Africa: The Hard Truth

Neal Ascherson/New York Review of Books

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. H would like the rest of us to share his anger at what is happening in Africa and what i being done to it. And he is right, especially in the swathe of the continent he know 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’?tat, 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 statemen about Africa. He puts it in the form of a question, which may even have occurred t him then as a backpacking American teenager but which is now the “question tha 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 o the dictators and warlords he encounters, from General Sani Abacha in Nigeria to th late Laurent Kabila in Congo. But the evil they represent is ultimately an import, th infection after the unhealed fracture inflicted by the impact of colonization. It is not th subsequent exploitation or white settlement that did the damage; they merely inflame 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. Wash-ington, 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 bac to Africa as a journalist “because I wanted to dig into the kinds of stories abou 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 ye so many loves…kept me going here: the beauty and the unfussy grace of the people, the food?yes, the food?music rich beyond comparison, the sheer immediacy of human contact….
In one memorable chapter, he describes how he went in search of the novelist Sony Labou Tansi in “Congo-Brazzaville,” the collapsed but once Frenchified republic north of the great river. Tansi, “Congo’s greatest writer, a man whose brave satirical fiction had subverted dictatorships throughout the region,” had plunged briefly into ethnic politics on behalf of his own Bakongo people. Then AIDS grasped him and his wife. After vain treatments in Paris, he had returned home and vanished up-country to die.
French set out to find Tansi, beginning a long, meandering journey through mud and jungle, following one false trail after another, traveling by car, canoe, and finally on foot across a land whose roads had melted into sandy ruts and bush. In the end, in a remote huddle of mud huts, he discovered him. Half-crazed and close to death, he was in the care of a white-robed prophetess who spoke in Pentecostal tongues. For Tansi, she was the reincarnation of Dona Beatrice, the eighteenth-century saint and seer of the Bakongo nation who had been burned for heresy on Portuguese orders. French saw that Tansi understood his priestess to be the living resurrection of his “Kongo,” for which he had struggled for so many years. “You must understand why I am feeling better now. I am home at last. Finally I am in my own land.” Two weeks later he was dead.
The hope French places in the survival of African culture pervades what he writes about Mali, the land he had fallen in love with as a young backpacking stranger. Here, in 1995, he found a democracy. Alpha Oumar Konar?, an archaeologist and the president, had overthrown a dictatorship at the head of a “citizens’ movement” of students, labor leaders, and the mothers of the military regime’s victims. (So much, reflects French, for the theory that a democracy can only be built by a developed middle class.) Konar? moved easily among his people with the minimum of security. There were huge problems, he told French. Locusts were massing, there was unrest among the Touareg nomads, half the population was unemployed, and the West overlooked Mali in its eagerness to fund kleptocratic monsters like Mobutu in Zaire. But French found that the Malians were proud of a freedom they felt they had won by themselves. For him, this was a precious example of an African society which had survived that sever-ing trauma of colonialism and had kept a sense of historic identity intact. “Mali…had become one of a select group of African countries that had succeeded in cobbling together its own cultural space….”
To reassure himself, Howard French headed north in Mali. He stood in awe before the vast mosque of Djenn?, “the world’s largest earthen structure,” and remembered the taunt of a colleague who had asked: “Have Africans ever produced anything more than mud huts?” This was a building which could stand comparison with any cultural monument in the world. (See illustration on page 37.) From the mosque, he went on to the mile-long mound of Djenn?-Jeno, the site of a fabulously wealthy trading city where perhaps 20,000 people had lived in the eleventh century. President Konar? himself had worked there, with the American archaeologists Susan and Roderick McIntosh (who are still appealing to the world to help stop the looting of the city’s figurines, pottery, and metalwork, and the laundering of this irreplaceable heritage through the art salesrooms of the world). Much moved, French writes:
In a world where the achievements of Africans get scant recognition, Djenn?-Jeno’s archaeological treasures resonate with the message that the people of this continent are capable of great things, and indeed always have been.
But the central theme of his book is his experience of the Congo, the colossal territory at the center of the continent which dissolved under his eyes into chaos and misery. French provides a brief, bitter summary of its story. In the nineteenth century, as the “scramble for Africa” developed, Leopold II of the Belgians fooled the rest of the world into giving him personal control of the entire Congo basin, from the Atlantic almost as far east as the Great Lakes. He promised to run it as a free trade zone, devoted to the repression of the Arab slave trade. In practice, it became his own private estate, plundered for its ivory and wild rubber by a regime which relied on state terror to extract its wealth.Nobody will ever know the human cost, but some historians calculate that the population had dropped by ten million by the time Leopold was forced to hand the Congo over to the Belgian state in 1908.
