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Africa: The Hard Truth


In the newspapers and on television, the tide of bad news from Africa rises again. Once more, the tiny butcher-bird of Rwanda is pecking at the eyes of the dying elephant which is the Congo. Once more, concerned white reporters crouch by emaciated babies, as the camera zooms in on the victims of the ethnic cleansing, massacre, and starvation which are obliterating the people of Darfur.

We in the rich world have grown used to these images, and now we are hooked on them. It is almost as if we require them. Since the first European contact, Africa has been mined for its gold, its diamonds, its oil and cash crops, its slaves and its wildlife, its copper and its hardwood. Now the raw material most demanded is fuel for the stoves that keep our shock and compassion warm: AIDS, famine, Ebola, mass murder, war, and again war. The old Kenyan intellectual Ali Mazrui once said to Howard French: “Where Africa is concerned, there is a constant search for tragedy with a new face; it’s like, what else is new in genocide?”

It is better to be angry than to be sorry. But angry with whom? With the appalling political leaders that Africa so often (but not always) throws up? With the governments of Europe and America which so often can be seen to have helped those leaders into their palaces, overlooking their cruelty and corruption for the sake of strategic or economic advantage? With the vanished colonial regimes, which left to the Africa frontiers that remain an invitation to ethnic cleansing? With the social engineering that cemented loose ethnic groupings into fiercely nationalistic “tribes”? With the examples of vast inequality in land and wealth that led to instant corruption in political elites?

It has to be said, though, that sustained political anger is still rare in Africa. Years ago, a white radical working to subvert the apartheid regime in South Africa said to me: “The most disastrous trait of ordinary African people is their infinite capacity for forgiveness, their sheer inability to keep up resentment.” He gave a wry smile. He knew what a European remark that was, and he loved that very characteristic which was making his struggle harder. Much later, the common people of his country awed the world when they overthrew their oppressors and then asked them only for repentance. At that time, a black girl working in a Cape Town restaurant complained to me that the local police would not admit which of them had murdered her brother. “If I don’t know who he is,” she went on, “how can I forgive him?”

Howard French lived in an Africa whose wrongs are not ripe for absolution. He would like the rest of us to share his anger at what is happening in Africa and what is being done to it. And he is right, especially in the swathe of the continent he knows best, which is West Africa and the Congo basin. For many years, he was the New York Times man there and his reports, even in the sober style required by the Times, drew much admiration. American administrations knew that he was telling them true things that they did not want to hear. Other experienced journalists who worked in the region respected him deeply.

He was apparently not an easy man to know. But his African contacts and his political instincts were envied. And (I take this from old Congo hands in the press) he had two other advantages. He spoke excellent French, unlike most other American correspondents. And he had rare courage. It takes something exceptional to follow the Howard French principle: never pay when threatened and never give away your possessions, even on the frequent occasions when some screaming, doped-up teenager in tattered uniform is shoving a Kalashnikov muzzle into your face. Once, he confesses, he did surrender something he cared about. It was in Liberia, only hours before a coup d’état, and the roadblock soldiers were demanding food. Howard French gave them The New York Review of Books instead, because he had finished reading it. At once, the barricades were pulled aside.

He is evidently a complicated, unusual man. Howard French’s African-American parents moved early in his life to Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, where his father worked for the World Health Organization. He was seventeen years old when he first went to visit them, and it was in West Africa—still, as he admits, “his” Africa—that he learned fluent French and began his experience of the continent. There is a beautiful, gently comic account here of his first journey when, with his brother, he set out by train, bus, and collective taxi to reach northern Mali. The two boys, with their big Afro hair and jeans, puzzled the Malians, but they pressed on and finally reached the Dogon country, a barren land of plains and cliffs where the Dogon people have contrived to maintain their old way of life.

At this early point in the book, Howard French makes a fundamental statement about Africa. He puts it in the form of a question, which may even have occurred to him then as a backpacking American teenager but which is now the “question that haunts me.” He asks:

If the Dogon, a smallish ethnic group with modest lands, could win the struggle to keep their culture and identity intact in the midst of persistent encroachment by outsiders, what might Africa have become if larger, even better-organized ethnic groups had been afforded the geographical space or other means to resist foreign domination? I have in mind ancient kingdoms like Kongo in Central Africa, or Dahomey and Ashanti in West Africa, just three out of numerous examples of African peoples who created large, well-structured states, with codified legal systems, diplomats and many other kinds of bureaucrats, and a range of public services from customs to mail delivery. One can easily imagine proto-states like these taking their places among today’s modern nation-states, if only they had been given the opportunity to develop. Instead…they were willfully and utterly destroyed, as were invaluable cultural resources and much of Africa’s self-confidence.

