World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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DEVELOPMENT: Are Africa's Leaders Really Up To the AIDS Challenge?

By Gumisai Mutume

ADDIS ABABA, Dec 5 (IPS) In the corridors of the UN Economic Commission for Africa's conference centre where African officials are meeting over AIDS and leadership, one can almost hear the frustration in the shuffling feet of delegates going from session to session.
Some feel helpless, others are angry that more than two decades after the HIV/AIDS epidemic took root Africa continues to record the greatest number of HIV infections and deaths. The continent counted 3.8 million new infections last year.

A common question being raised by civil society members is why are the continent's political leaders only now beginning to try to adopt strategies to deal with an epidemic of such proportions. Nearly 5 million Africans have died from AIDS over the past two years alone.

''The problem is a failure of leadership,'' notes Omololu Falobi, project co-ordinator of Journalists Against AIDS, Nigeria. In 1997, when Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti died of AIDS, ''we thought that was the opportunity for our government to drive the AIDS message home. That didn't happen. For everybody it was business as usual''.

By this June, Nigeria still did not have a national strategic plan on HIV/AIDS, according to a recently released publication of the Joint UN Committee on AIDS (UNAIDS). The West African nation is still developing its plan, a similar story in many other African nations, even where national AIDS awareness has been raised, the UNAIDS report on AIDS in Africa said.

A recurring question among delegates and observers at the African Development Forum 2000 taking place here Dec. 3-7 is whether Africa's political leadership is up to the task of mobilising a rapid and practical response to HIV/AIDS.

''Collectively our governments must recognise that leadership means abandoning rhetoric and taking action,'' says Graca Machel president of Mozambique's National AIDS Council. ''What percentages of national budgets are being spent to vanquish HIV/AIDS ... If you can't mobilise resources for war, why can't you mobilise resources for life?''

Last year, Zimbabwe, one of the country's worst hit by AIDS spent 70 times more financing a war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo than it did on HIV/AIDS prevention.

At least half a dozen African nations are currently engaged in armed conflict. The war against HIV/AIDS may well prove to be Africa's Waterloo.

Africa is the continent least equipped to respond to HIV/AIDS. It is the poorest continent, with the worst health system and educational infrastructure.

''It has the weakest civil society, and the political leadership in many countries is marked by patrimony, corruption, authoritarianism, militarisation and criminalisation,'' notes an ADF conference theme paper. ADF's theme is 'AIDS, the greatest leadership challenge'.

Africa's politicians are quick to point to the effects of the austere World Bank and International Monetary Fund-led structural adjustment programmes. They also blame an unsustainable debt burden as among the reasons for their failure to put money into essential social services.

However, ADF 2000 has also acknowledged that there are a number of political leaders who have taken up the challenge. Botswana's President Festus Mogae has declared AIDS a national emergency, and he recently noted that as long as the veil of silence around AIDS is not removed, Africans will continue dying.

''President Mogae immediately opened up new opportunities across the nation for social dialogue and breaking the taboos that remain strong even in a country where one-third of adults are HIV infected,'' says Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS.

''The first step is to bring down the barriers of shame and silence. When local leaders speak out, they create the space for people with HIV/AIDS to speak out openly ... and when national leaders speak out, the example resonates throughout the nation.''

The very same leaders have shown a penchant for signing declarations and adopting resolutions. During the last eight years, nearly 10 declarations and resolutions on HIV/AIDS have been acceded to by African governments.

''Regrettably, many of these commitments have not been translated into action,'' notes Salim Ahmed Salim, Chairman of the Addis Ababa- based Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

After this week's conference, which has been sponsored by ECA, UNAIDS and the World Bank, heads of states will meet again in April, in Abuja, Nigeria.

This is at the behest of President Olusegun Obasanjo for an Extraordinary Summit of the OAU, devoted to addressing the HIV pandemic, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

ADF has been convened to seek a common commitment from Africa's leadership on how best to handle the HIV/AIDS crisis.

UNAIDS estimates that 36 million people are living with HIV or AIDS, more than 50 percent higher than what the World Health Organisation's Global Programme projected in 1991. Some 25 million of these people are in sub- Saharan Africa. (END/IPS/HE/DV/IP/gm/da/00)

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