SPECIAL REPORT: TUNISIA
Tunisia at 44
Survey written by Anver Versi
The OAU vowed last September never again to admit into its hallowed portals anybody who comes to power through a coup. Now, we hear there has been a "good coup" in Cote d'Ivoire. A good coup?! Now what next OAU?, asks Baffour Ankomah.
On March 20, Tunisia celebrates 44 years of independence. A time traveller from 1956, when this north African country wrested its freedom from France, arriving in 2000, can be forgiven for believing that he has landed in a completely different country. The paradox however, is that despite enormous changes, Tunisia remains Tunisia - the cradle of civilisation tracing its history back to the golden era of Carthage.
The time traveller will also notice other similarities with Tunisia in 1956. The countryside, with its ribbons of brilliant white beaches, its rugged mountains, its dappled oasis and its forbidding deserts, remains the same. The picturesque, sun-splashed towns and cities and the cool souks have the same Arabian Nights quality they have always possessed. In the cities, the time traveller will find the same elegant boulevards and classic architectural styles as of old.
But here the similarities end. In the Tunisia of the year 2000, he will marvel at the magnificent new structures, designed along classic styles but with the unmistakable imprint of the 21st century. He will travel in comfortable cars and buses along well-maintained motorways. He will be able to connect with the four corners of the world via the most modern airport in the southern Mediterranean.
But the greatest change he will notice will be in the people. Virtually everybody he meets will be literate and far, far more prosperous than he could possibly have imagined in 1956.
The nature of work will have changed dramatically as well. He will see farmers cultivating vast fields using ingenious machines and fishermen returning with rich harvests in the holds of sleek, modern vessels. He will see clean and spacious factories churning out an endless stream of goods. He will be as bewildered by the array of new equipment in offices as he will be by the diversity of work people are engaged in. He will find the pace of business dizzying as millions of people carry out dozens of daily transactions through banks and other finance institutions. To his surprise, he will see women working in all fields - running large enterprises, dispensing judgement at the high courts, representing people at the parliament.
There will be another surprise waiting for him when he visits people at home. He will find them living in well-ordered, spacious accommodation. They will have television sets, radios and something entirely new to him - computers. The children he now meets will be unrecognisable from those in the past. They will be well-fed and clothed, most will be attending schools and going on to higher education. He will be amazed at the amount of knowledge they possess as they discuss science, economics and politics.
In the streets, he will see people walking and talking at ease. A confident, proud people. Scores of newspapers, magazines and books will be available. In the markets, he will find it hard to believe his eyes when he sees the abundance and variety of foods on offer. He will gaze stupefied at the gleaming, brilliantly lit shops crammed with articles of the highest quality from every part of the world.
The nature of politics will also have changed. The government will no longer be the monopoly of the landed, monied classes but rooted in the people themselves. Instead of the people having to listen to the government, he will find a government listening to the people and acting on their wishes. He will be free to join any political party he wishes and fight for public office.
Our time traveller can again be forgiven for believing that the Tunisia he left in 1956 and the Tunisia he arrived at in 2000 are two completely different countries. Then he will realise that the country he left in 1956 had been a nation that had just broken its colonial shackles; the country he finds in 2000 has rejuvenated itself and has become one of the most successful entities in the modern world. He will wonder how so much transformation could have been achieved in such a short period of time.
Tunisia's rapid journey
The story of Tunisia's last 44 years is the story of its rapid journey from a colonial backwater in 1956 to its present status as one of the fastest growing nations the world has seen. It is a fascinating story of clear vision, hard work, pragmatism and not a little good fortune.
Tunisia's modern history also divides neatly into two separate segments: the Bourguiba era, from 1956 to 1987 and the Ben Ali era which began with The Change in 1987 and continues to the present.
The first segment of Tunisia's history, following its independence from France, was dominated by the larger-than-life figure of the first President, Habib Bourguiba and the Neo Destour Party. Given the flavour of the time and in order to prevent inter-party squabbling from hampering economic and social development, the country was ruled under a single party constitution.
