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One out of every two refugees in the world is African. Although their continent has sweeping mineral wealth and wide areas of rich soil, its resources are largely untapped, millions of its people are hungry, and many of its governments unstable. Two-thirds of the world's least-developed nations are in Africa. This article, fourth in the 'Great Decisions '83' series, examines the problems and potential of the sub-Saharan region of this continent of contradictions.

All over Africa from the desert lands of Somalia to the tropical lushness of Zaire down to the mountain-ringed kingdom of Lesotho, which lies like a pebble in the clenched fist of surrounding white-ruled South Africa, millions of people are on the run.

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African destabilization - triggered by hunger, economic hardship, tribal warfare, border disputes, drought, and world recession - takes many forms. There are:

* Political refugees fleeing border wars and tribal strife and seeking sanctuary in other African lands. Of the world's estimated 10 million refugees, half are huddled in Africa. Hardly an African country is without them.

* Farmers driven off their land every day because of the sharp drop in the world prices for basic commodities. Such people stream into the cities at a faster rate than on any other continent on the globe.

While urbanization in India and Pakistan increased annually by 3.3 percent and 4 percent, respectively, between 1970 and 1982, it jumped 6.8 percent in Nigeria, 7 percent in Malawi, 7.2 percent in Zaire, and 8.3 percent in Mozambique.

* Dispossessed peoples uprooted by years of unrelieved drought and other climatic calamities in such economically precarious regions as the arid Sahel in West Africa and the barren Horn of Africa in the northeast.

* Workers who left their own impoverished countries because they couldn't find jobs and who now find themselves suddenly expelled by host countries whose economies are too fragile to support them.

Within the last month, perhaps as many as 2 million West Africans, about half of them Ghanaians, were pushed out of Nigeria, which is reeling from slumping oil prices.

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Sub-Saharan Africa, the broad band of 45 black African states that separate Arab North Africa from white-ruled South Africa and Namibia, is in a state of crisis. Two-thirds of the 36 least-developed countries in the world lie in this region.

Some Africa-watchers take the longer view. They see sub-Saharan Africa, which racked up growth rates of between 4 and 5 percent between 1950 and 1975, temporarily caught in a downward economic cycle. They believe the region could bounce back when the world recession eases. Africa, with its heavy dependence on primary products, is more vulnerable to world economic downturns than other areas of the world.

Nobody disputes that Africa's potential is enormous. It has vast resources. It has the largest amount of available arable land. The continent has also made rapid strides in turning out university graduates, bringing down infant mortality rates, boosting literacy, opening up roads, and expanding social services.

''We forget too quickly how India was written off as a hopeless case back in the 1950s. Now it is virtually self-sufficient in food,'' cautions a Western food expert who expects that within a decade or two Africa will achieve the kind of gains that Asia attained in the 1970s.

What is not in dispute is that sub-Saharan Africa is mired in trouble. Among the notable exceptions are the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Malawi.

The deep-throated cries of ''Uhuru'' (freedom) that reverberated throughout Africa in the 1960s and brought political independence from white colonial rule are muted in the 1980s.

The realization is setting in rapidly that economically much of the region is worse off than it was a decade ago.

About 70 percent of the population is not getting enough to eat. As a result, the World Bank is advocating a doubling of food aid over the next decade. Less than a handful of countries - Zimbabwe and Malawi are conspicuous examples - can feed themselves. Nigeria, once Africa's largest exporter of food, is now the continent's largest importer of food.

External factors have not helped. With world recession, the bottom has fallen out of most commodity prices. The problem is that so many African countries are dependent on only one, two, or three basic commodities.

Prof. Abraham Besrat, visiting Ethiopian biochemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out the dilemma for his country (per capita income $91).

''Coffee is our No. 1 export crop, and we're getting less and less for it and what we import is costing us more and more.''

