IT IS BECOMING evident that Africa is in a state of breathtaking and grievous crisis whose likes are without precedent in the United States and may not have been seen anywhere in the West since the 14th century Plague. Glimpses of the continent's agony come regularly now in the news about the suffering in Ethiopia. Yet, that is only the currently most publicized scene of African tragedy. Twenty-nine of the world's 36 poorest nations are to be found south of the Sahara desert, says the United Nations Children's Fund in its new annual report, and 24 of them are now appealing for emergency aid to ward off famine.

But the crisis, UNICEF makes plain, goes deeper than drought: Africa is the continent with the lowest incomes in the world, the lowest economic growth rates and the lowest levels of life expectancy and literacy, the highest rates of population growth, the most severe environmental problems and, not surprisingly, the least political stability: in the last quarter-century, 70 coups or assassinations in 29 countries. The percentage of Africans living in absolute poverty rose from 82 percent to 91 percent through the 1970s. In 1983 per capita food production was down by 14 percent from 1981. Five million Africans are currently refugees. Five million African children died this year; another 5 million were crippled by malnutrition and disease.

In these circumstances, it is hard to see the interest that some African leaders take in other political preoccupations, inside and outside their own countries, as anything but an escape from their first duty. Ethiopia is currently Exhibit A of the type of African government that puts the sustenance and the raw physical survival of its people in second or third place, after the consolidation of an elite's power and its participation in international or at least regional politics. But it is not the only such government.

Outside powers, including the United States, have their own obligations. To look at the African condition and to say in respect to this or that country that geopolitical or ideological considerations are more important than relief and development is extremely narrow and egotistical. Yet the United States, which in successive administrations has sought to make itself relevant to Africa, has too often found itself caught up in distracting contests for local influence.

Yes, it takes two: there are the Russians. Yes, there are always Africans asking the United States to play a political role. Yes, there are many players, many difficulties. But look at the numbers provided by UNICEF, watch the television pictures from Ethiopia, read of a 3-year-old boy who weighs 61/2 pounds, and ask if our approach to Africa does all it can to serve the continent's true needs.