There followed fifty years of harsh colonial rule, during which the Belgians made no attempt to train an African elite to succeed them. When nationalist protest exploded in 1960, the Belgians abandoned the Congo almost overnight. Patrice Lumumba, the only leader who might have held the place together, was kidnapped and murdered with American and British connivance, while Western governments encouraged the secession of the wealthy mining province of Katanga. The Congo, renamed Zaire, was entrusted to the safely anti-Communist Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled it for thirty-six years under the most monstrous and unscrupulous kleptocracy Africa had yet seen.
Howard French encountered Zaire in the mid-1990s, in Mobutu’s last years. Th dictator was dying of cancer, spending much of his time with his court in the Bea Rivage Hotel on Lake Geneva at a cost of $16,000 a night. In Kinshasa, his capital there was growing political unrest, but also fear for the future. A thousand miles to th east, a puzzling little rebellion had begun, as an army of boys with smart Wellingto boots and AK-47s marched about the rain forest. People said they were th Banyamulenge, an insignificant ethnic minority
It turned out that they were the vanguard of Zaire’s destroyers. The genocide in Rwanda, when some 800,000 mostly Tutsi people became the victims of planned extermination by their Hutu neighbors, had taken place in 1994. The outside world, which had done almost nothing to stop it, now settled down to bewail its own guilt and offer support to the Tutsi survivors. But the madness which had driven the genocide was still burning, and the flames were moving westward.
Howard French was a witness to the appalling second act of the Rwandan tragedy which now followed. Outside Africa, few people even today understand the connection between the genocide and the Congolese wars that followed, and it is a pity that French does not provide a fuller analysis of the 1994 disaster itself. What cannot be ignored is that the Tutsis were out for revenge. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus, many of them participants in the massacres, had fled across the border into Zaire. Not without good reasons, the Rwandan Tutsis accused them of forming new armies in the refugee camps. Some NGOs refused to work in refugee camps dominated by Hutu gangs. The Tutsis crossed the border to crush the Hutus.
The “Banyamulenge rebellion” was a mere cover story. Its troops turned out to be units of the “Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo,” led by the veteran Congolese troublemaker Laurent Kabila. But his leadership, too, turned out to be largely fiction. Throughout the campaign that immediately followed, real control stayed in the hands of the Rwandan commanders. French disarmingly admits that he too was fooled at first. When he realized what was going on, “I felt a deep, physical sense of embarrassment at my own ignorance.”
As Kabila’s forces advanced, capturing one city after another, the Hutu refugees fled into the forests. They knew what the Tutsis would do to them. In late 1996, French flew with Sadako Ogata, the UN high commissioner for refugees, to Kisangani and to a temporary camp at Tingi-Tingi where 150,000 desperate Hutu fugitives begged in vain to be rescued. But slaughter followed slaughter. A Zairian friend said to French:
Anyone who follows the itinerary of the rebels knows that this is a campaign to exterminate the Hutu refugees…. Those who suffered a genocide are committing one in their turn.
At the end of the year, Mobutu returned to Kinshasa in scenes of ecstatic welcome. But he was finished. The United States, which had armed and bankrolled Mobutu for so many years, now decided that change was inevitable and began to make contact with Kabila as his armies approached Kinshasa, murdering Hutu men, women, and children as they came. On May 17, 1997, Mobutu bolted. The next day, French went to watch Kabila’s men enter the city down almost empty streets. “We headed for Avenue 30 Juin, the city’s weed-filled Champs-Elys?es. The only other people about were glue-addicted street children….”
What followed was only an exchange of old tyranny for new. Soon war resumed, this time on an international scale, as Laurent Kabila fell out with the Rwandans and other African states pitched in on different sides of the conflict. In the six years after 1996, 3.3 million people died in these wars, about four times the toll of the original Rwanda genocide. Howard French always detested Kabila (who was to be assassinated in 2001), referring to him as “a frontier bandit and small-time terrorist” with a “braggadocio strut [that] seemed straight out of the South Bronx.” But his real anger throughout this book, above all over the fate of Zaire/Congo, is aimed at American policy and its makers.