President Bourguiba was well aware of the need to reconcile two potentially conflicting factors. On the one hand, he had to consolidate Tunisia's independence by not changing the status quo too rapidly; and at the same time, he had to move his country into the modern mainstream which was dominated by Western, particularly American values.
He laid the foundations of today's modern state by bringing about what was then regarded as revolutionary social change. He placed secular society at the centre of his programmes. He nationalised religious land endowments (habous), abolished polygamy, changed the status of women to one of equality with men and spread education to include all social classes.
However, in his zeal to rid the country of the regressive stranglehold that some religious organisations and movements had imposed, he went too far on some occasions. This was to prove a costly miscalculation. The majority of Tunisians were good Muslims who did not see any conflict between following their faith and adapting to modern social and economic necessities. The ironic effect of this move by Bourguiba was to give added fuel to fanatics and anarchists whose aim was nothing short of the destruction of the society itself. The fanatics quickly 'hijacked' Islam, went underground and began work to undermine the social structure.
Despite a series of progressive legislation, society changed slowly and at times reluctantly. However, the mass education programmes and the new legal status which women had acquired, began to bear fruit. A new, better informed, more ambitious generation was growing up and was demanding greater change.
The Bourguiba regime in the meanwhile was losing touch with the people. A personality cult developed around the leader, who declared himself President for Life. As Bourguiba grew older and weaker, so the intrigues to succeed him intensified. Social problems were ignored and were left to fester. Fundamentalists were able to gain substantial ground. The labour unions, which had supported the regime in the past, now became increasingly vocal in their criticisms. Through most of the 1980s, the economy lurched from crisis to crisis. Opposition groups, some of them militant, multiplied. Many went underground, others fled the country. Something had to be done urgently if the country was to be saved.
That a complete change of leadership, and leadership style, was essential was not in doubt; the question was could a new leader be found? A leader who could not only arrest the decline, but one who could heal the rifts in society and give it a new direction? It was at this point, a point which many independent countries reach sooner or later, that Tunisia was fortunate.
On November 7 1987, Habib Bourguiba was asked to relinquish the Presidency because of failing health and a young man, who had risen very rapidly to the position of Prime Minister, took over the leadership of the country and the ruling party.
Zine El Abedine Ben Ali immediately promised a clean break with the past. He offered amnesties to opponents and invited exiled politicians to return and join him in developing the country. He expunged repressive instruments such as the State Security Court and introduced legal controls to cover arrests.
In 1988, he set about reforming the party which had become stagnant. The name was changed to the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (Constitutional Democratic Rally) to reflect the new aims of the party. The principal aim was to make the party genuinely inclusive of all social classes and shades of opinion. The response was immediate. Intellectuals, the youth and others who had felt marginalised before, now enthusiastically joined the party.
Ben Ali's next task was to 'reclaim' Islam from the fundamentalists who were using it for their own political ends. Hundreds of new mosques were built and the religion was returned to its former prominent position. This severely undercut the fundamentalist base and they began losing recruits by the thousands. It also stabilised society by reaffirming its Arab and Islamic identity.
One of the biggest challenges facing the country was how to reform its economic structure such that the aspirations of the people could be satisfied. In order to draw up a blueprint, Ben Ali initiated a public debate to which all sectors of society made contributions. The end result was the National Pact which was signed on the first anniversary of The Change. At the same time, the Chamber of Deputies was asked to draw up guide-lines for the formation of political parties. The country was now embarked on a steady course of rapid economic development and genuine democracy.
The Ben Ali era
Development plans on paper are one thing; turning them into reality is quite another, as most developing countries have discovered. But Tunisia's record of achievements, over a mere 13 years, has been spectacular by any measure.