Compounding the problem for Marxist Ethiopia and all other non-oil-producing countries are huge energy bills. Kenya, with a strong capitalistic economy, spends up to 40 percent of its foreign exchange reserves on petroleum products. Economic hardship knows no ideological bounds in Africa today.

Because of dictatorial rule, gross mismanagement, and neglect of its economy, Equatorial Guinea is considerably worse off than it was 10 years ago. In some sectors, resources for development are down to 10 percent of what they were in the 1950s.

Ghana and Uganda, two African states that started out with extraordinary potential, have had shattering reverses. In the words of Dr. Nevin Scrimshaw, director of the MIT/Harvard International Food and Nutrition Program, ''They blew it.'' There are some tentative signs, however, of Ugandan recovery.

Both countries, he says, could have made progress because of their intellectual elite and initial economic promise, ''but it was the political situation that did them in.''

Conversely, the economic successes of the Ivory Coast (black Africa's star performer) and Malawi show to some extent how strong political leadership and consistent economic policies are a key to progress, although even the Ivory Coast has become a hostage to the world economic climate.

Yet so dire are Africa's manifold problems that strong political leadership will not in itself turn the situation around.

Says a former African ambassador to the United Nations from the Horn of Africa: ''The ship of state in many African countries is sinking without the captain knowing what is going on, and if he does, not being able to do a thing about it.''

Most of the gains that are being made are being overtaken because there are so many more mouths to feed each year.

While population growth rates are dipping in many countries around the world, they are moving sharply up in Africa. Kenya has the world's highest population growth rate at just over 4 percent per annum.

Thus, for Africa as a whole, a 1.7 percent annual growth in food production is being wiped out by a 2.9 percent increase in population. Economic disappointments and setbacks bring, in turn, political disillusionment.

A Kenyan journalist who is visiting this country and who asked not to be identified says that five to seven years ago, only intellectuals were aware that the benefits of independence were being appropriated by the few in East Africa.

''Now,'' he says, ''if you go to East Africa, the awareness pervades all social classes. Even illiterate persons express their feelings in the most remote areas when they see a man drive a Mercedes through their village to his stone house.

''When they first saw the Mercedes, they didn't mind. This was independence. It was a source of great pride: a black man driving his own car. This is what the system was offering. But now 20 years later development has not filtered down. The expectations and hopes have gone and now there is bitterness. That is why we had a coup.''

Although the August 1982 coup directed against Kenya President Daniel arap Moi was nipped in the bud, it sent tremors through his nation, a land long seen by the West as a model of economic stability and racial harmony in an otherwise turbulent continent.

The revolt followed successful Army coups in Ghana and Liberia. The recurring pattern of coups only underscores how weak are Africa's economies and political institutions.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) has been helpless to prevent the fragmenting of Africa. Established in 1963 to provide the continent with a strong political voice in world affairs, it enters its 20th year with its future in doubt. Twice last year it came close to collapse because its moderates and radicals could not settle who would represent Chad, then in civil war, and Western Sahara, locked in a war between Morocco and Algerian-backed Polisario guerrillas.

Like the Biafran war in the 1960s, both Chad and the Western Sahara serve as painful reminders of Africa's inability to adjust to largely artificial political boundaries, imposed by the colonial powers, that cut across natural ethnic and cultural lines.

The result - as years of fighting in the Eritrea region of northern Ethiopia and in the disputed Ogaden region of Ethiopia between Ethiopia and Somalia testify - has been a flood of refugees in the Horn of Africa. The exodus has been exacerbated by one of the most severe droughts on record.

Of Africa's estimated 5 million refugees - 1 out of every 2 refugees in the world today is African - as many as 2 million are squeezed into the Horn of Africa. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) puts the number of UN registeredm refugees for Africa as a whole at just over 3 million, but it concedes that the total figure could well exceed 5 million. Somalia, which has 700,000 registered refugees, is widely thought to have absorbed between 1 million and 11/2 million refugees, making it one of the most refugee-packed countries in the world.

