The African Predicament

Deborah Scroggins/The Nation

Howard French has written a passionate, heartbreaking and ultimately heartbroken book about covering West Africa’s blood-soaked descent into a nightmare of war and greed as a reporter for the New York Times in the 1990s. The book is called A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, and, much as French wished it otherwise, there is far more tragedy than hope in it.

It has become something of a tradition for the correspondents of America’s major newspapers to write a tour d’ horizon upon concluding a stint on the continent. After David Lamb’s The Africans was published to commercial and critical success in 1983, we had Blaine Harden’s Africa: Dispatches >From a Fragile Continent in 1991; Alan Cowell’s Killing the Wizards: Wars of Power and Freedom From Zaire to South Africa in 1992; Keith B. Richburg’s Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa in 1997; and Bill Berkeley’s The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa in 2001. Since Lamb’s time, the books have grown progressively bleaker, and French’s may be the bleakest of all. Although French abhors the war porn he believes dominates most coverage of Africa, the continent’s rot has advanced to a point where it is almost impossible to look beyond it. It is a situation that angers and sickens French all the more because he has a deeper and more profound connection to the continent than most journalists.
French fell in love with Africa before he gave any thought to journalism. Growing up in the United States, he was reminded by his proud African-American parents of black achievements at every turn. His father, a doctor, moved the family to Ivory Coast so that he could run a regional health program. After graduating from college, French spent six years living in Abidjan, first as a translator and university lecturer and finally as a freelance reporter. He married an Ivorian, learned several African languages and read widely and deeply about African culture and history.
He writes that he accepted the Times’s West Africa bureau in 1994 “as a personal challenge.” He would not become a “fireman” chasing one disaster after another to satisfy what he regarded as “the world media’s insatiable market in images of horror.” He would not make heroes out of Westerners rushing to the rescue. He would show his readers Africa’s strengths as well as its weaknesses.
It was not to be. The blaze already licking at West Africa when French returned burst into an inferno, forcing French to play the fireman after all and eventually burning him so badly that he felt lucky to escape. Sent to Mobutu’s Zaire in 1995 to cover the outbreak of the ebola virus, he was wary of “rushing toward another lurid African mess that, thanks to the magic of television, had become the global story of the week.” Within a year, he would find himself covering the collapse of Zaire itself and the death of millions sucked into its conflicts. As he struggled to make sense of what was happening–and especially the disastrous consequences of the Clinton Administration’s decision to hand a wide swath of the continent over to a brand-new set of dictators (often euphemistically described as “strong-men”), starting with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame–Africa fell further and further outside the orbit of world attention.
Following US foreign policy is part of a Times correspondent’s job, and French’s book gives an unusually depressing account of American hypocrisy and mendacity toward Africa. The Clinton Administration wished Africa well. But it was not willing to risk American lives, treasure or votes even to halt the most gargantuan African tragedies, much less to foster African democracy, human rights or economic development. The “African Renaissance” the President was eager to trumpet turned out in large part to amount to opening the doors for American corporations eager to extract the continent’s resources. Struggling democracies such as Mali’s received little or no help (though when one considers the fate of such countries as Nigeria and Angola, which attracted more solicitous notice, perhaps indifference is a blessing in disguise). After the killing of eighteen US Rangers in Somalia, the Administration declined in 1994 to intervene when Rwandan Hutus began slaughtering their Tutsi compatriots by the hundreds of thousands, or even to call what was happening a genocide. “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [Congressional] election?” French quotes Susan Rice, a rising young black star who would soon be named Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, as saying in April of that year.
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