For at least a decade now, Africa has endured the frequent slings and arrows of an outraged international community for its persistent and pervasive abuse of human rights. But for all of the eminently justifiable criticism that has been leveled against Africa in the past, the truth is that 1979 has been a banner year for human rights in Africa.

Three terrible tyrants have been toppled. Ugandans are finally free of the deadly grip of Idi Amin Dada. The people of Equatorial Guinea, having watched more than a third of their fellow citizens flee into exile or be killed, no longer suffer under the terroristic reign of Francisco Macias Nguema. And last month the Central African Empire once again became the Central African Republic, following a bloodless coup that resulted in the removal of the murderous, self-proclaimed emperor, Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

At the same time, less spectacular but also significant human rights advances have occurred elsewhere on the African continent. The question of individual rights is, of course, inextricably tied to the type of political system under which a nation is governed and, during the course of the past year, a number of important African countries have abandoned dictatorship and embraced democracy.

The most populous nation on the continent, Nigeria, has just returned to civilian and democratic rule after 13 years under a military regime. As the home of 80 million people and a prominent exporter of oil, Nigeria occupies a place of paramount importance in African and world politics. Having adopted a constitution modeled on our own, Nigeria's leaders seem determined to build and maintain a set of democratic political institutions that will allow human rights and free expression to flourish.

Another West African country, Upper Volta, returned to democracy in 1978 following 12 years of military rule. A survey by Freedom House hailed Upper Volta as one of two nations in the world that enjoyed the greatest gains in individual freedom last year. Meanwhile, Upper Volta's neighbor, Ghana, has thrown off the shackles of a notoriously corrupt military regime and installed new leaders chosen in elections.

Human rights gains in Africa have been shaped at the conference table as well as the ballot box. In July, the Organization of African Unity agreed to prepare a set of guidelines for the promotion and protection of human rights in Africa. Referring to the African nations' vociferous denunciation of white minority rule, OAU spokesman Peter Onu of Nigeria said at the time, "We cannot be talking about human rights in certain parts of Africa if we don't accept the same standards [for black-ruled African countries as well]."

These noteworthy advances for human rights and individual freedom in Africa must not blind us to the continued deprivations that beset millions of people on that continent. Certainly the day-to-day horror of apartheid is in no way diminished by the recent political developments in Lagos or Bangui. The South African government, despite its frequent protestations to the contrary, has never indicated a willingness to adopt creative power-sharing arrangements that would satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the indigenous majority in their country. In addition, repressive regimes continue in other African nations.

Yet the successful conclusion of free elections in Nigeria and the long-overdue political demise of Almin, Macias and Bokassa clearly carry beneficial consequences for U.S.-African relations. No longer diverted by the excesses and eccentricities of madmen, we can concentrate on the furtherance of constructive relations with statesmen like Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere and the Sudan's President Jafari Numeri.

While continuing to champion political liberty, we need not neglect the question of economic survival. After all, 20 of the world's 31 least-developed nations are located in Africa. Per-capita income on the continent is under $300 a year, and food production is declining. Intensified wars and political conflicts have pushed Africa's refugee population near the four million mark -- the highest figure of any region in the world.

These are human rights concerns, too, and it would be a shame if America's interest in human rights in Africa extended no further than the accusatory finger we pointed at Bokassa, Macias and Amin.