NAIROBI, Kenya -- All right, ladies and gentlemen, which one shall it be?
Is the vast continent of Africa a hopeless chasm into which too many dreams have disappeared? Or is this complex and often tormented world on the brink of a coming renaissance?
I came back to Africa after an absence of many years, thinking that the annual conference of the International Press Institute, a group of international publishers, editors and journalists focusing this year on Africa, might answer those questions. And it did -- only in too many ways.
On the one hand, we heard Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki say: "You are today in one of the most democratic countries in Africa and indeed the world. Since my government took over two years ago, we made a commitment to widen the democratic space and ensure total freedom of expression and freedom of media."
At that same session, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, a country working to reconcile itself after the horrendous genocide of 1994, illustrated a new African sense of personal responsibility when he told the delegates from all over the world: "We in Africa must ask ourselves why we lag behind in spite of the resources available at our disposal. Why is it that the Western journalists see poverty, disease, corruption, civil war and conflict?"
Kagame's question may be answered with some incredible realities, as shown in these statistics brought forward at the meeting:
UThe roughly 850 million people in 57 countries of Africa have a GNP equal only to that of Belgium.
UIn the recent report of the prestigious Freedom House, it is noted that only seven of the African countries have a totally free press, and 33 have no free press at all; in addition, Africa constitutes 42 percent of the world's "not free" countries by their reckoning.
UA recent report issued by the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington states that while other parts of the world prosper, Africans are getting even poorer -- and almost entirely as a result of the "predatory behavior of their political elites."
Perhaps the best response to wide-ranging questions about Africa came from Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, the respected Tanzanian diplomat who was best known in the West as secretary general of the Organization of African Unity. His thoughts seemed to emerge somewhere between renaissance and disaster -- in fact, in the realities of a transition period.
"One cannot fail to see the formation of a new era in Africa over the last 15 years," he told the assemblage. "In countries like mine, there is a considerable increase of the role and space of the media -- but at the same time, we have experienced some of the most horrifying events of our history, like genocide in Rwanda and the wars in the Congo.
& quot;Yet at the same time, the guns have begun to go silent. We enter the 21st century with countries like Botswana and Uganda as models, but now also other countries as well. We are doing considerable work in establishing the architecture for democratic processes -- and that is one of the most important changes in Africa today."
"Architecture" for change: That may well be the best word to apply to this dangerous and yet hopeful period in Africa's recent troubled history. They are trying to build -- to institutionalize -- their way out of their past.
That is why the Aga Khan, the wise imam and leader of the Ismaili Muslims, told us that imams like him must lead not only in religion, but also in development -- for all people of all religions. That is why some speakers stressed that all the horrible wars of the last years are now in some process of mediation. That is why Kagame's Rwanda now has local civilian courts to allow the killers of 1994 to confess to society. That is why the words most used at the conference -- which were at the heart of everything -- were "good governance," and why so much of the talk seemed to revolve around African observance of the correct institutional forms of elections and judicial processes.
While there is no assurance that these changes will come -- or that they will work, or that there is even time for them to work -- beyond all the misery and horrors there is a "morning after" quality in Africa today. They have awakened from a drunken binge and from terrifying nightmares, and there is, at least, the beginning of some serious sobering up.
Universal Press Syndicate