There have been few times like the present for reporting on Africa. Genocide in Rwanda, fighting in Congo and Liberia’s grasping warlords have provided fodder for many journalists’ memoirs. Some provide more background than others, while most offer a heavy dose of horror and exoticism.
Howard French’s book, “A Continent for the Taking,” moves away from all of that. Though his book is full of personal experiences, French reminds us that there is much more to Africa than bad news, and that where there is bad news, there is more to it than meets the eye. What places this book above the rest is how French makes connections between present disasters, past history and especially how that reflects Africa’s place in the world.
French takes the reader at a lively pace through the background to the political implosion and war in Congo and the sordid tale of Liberia’s descent into factional fighting. His vivid descriptions benefit from his position as The New York Times’ Africa correspondent through most of the 1990s. This is a man who takes taxis and walks, a far cry from much of the “drive-by” journalism that finds its way into bookshops. He has met many of the characters about whom he writes. In one of the best passages in the book, he introduces readers to Charles Taylor, the cynical and manipulative Liberian warlord who escaped from a U.S. federal prison where he was held for fraudulent business dealings, then shot and connived his way to power with legions of child soldiers. French does not dwell on the lurid features of these conflicts, however. He has a lot to say about international–particularly U.S.–reactions to these events, as he does about the events and characters themselves. His analysis of U.S. stakes in Africa’s problems is sobering and is the book’s most valuable contribution.
In looking at Africa on its own terms, French sees that Africans get down to solving problems and are not just a continent of bloodthirsty dictators and child soldiers. This is not a novel observation, yet is remarkable for its absence in so many books about Africa’s politics. This is brought home to him as a young man in the 1970s while he is traveling with his brother in Mali. There he discovers that in one of the world’s poorest countries, people actually are proud of their language and culture. As a young man traveling on the cheap he needed help from these people and had to live with them as equals. Without the expense accounts or entourages that seal off so many so-called experts, including some journalists, French gets close enough to Africa’s societies to see how they work quite well at solving everyday problems. His own experiences cause French to wonder whether Africa’s violent past, especially under colonial rule, then its unfortunate place as a strategic backwater that is well-endowed with natural resources–and not some flaw in the cultures of people there–might be at the root of Africa’s problems.
French’s book is most valuable for showing how recent crises play out in Washington. In the case of Nigeria, which suffered under a horrible dictatorship in the 1990s, U.S. concerns appeared to be centered on oil. This left U.S. policymakers in a dilemma. The American economy needed Nigerian oil, and dealing with dictators was the most efficient way to maintain access to it, regardless of whether Nigeria’s government was repressive and its citizens received nothing from the proceeds of the oil’s sale to the U.S. French also suspects that Africa’s people are so unimportant to policymakers that they simply did not care enough to pursue more-sensible alternatives to getting oil.
The theme of low levels of caring also appears in French’s account of the fall of a corrupt dictator and war in Congo. There Western interest lay in extracting resources. During the Cold War, the corrupt dictator’s alliance with the West against communism was deemed more valuable in distant capitals than the welfare of Congo’s people. At least during the Cold War, the West’s response almost makes sense, if in a cynical fashion. In the 1960s and 1970s, Africa was a serious arena of superpower competition.
There is no Cold War excuse for U.S. behavior toward Africa in the 1990s. French shows how the Clinton administration pursued a calculated policy of ignoring the 1994 Rwanda genocide to keep it out of the pages of newspapers and its images away from TV. Otherwise it could have become an inconvenient foreign-policy crisis and interfered with U.S. efforts to resolve a smaller crisis–in sheer numbers of people affected–in Bosnia. Then, several years later, when Rwandan armies were committing mass killings in eastern Congo in reprisal for 1994, the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda suppressed the flow of information about this event. The hypocrisy of inaction at this stage was especially breathtaking as it occurred while officials were condemning the earlier genocide and amidst official apologies for past Clinton administration inaction.
Betrayal and disregard were a Clinton administration specialty. The president of Uganda, an advocate of a no-party dictatorship, received considerable official support from Washington, while true democrats in Mali received no special aid. Meanwhile, in the midst of Liberia’s war, a sizable democratic movement was gathering steam. Washington officials ignored it, relying instead on its contacts with the faction leaders and corrupt politicians in a half-hearted and ultimately failed attempt to stop fighting. French suspects that this reflects officials’ persistently low expectations of Africans, which blinds them to the strength of indigenous solutions French sees.
French attributes this U.S. lack of depth of engagement with Africa, especially on the part of the State Department’s Clinton administration appointees, to intellectual laziness and the subsequent attractions of trendy analysis. The writings of one journalist were cited to justify ignoring the human-rights violations of the new Rwandan government, depicted as a virtuous victim of genocide and deserving unquestioned support. After visiting Sierra Leone for a few days, another wrote an influential article that explained Africa’s wars as a consequence of rootless young men and ecological failure. This cursory analysis obscured the historical and political grievances, and decades of Western support for corrupt dictators, that lie at the heart of these conflicts and are the subject of French’s book. Unquestioned consumption of this type of analysis reflects the hardened insensitivity of many to what goes on in Africa and leaves them almost completely blind to the ideas of experts from Africa, if such people can be thought to exist.
Lest the reader think this is yet another book of doom and gloom about Africa, French offers a reasonable sense of what might come next. Everywhere he goes he finds evidence of an Africa under design and construction by Africans themselves, even in the worst situations. This is a messy process that suffers frequent setbacks in the worst-off areas from which French reported. Even though many Africans are ruled corruptly and should expect little real help from the West, they have not lost their potential to make better lives for themselves.
For the money, this is the best book about Africa to come out in some time. French receives high praise from this reader for producing a book that not only shows how that continent arrived at the state it is in but has the insights and experiences that show how the U.S. played a role in these events, even as most of us did not know it. It serves as a warning that we ought to watch more closely how our elected officials devise these sorts of policies in our name.
©2004, Chicago Tribune