Africa: A Continent Adrift

For Africa, this decade has been a period of ominous economic, social and environmental decline. In 1980 depressed world commodity prices, declining agricultural production, ravaging drought and desertification, rising external debt, and both civil and interstate warfare portended continent-wide disaster. Throughout the 1980s per capita income fell from a level already the lowest in two decades. Decreasing financial reserves forced cuts in vital imports, including an eight-percent cut in 1987 alone. As the value of African exports continued to fall, from $57 billion in 1980 to $32 billion in 1986, one African statesman, the former Nigerian head of state General Olusegun Obasanjo, warned that Africa was falling into a state of "dereliction and decay."

Yet Africa remained low on the list of American foreign policy concerns. During the Reagan presidency Washington officials spoke of Africa as "a continent of great promise" with which the United States was effectively interacting on both economic and diplomatic fronts.1 The somber reality was that human conditions in Africa were continuing to deteriorate, despite a U.N.-sponsored recovery plan (1986-1990) under which many African states were undertaking unpopular structural reforms and austerity measures.

U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuéllar lamented the failure of industrialized donor states to respond to African reforms with increased assistance, saying that it was leading Africa "not to recovery and development but to drift and stagnation, if not a chronic state of crisis."2 Even in gold-rich South Africa, where the persistence of apartheid was a principal focus of the administration's Africa policy, economic conditions were worsening, exacerbated by the intensifying racial polarity.

On the other hand, Africa was approaching its fourth decade of independence with some plausible grounds for hope and avenues of opportunity. In southern Africa an agreement for the military disengagement of Cuban and South African forces from Angola and Namibia, respectively, held the possibility of converting this area of devastating conflict into an engine for development in the region. In West Africa, at an October 1988 Africa Leadership Forum convened by Nigeria's Obasanjo, he and other Africans presented tough, perceptive and prescriptive analyses aimed at deepening and expanding their commitment to disciplined recovery and development efforts.

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