Invariably, those states that bear the heaviest load of refugees, such as Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudan, are the ones least able to take on such an influx.

As an African UN official from the area put it: ''Donors give a one-shot donation of $10 million and that's it. These countries have to live with the problem day in and day out.''

The refugee problem spans the African continent. In many cases, countries literally do not know whether the refugees are coming or going.

In Burundi, tribal divisions have sent Hutus to neighboring Rwanda, Africa's most densely populated country, and in a reverse flow forced Tutsis to cross Rwanda into Burundi.

Rwanda also takes in Uganda refugees escaping the chaos in that country as it struggles to get back on its feet again after the ravages of the former Idi Amin regime. Zaire has been a natural escape hatch for Angolans caught up in a war fought among Cubans, South Africans, South Africa-backed insurgents, Angolans, and Namibian freedom fighters.

The UNHCR, the principal refugee relief organization that has successfully placed 700,000 refugees into settlement camps in Somalia, has allotted $127 million for African refugees this year. The figure is marginally less than last year because of two notable UN successes:

1. The closing down of refugee operations in Zimbabwe following the political settlement there.

2. The repatriation of Chadians to their own country from surrounding states following the civil war there. Some 65,000 have been repatriated through the UN's voluntary repatriation program. Another 20,000 have gone on their own steam.

While South Africa has been vehemently attacked in the OAU for allegedly destabilizing the rim of southern African states - conducting cross-border raids and apparently undercutting efforts of those states to resist South African economic hegemony of the area - the OAU is also taking a critical look at its own responsibilities.

Dr. Peter Onu, OAU assistant secretary-general, has said:

''There is not a single region in Africa where there are no refugees. Why, then, should we not acknowledge the fact that some of our communities have not yet done away with the vestiges of ethnic and tribal conflicts? Why can't we also acknowledge the existence of conflicts within and between countries inherited from colonialism and fanned by imperialism and neocolonialism?

''Lastly, why can't we deplore the reign of intolerance on some parts of the continent, contrary to our tradition of brotherhood and the respect of our fellow human beings?''

The refugees streaming in all directions all over the African continent are a mirror of a society in turmoil.

Some respected African spokesmen, among them Tanzanian Foreign Minister Salim A. Salim, say the OAU has become too politicized and should focus instead on urgent economic matters. That awareness is spreading. In April 1980 the OAU held its first economic summit. What emerged was the so-called Lagos Plan of Action, which had as its highest priority attaining self-sufficiency in food.

If that goal is accepted, agriculture would again be accorded the importance in government planning that many food experts say is not only imperative to save Africa from hunger but also essential to a sound economy. That is the route that Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea all took before they blossomed into Asia success stories.

Already such countries as socialist Tanzania and Mali are beginning to restructure their economies to boost agricultural production.

But some food experts like John Mellor of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., are skeptical. They don't see sufficient evidence that African countries are willing to restructure their investment practices to make this shift into agriculture possible.

Africa's refugees

Host No. of Origin of country refugees refugees Angola 93,600 Mostly Namibia Zaire Nations hosting Burundi 234,000 Mostly Rwanda more than 10,000 Zaire refugees registered Dibouti 32,000 Ethiopia with the United Lesotho 11,500 South Africa Nations Nigeria 100,000 Mostly Chad Rwanda* 18,000 Burundi Uganda Somalia 700,000 Ethiopia Sudan 570,000 419,000 Ethiopia 130,000 Uganda 16,000 Chad 5,000 Zaire Tanzania 164,000 Burundi Rwanda Uganda 113,000 80,000 Rwanda 32,000 Zaire Zaire 325,000 215,000 Angola 75,000 Total refugees: 11,000 Burundi 3 to 5 million 22,000 Rwanda 1,800 Zambia Zambia 58,000 37,000 Angola 5,700 Zaire 4,800 Namibia

* Does not reflect wave of refugees that fled Uganda in October.

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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