I have been working on Africa since the 1970s, and now, as I leave the BBC, I look at the continent of my birth and see a brighter future than at any time I can remember.
Johannesburg, June 1976. I was a student at university when the first reports came through of black school children clashing with police in Soweto. As the number of dead mounted we marched into town – only 50 or 60 of us at first, but joined by men and women, who poured out of offices and building sites. Within an hour we had thousands behind us.
The real clashes were in Soweto itself – miles from the calm streets of downtown Johannesburg. Back at the university residence, friends were being issued with army rifles. “Would you shoot me?” I asked. They didn’t answer.
It is easy – looking back – to forget just how much has changed. Apartheid was still strong – very strong – back in the late 1970’s. The Portuguese empire had only just collapsed. Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia. South Africans were fighting in bush wars all across the region. Friends were “up on the border” as they used to say, doing military service. It seemed that the killing would never end.
I left for London, working on Africa, first for the Labour Party and then the BBC. Decolonisation was still very much a live issue. Most of independent Africa was little more than a decade old. But already optimism was ebbing away.
Men like Congo’s Mobutu Sese Sekou and Nigeria’s Sani Abacha stripped their countries bare. There were dangerous buffoons like Uganda’s Idi Amin and Bokassa of the ludicrous Central African Empire. We laughed, but they were killers. The shine had come off the brave hopes at independence.
But moving swiftly on, we find a new era at hand – and a much brighter outlook. The old deference for African leaders has been stripped away. The Organisation of African Unity is now the African Union – still weak, still shambolic, but struggling to reform itself.
It’s a long hard road and its only just begun. But apartheid is over, colonialism is a memory and morale and optimism are on the rise. Africa has come a long way, in the last 36 years.
As Africa secretary, I got a lot of visitors. But somehow Ermias Debessai was different. He looked me in the eye and said: “You must come to Eritrea.” I understood little enough about the Horn of Africa at the time, but I knew they had been at war with Ethiopia for 20 years.
“How can I?” I asked. “Just get to Port Sudan and we will take care of the rest,” Ermias assured me.
And so I did. But Port Sudan is a good 250km from the Eritrean border. After a grinding 36-hour journey over a trackless semi-desert I reached the rebels’ information centre. Over tea we discussed world affairs. The Eritreans were knowledgeable and spoke good English.
The BBC was required listening. When Focus on Africa came on, the aerials went up and there was a lull in the war.
The EPLF was an extraordinary movement. From building hospitals, cut into the mountains, to using captured Ethiopian tanks, nothing daunted them.
I crouched in a trench above the town of Keren, watching Ethiopian soldiers on parade, as the shells exploded around us.
In 1991 the EPLF finally took the capital, Asmara. It’s a beautiful art-deco city, with a charming people, happy to sit and sip coffee as the hours go by. My friend, Ermias, became ambassador to China. It seemed Eritrea would be a beacon of hope and progress across the region.
But an idiotic quarrel in 1998 over a tiny village on the Eritrean-Ethiopian border changed all that. It led to yet another war that cost least 100,000 lives. In the recriminations that followed, the constitution was scrapped. Democracy was put on hold. Journalists and politicians arrested. All freedoms eliminated.
And what of Ermias, my friend? He disappeared into the maze secret jails. I have no idea if he’s alive – he probably isn’t. Just one more life extinguished by a country that once held so much hope, by a regime that has stolen it.
December 19, 2014 //
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