This is the right question, asked in the right way. It’s not, of course, the first time it has been put. Prophets of the old anticolonialist generation, such as Basil Davidson (whom French quotes), asked it too. But French revives it at just the right time, when most of the rich world assumes that Africa carries a disaster gene and when Europeans, especially, are wallowing in a bath of ill-informed nostalgia about the “benevolent” impact of their colonial empires on indigenous peoples. Another virtue of French’s version of this question is that it’s dynamic rather than sentimentally static. He does not assume that these societies could or should have been preserved unchanged. Instead, he is suggesting that they were capable of entering the torrent of nineteenth- and twentieth-century transformation on their own terms, with a fair chance of survival.

Finally, Howard French is tentative about this fateful “as if,” and he is wise to be so. Africa has been developing organized state-forms for at least six hundred years, but it is a big step to conclude that state formation was the most important feature of Africa when it was faced with modernization and outside contact. And one counterfactual question generates another. Most people on the continent did not inhabit highly structured polities such as medieval Mali or nineteenth-century Buganda, which were the exception rather than the rule. Instead, most of them lived in a multitude of smaller, less organized or defined societies. What would have been their fate as those “proto-states,” often hotly militaristic, set out on their own track to “catch up” with industrialized Europe and America?

This theory of disrupted progress underlies French’s approach to what he saw, heard, and reported during his years in Africa. He is not short of loathing for some of the dictators and warlords he encounters, from General Sani Abacha in Nigeria to the late Laurent Kabila in Congo. But the evil they represent is ultimately an import, the infection after the unhealed fracture inflicted by the impact of colonization. It is not the subsequent exploitation or white settlement that did the damage; they merely inflamed and perpetuated the severance of Africa from its natural political development.

Above all, for French, it is the disastrous mistakes of United States policy in Africa that have prevented recovery. He does not make the US directly responsible for the horrors of recent decades. But

it would be dishonest to pretend that there is no link between what has perhaps been the least accountable and least democratically run compartment of America’s foreign policy—African affairs—and the undemocratic fortunes of the continent.

These blunders began in the cold war. In 1960, America covertly sponsored the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and later supported the rebellion of Jonas Savimbi in Angola against the “communist” government. In both cases, an entire country was condemned to years of devastating and unnecessary civil war. But the mistakes persisted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the Clinton administration—claiming to foster an “African Renaissance”—backed one authoritarian monster after another, among them Mobutu and Kabila in the Congo and Abacha in Nigeria. An insincere philosophy of “disengagement” from direct interference did not conceal Washington’s share of responsibility for the catastrophes that ensued.

Liberia, home of “one of Africa’s liveliest peoples,” lost 200,000 out of a population of 2.6 million in a series of atrocious civil wars. French saw much of this at first hand. This tiny country, which America had helped to found, became a cold war base for strategic airfields and signals intelligence. Ruled after 1980 by the abominable Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, it became the biggest recipient of American financial aid in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

Doe was eventually dismembered alive in front of a video camera by a rival in 1990. The subsequent blood-bath brought the warlord Charles Taylor to power in 1995, but the fighting went on in spite of the arrival of a Nigerian peacekeeping force. In 1996, Monrovia, the capital, exploded again into an orgy of killing and looting, shortly after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had visited Liberia (or at least the secure areas of the airport) and told Liberians that “the civil war is your war.” French found streets littered with corpses. Washington, he reflected, had unwittingly “helped grease the path of Africa’s first republic towards another, far more ignominious, record: the world’s first failed state.”

But this book is much more than indictments. Howard French decided to go back to Africa as a journalist “because I wanted to dig into the kinds of stories about African people and culture that do not often get told.” The demands of breaking news, in the times of the Rwanda genocide and Africa’s “first world war” in the Congo, made that hard for him. And yet

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