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Published 12th January 2001

Vol 42 No 1

The centre isn't holding

Pressure for accountability and devolution of power is at the root of many of the continent's conflicts

In the evening of 7 January in Accra, four West African heads of state were toasting the inauguration of the newly elected Ghanaian President, John Agyekum Kufuor. At the same time across the border some 300 kilometres to the west, a group of Ivorian soldiers was plotting to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo's government in Abidjan. After seeing his guests off, Kufuor launched into a round of talks with foreign bankers and diplomats about economic reform. In Abidjan, the Ivorian putschists were outgunned by Gbagbo's forces. Four decades earlier, Ghana's Independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah, bet his Ivorian counterpart, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, that his political strategy would prevail. Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966; Houphouët-Boigny died in his bed in 1993. Yet today Ghana is much the more stable country, with brighter economic prospects. Thus forecasting trends and events in Africa is only slightly less problematic than generalising from the continent's extraordinary particulars. The late Jo Slovo, formerly Chief of Staff of Mkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, was frequently asked how long it would take to overthrow the apartheid regime. He would reply that he had predicted at the time of the Soweto students' rising in 1976 that he would give it five years. And ten years later, he said, he saw no reason to change his mind.

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