He argues that the Clinton administration, which had downplayed the Rwand disaster as it took place and even avoided the use of the word “genocide” to describ it, became demoralized by guilt and a sense of failure as the truth emerged. I Washington, the most popular source of information was the New Yorker journalist Philip Gourevitch, whose powerful book on the genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (1998), compared the cause of the Rwandan Tutsis to the “survival struggle” of Israel. The comparison was false, but unnerving. The administration now fell into the fatal American habit of reducing complex struggles to “good guys” and “bad guys,” and tilted decisively toward supporting whatever the “good guy” Tutsis undertook.
In French’s opinion, Gourevitch has a lot to answer for. As the Rwandan invasion of eastern Zaire began, he
played an important role in selling Laurent Kabila in Washington, ironically by restoring him to the Lumumbaist tradition of respectable nationalism. In his writings, Gourevitch curiously airbrushed the old Congolese highwayman and mountebank, minimizing his ideology and avoiding unpleasant details of his dodgy past.
Howard French goes on to accuse Gourevitch of playing down the reported massacres of refugees committed by Kabila’s soldiers as they advanced across Zaire, and of ridiculing United Nations efforts to investigate the killings. Even allowing for a foreign correspondent’s natural resentment of visiting star correspondents who have a president’s ear, these are serious charges.
By now, in the early summer of 1997, the administration had anointed Laurent Kabila as its next “good guy” in Zaire. Mobutu had to go. Bill Richardson was sent to Kinshasa as President Clinton’s special envoy. “You are out!” he told Mobutu. “Do you want to leave with dignity or as a carcass?” Then he went to see Kabila in the bush, and reported that he was “a street-smart, charismatic person with a quick intelligence.” Next, his plane with the press party made for Kisangani. A few miles down the road, Alliance troops were butchering the inhabitants of one of the last refugee camps and burning the corpses. But there was time only for a photo opportunity. A refugee woman was found clutching a sick baby. She was persuaded to let the caring American visitor hold it. Richardson put out his arms, but in that instant the baby died. As French puts it in his economical way, “It took us all a few minutes to gather our composure….”
It was the Clinton administration’s slogans, its constant, chirpy insistence that it had a policy when in reality it had none, that infuriated Howard French. “African solutions to African problems,” or “America has no vital or strategic interests in West Africa,” or “Trade Not Aid”?what did all that mean? To him it meant “an exercise in moral bankruptcy arguably more crass and even more complete than the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide.”
The United States seemed to be in denial about its own influence in the region French especially resented the “African Renaissance” rhetoric from the Stat Department, which seemed to be anointing a row of one-party tyrants as embry democrats. When Madeleine Albright came to Kinshasa in December 1997 to let th world see that Kabila had America’s blessing, French turned down an invitation to fl with her on an “African Renaissance” tour. “I had seen…too many hollow slogans an broken promises to be cooped up in a small airplane and slathered in spin.
His dislike of Madeleine Albright has an almost physical edge, as he pelts her with adjectives. She had “hawkish eyebrows, immediately on the defensive,” “she was arch,” “she was rambling, almost incoherent.” In the end, he was able to hit her where it hurt. At her joint press conference with Laurent Kabila, French primed a colleague to ask a deadly question.If America was happy with Kabila’s commitment to democratic rights, then what about the fate of the opposition politician Zahidi Ngoma, who was being beaten and tortured in prison? As French guessed, Madeleine Albright had never heard of the case. But Kabila exploded with rage, shouting that those who tried to divide the people would all be arrested. The conference ended in disaster; Albright was humiliated, and French, without expressing open self-congratulation, reckons that from that moment the American investment in the Kabila regime began to wane.
This scene is exhilarating for its frankness. And yet it reveals the only weakness of A Continent for the Taking, which is otherwise a triumph of passionate reporting. The wrath of journalists (speaking as one of them, who has also seen some death and much evil) can be one-dimensional. There is generous rage at those who do terrible things, and at those in distant seats of power who allow such things to be done and then lie about them. But other fallible human beings have to devise policies and try to make them work in the teeth of all the storms of human misery and baseness that strive to blow them down.
The Clinton team was ignorant and arrogant about Africa, and frequently hypocritical. Its policies in West Africa and the Congo made nothing better, and some things worse. Nonetheless, I wish that French had made clear, on the basis of his impressive empathy and experience, what was the alternative line that the administration?any American administration? should have taken and should be taking now. His point about the historical severing of African political development is well worth making, and so is his complaint that modest democratic achievement in places like Mali went unrewarded and unrecognized. But how should these perceptions be translated into action by a superpower? There has to be an answer to that question. Howard French has not provided it, but any future American leadership which takes Africa seriously will have to do so. If it tries to prepare an answer, this book should be the first item on its reading list.
Copyright © 2004 NYREV, Inc.

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