As heads of state gathered in Kampala last week for the African Union summit my mind wandered back to 1975 when heads of state also gathered in Kampala for the OAU (Organisation of African Unity as it was then known) Summit. This was by any measure a remarkable meeting, not least for the presence of the Ugandan leader at the time, Idi Amin, who was assuming the mantle of “Chairman of Africa”. In addition to discussing the weighty issues of the day such as Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Amin put on a military exercise by the shores of Lake Victoria to demonstrate how African forces could defeat militarily the apartheid regime in South Africa, and then crowned this by inviting us all to attend his wedding reception. That morning whilst chairing the conference he had slipped out to marry Sara, his fourth wife (known locally as “Suicide Sara” because of her dangerous role as Amin’s car rallying co-driver!). As if this was not enough excitement, President Gowon of Nigeria had been toppled by a military coup whilst attending the conference.
[protected]It was a “star-studded” conference. Attending were many of Africa’s founding fathers such as Presidents Nyerere (Tanzania), Kaunda (Zambia), Houphet-Boigny (Côte d’Ivoire) and Seretse Khama (Botswana) while others such as Presidents Kenyatta (Kenya), Senghor (Senegal) and Sekou Toure (Guinea) chose to remain in their capitals.
Thirty five years on much has changed. Thankfully Idi Amin is gone, removed by the Ugandan people with some assistance from their neighbours Tanzania. Also gone is the apartheid regime in South Africa, removed not so much by the military prowess of African forces but by the courage of the South African people and the enlightened political skills of Presidents Mandela and de Klerk. Nigeria went through several more military coups before it achieved a democratic stability and Zimbabwe finally achieved its independence. Back in the 1970s and 80s military governments and one party dictatorial states became the norm, nowadays they are the exception. After decades of unrest and violence engulfing two thirds of the Africa, today we find a continent relatively free of conflict, with a few notable exceptions.
In 1975 Amin had introduced colour television to cover the summit (for barely 100 TV sets in the country!) while the Ugandan people could hardly afford their next meal. The Ugandan economy has moved on but generally the political advances achieved in Africa have not been matched by economic advances.
Today Zimbabwe is but a shadow of the prosperous country it was in 1975. Then the GNP per capita of Zaire (now DRC) was $380, now it is $85. Oil rich Gabon, the richest sub-Saharan country at the time, was $8,502 but by the new millennium it was halved. At the time of the 1975 Kampala summit, the economies of the African countries were buoyed by good prices internationally for their natural resources such as coffee, cotton, sugar, oil palm and copper and iron ore, but all these prices dropped dramatically. Within ten years coffee prices had fallen by 64%, cotton by 47% and sugar by 77%, and they continued to fall in the face of competing production in Asia and South America. The increasing subsidies paid by the United States and European governments for local home production did not help. Exporting countries in Africa became dependent upon imports. Nigeria which was the largest exporter of oil palm now has to import this vital commodity. Sierra Leone was a net exporter of rice, nowadays it has to import its staple crop.
The economic decline occurred inspite of the vast billions of international aid which have continued to be poured into the continent. Countries became increasingly dependent on aid and debt ridden. In 1975 the debt GNP ratio was 14%. Two decades later it had risen to 74% and it continues to grow.
When those African leaders met in 1975 it was against a backcloth of the “superpower” rivalry going on between the United States and the Soviet Union. (This is now gone and China has now become the only “superpower” in Africa). At that meeting attention was focussed on the volatile scene in the Horn of Africa where as a result of the “creeping coup” in Ethiopia to remove Emperor Haile Selassie (one of the founding fathers of the OAU) the super powers were switching sides – Ethiopia was being courted by the Soviet Union and Somalia by the United States. But at that time OAU doctrine was rigid non interference in each other’s internal affairs. Interestingly this part of the world is again the focus of attention of the 2010 summit. No superpower involvement this time but the evil menace of international terrorism. Following the devastating and cowardly bombings in Kampala which resulted in the tragic deaths of 76 people, President Museveni is looking to his African colleagues to boost the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia, currently comprised mainly of Ugandan and Burundi troops, and to amend its mandate to enable it to go on the offensive against the evil menace of the insurgent group al-Shabaab based in Somalia with its links to al-Qaeda
How times change.
Former British Diplomat serving in Africa 1963 – 2000.[/protected]