The growth rate has been maintained at around 5% and is expected to increase to 6% over this decade. Per capita income at around $2,300 is one of the highest in Africa. The poverty level, which at one time was around 33%, is now down to less than 5%, thanks largely to the National Solidarity Fund. Life expectancy has increased from 50 years in 1956 to 71 years, infant mortality has declined from 60 per thousand to 30 per thousand and the population growth rate at 1.6% is the lowest in Africa. Primary school education is universal and compulsory. The middle class forms over 60% of the population and home ownership is around 70%.
The heavy investment in schools, universities and vocational training centres has reaped a rich harvest. Tunisia today can boast the best educated and trained workforce in Africa. The current computer literacy programmes, which range from cyber-cafés dotted about towns, through schools and universities to major software manufacture places the Tunisian worker at the cutting edge of modern production systems.
So confident was Tunisia in its own competitive abilities that in 1996, it signed an association agreement with the EU. This means that by 2008, its economic performance will have to be at par with the European level. This general upgrading, known as mise a niveau, has meant wholesale changes in the way enterprises carry out their functions. The focus now is on increasing efficiency by reducing costs and constantly improving quality and delivery. When the programme is finally completed, Tunisia will have moved out of the ranks of developing nations and into the developed world.
The one problem that has kept nagging away at the country's economic planners has been the unemployment rate of around 15%. With typical pragmatism, the government set out to tackle the issue head-on by providing comprehensive vocational training facilities, creating a new entrepreneurial class and has now set in motion a new movement: the 21/21 movement. (See box).
Multiparty elections were held for the first time in the country's modern history in October 1999. Opposition parties, which had been guaranteed at least 20% of seats and provided with funds to carry out their campaigns, participated vigorously. Women, whose position has changed beyond all recognition during this era, captured a number of seats and have already made their impact on legislation. Ben Ali won the Presidential race with a near unanimous national vote. Given his concrete achievements over the past 13 years, this result is hardly surprising.
As our time traveller will have discovered, Tunisia's journey from 1956 to the year 2000 has been brief in length of time, but extraordinary in terms of change. From the 1956 perspective, Tunisia has indeed become another country. In many ways though, the Tunisia of today is very similar to the Carthage of antiquity - a bustling, vigorous, inventive and ingenious hub around which the southern Mediterraneana rotates.
HealthTunisia is the only African country, besides Mauritius, that has already achieved the WHO target of 'Health for all by the year 2000' campaign. All Tunisian citizens, regardless of income, are eligible for health care coverage in the public system. In 1997, there were 1,886 primary health centres with a density of 1 centre for 4,940 inhabitants. Life expectancy is 72 years compared with 50 years in 1956. Average calorie intake is 3,500 - compared to the international average of 2,100.
EducationTunisia allocates 20% of the budget to education. This is one of the highest in the world. Education is free for all of school age. Nine years of basic education are mandatory for all children between 6 and 16. In the 1997-98 school year, total school and university enrollment was 2,408,140. The net enrollment rate for children aged 6 to 16 is 92.3%. At independence in 1956, less than 5% of children attended school.
Enrollment at the country's six universities, was 152,000 for the 1998-99 academic year.
The vocational training sector now has a capacity for 60,000 trainees compared with only 6,500 in 1987. There are 80 fully equipped training centres around the country.
EconomyThe per capita income has risen dramatically from $30 in 1956 to around £2,300. Economic growth has remained steady at around 5.7% since 1887, peaking at 8.6% in 1992. The budget deficit is expected to hit a low of 2% by 2001 from the current 3%. Inflation is around 3%. Balance of payments has stabilised at around 4% and external debt is no more than 17% of exports.
The Foreign Direct Investment inflow over the past five years has been around the $400m mark. Currently there are some 1,700 foreign companies based in Tunisia. The FDI inflow is expected to increase substantially as Tunisia nears its EU association deadline in 2008. By 2010, Tunisia is expected to be in position to tap into a common market (including the EU, the Magreb and the Gulf) with a population of over 500m.
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