Copyright The International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2005
LAGOS, Nigeria — Zanzibar
As the dust begins to settle on Zanzibar’s election, perhaps we can look at the vote with a little more objectivity.
Reporters flocked in, lured by the promise of rigged elections in an African tourist paradise where the smell of blood-letting mingled with the scent of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Moreover, the Tanzanian balloon was too tempting not to prick. The East African country, which incorporated the islands of Zanzibar in 1964, is one of the continent’s success stories: politically peaceful, democratic and exhibiting consistently high rates of economic growth. Surely something must be wrong.
For days, journalists highlighted the run-up to the election with stories and photos of mayhem and murder, intimidation and fraud.
Then the election took place. As most diplomatic observers expected, the ruling party – the one allied with the ruling party of mainland Tanzania – won with a small majority, while the opposition gained a considerable presence in the House of Representatives. Yet the Economist reported, “Western diplomats tended to deride the vote in private but endorse it publicly.”
One European ambassador said, “The media don’t see it from the inside… We have not had a catastrophe here.” Others point to the extraordinary lengths President Benjamin Mkapa went to to avoid a blood bath and make sure the election was conducted fairly and openly, overcoming much resistance from his party colleagues on Zanzibar.
The observer mission of the Commonwealth said, “Overall, this was a good election.” The European Union’s team concluded: “The election process was a marked improvement on past polls and it was generally administered in an efficient manner.”
No wonder President Mkapa exploded: “Derision, cynicism, prejudice, stereotyping and hunger for stories of failure than of success will be the undoing of democratic progress on the continent.”
The media are stuck in a rut on Africa. For over a decade, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Africa was largely a mess of economic misrule and civil war.
While Tanzania was exceptionally peaceful, it also was in economic decline. Zanzibar, with the traditional hostility between its Arab-descended ruling class and its African peasantry and proletariat, was always simmering on the edge of violence.
But a lot of good things have been happening in Africa in the last decade, as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa report makes clear. Violence has gone sharply down.
The number of civil wars is much reduced and the recent election in Liberia is one more indication of how the worst violence can be ended by a mixture of forceful African diplomacy, African and UN peacekeeping and quiet backroom support from the United States and Europe.
President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, President Thabo Mbeki and former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa have worked hard at mediating successfully a wide number of civil wars.
If one looks at the economies of Africa, it seems as though a miracle is underway. Seventeen sub-Saharan African countries attained 5 percent annual growth in 2003.
If we narrow this field down to the active democracies with firm term limits on the elected head of state we see an even more significant degree of promise.
Senegal, Mali and Ghana have had for a number of years steady 5 percent growth rates. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, with half of West Africa’s population, has achieved 5 to 6 percent growth the last few years; Mozambique 7 to 9 percent; Botswana, boasting the world’s fastest growing economy in the 1990s, 7 to 10 percent, and Tanzania nearly 6 percent for the last four years.
In all of these countries inflation is sharply down and the received wisdom of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is that if they continue with their reforms at the same pace as they have over the last decade, they can push these growth rates up even further.
This will make a big impact on a range of very important things, from adequate water supplies to girls’ education to declining birth and poverty rates.
It is a question of perspective and mind-set. How many of today’s African reporters and editors knew Africa in the 1960s and early-70s when there was progress? Not very many. Most of their memories only go back to the dark 80s and 90s when it has been decline and carnage.
As Benjamin Disraeli wrote, “Thought is the child of action.”‘ But Disraeli also wrote, “Experience is the child of thought,” and the press covering Africa badly need to have some new experiences.
(Jonathan Power is a commentator on foreign affairs.)