses the Batswana. In the local dialect the word for water, pula, figures prominently on the national coat of arms. But its shortage has not hindered the na-

tion’s economy. In 1966 it had one basic economic activity: raising scrub cattle on its arid plains. The stagnant economy yielded an annual per capita income of just $75 (U.S.). After independence, economic growth averaged 13 per cent a year until 1978 and has averaged 8.5 per cent since then. Minerals have been the key to prosperity-rich diamond deposits, coal, copper and nickel have all been found under Botswana’s dry crust. The nation’s one million citizens now enjoy an average annual income of $920. Clinics are within reach of 85 per cent of the population, and 90 per cent of the nation’s children have access to primary schools.

A spirit of co-operation among the country’s eight tribes and their leaders’ gift for conciliation have made Botswana Africa’s only true multiparty democracy. Indeed, Botswana’s current president, Quett Masire, governs the country as shrewdly as he manages his own cattle farm. Masire and his colleagues have little time for rhetoric. He has allowed South African companies to exploit Botswana’s mineral wealth while opposing Pretoria’s apartheid policies. Botswana maintains close ties with the West but also hosts the largest Soviet Embassy in southern Africa. Said the dapper Masire, whose Botswana Democratic Party holds 29 of 34 seats in parliament: “I am an amateur politician

and therefore can afford to have principles.” Gleaming: But Black Africa’s best-known miracle of peace and prosperity is the Ivory Coast. The nation’s well-fed and well-housed middle class owns 10 times the number of TV sets as do neighboring Togolese. Ivoirians have a per capita income of $720, more than twice that of neighboring Ghanaians. Citizens shop in gleaming supermarkets stocked with foreign goods, skate on Black Africa’s only ice rink and stroll the European-style boulevards of Abidjan, the country’s largest city. Since independence 25 years ago, the nine mil-

lion Ivoirians have lived under the benevolent dictatorship of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, an octogenarian who likes to hang the walls of the presidential residence with Renoirs. Houphouët-Boigny has always managed to defuse dissent. In 1963, when army officers were arrested for plotting against his regime, he visited them in jail every day to convince them of his good faith, then released them. The leader—he calls himself “No. 1 peasant”—has saved his country from the ruined dictatorships around him by parlaying the Ivory Coast’s position as the world’s leading cocoa producer and third-largest exporter of coffee into a more diversified economy. He has also used foreign

investment, French technical expertise and a pool of 2.5 million immigrant laborers from neighboring states. Splinter: But there is trouble in this demi-paradise. The country’s foreign debt has risen to $7.1 billion, and the government has warned that it will have to apply a dose of economic austerity to the Ivoirian good life. At the same time, Houphouët-Boigny has so far done nothing to end a disconcerting silence on who will succeed him. Succession has rarely been smooth in Africa, and there are fears that the Ivoirian miracle may splinter along the lines of the 60 tribes that make up the nation’s populace. No African nation is immune to the political upheavals that rend the continent. Untroubled Botswana may fall afoul of its carefully tended nonalignment policy in the years ahead. Antiapartheid guerrillas have tried to base themselves within its borders, and refugees have fled to the arid oasis of peace from all quarters. The nation was rocked by a lightning South African commando raid in June, aimed at the destruction of rebel bases. And in Kenya rising unemployment has sparked a surge in crime. An exodus from the countryside is expected to swell Nairobi to twice its size within 10 years. Experts warn that it may become ringed, as are so many Black African capitals, with tin and cardboard shantytowns. Still, on a turbulent continent where life is too often measured in misery, Africans can look to the few islands of tranquillity with hope and not a little pride. With Lyse Doucet in Abidjan, Mary Anne FitzGerald in Nairobi and Allister Sparks in Johannesburg.