CAIRO -- Africa emerged in the 1960s, collapsed in the 1970s and has festered into the 1980s. Once a synonym for shining hope and redemption, Africa is today a continent associated in the western mind with failure, incompetence and inhuman brutality.

How is it that in the space of three decades Africa became not a place but a spectacle, treated as a giant minstrel show even by many of the white bureaucrats, journalists and relief workers who labor there? Second question: Does it have to remain so?

Answers to these questions may now come within reach as African thinkers move beyond the grand illusions of the independence era and seek to discover, describe and repair what has gone wrong in their nations. Many have long hesitated to do so for fear of giving comfort and ammunition to those whites who shed crocodile tears over the terrible things blacks do to other blacks when they get power. Other African opinion makers have found it easier and safer to cling to the simplistic rhetoric of the 1960s.

But the spreading recognition of the continent's dire circumstances is overtaking such inhibitions. It is, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe notes in his new novel, a time for Africans to acknowledge that any list of the world's oppressed has to include "black people everywhere, including their own continent."

Achebe's novels contain an encompassing vision of the vast societal decomposition that colonialism began in Africa and that independence has accelerated. This is why, I suspect, they have been overlooked so consistently by politically sensitive Nobel literature juries eager not to offend African sensibilities.

"Things Fall Apart," his first important book, chronicles the destructive impact of the white man's arrival in West Africa on village life. But "A Man of the People" is a cutting portrait of the greedy Nigerian party politicians who squandered the power they were given by the departing colonialists.

In "Anthills of the Savannah," to be published in February in the United States, Achebe takes on the generation of African rulers who have emerged in the 1980s. The military and technocratic regimes that dominate Africa today have proved, Achebe suggests, that "revolutions are betrayed just as much by stupidity, incompetence, impatience and precipitate action as by doing nothing at all . . . . Revolution does not confer freedom, and indeed may hinder it."

Distant and impersonal, government bureaucracies today possess the yam and the knife that were once the symbols of power of village elders. They adopt the rhetoric of black revolution but use the power of the purse and the gun to entrench themselves, becoming "not the party of the oppressed but of the oppressors."

In a chilling corruption of the spirit, they make sure the voice of the village is not heard. Increasingly the center is at war with the periphery in Africa.

The title of Achebe's novel refers to the ant colonies that survive the effect of a killing drought visited upon a region that has unwisely displeased its military ruler. Troops arrive to plug the region's wells. In a parching heat that seems to consume all else, there are still "anthills surviving to tell the new grass of the savannah about last year's brush fires."

Achebe's novel ultimately does not provide solace to those who dwell on Africa's failures in order to justify colonialism retroactively or apartheid contemporaneously. His story expresses quiet confidence in the ability of the "little people" in Africa to endure and eventually to outlast the African elites and the soldiers who have so consistently betrayed the hopes of independence.

This is not an easy optimism, nor is it a form of escapism for Achebe, who survived the siege of his home region of Iboland during the Nigerian civil war. He has lived through and absorbed a despair that few of us can begin to comprehend, and he has emerged from that crucible with a faith in human survival.

The people who speak the common patois of Nigeria, in which much of the dialogue of "Anthills" is rendered, are able to keep control of their lives and guard their integrity in ways that elude those who seem to divide their lives and personalities between London and Africa.

We live in the time of the brush fire of Africa's development. Surviving the flames will be accounts like those of Achebe to tell the future what was good as well as what failed in this generation. Stripped of the grand illusions and intellectual abstractions that this book so clearly identifies and combats, it can be a healing future.