‘Continent” Another Best Non Fiction of 2004 Citation

Mark Sorkin – January Magazine

A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa by Howard W. French (Alfred A. Knopf)
Howard French spent much of the 1990s reporting from the West Africa bureau of The New York Times. In A Continent for the Taking he revisits and expounds on the events he covered — including the outbreak of the Ebola virus, the Rwanda genocide and its fallout, the overthrow of Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko and the ensuing violence in the new Congo. As you might expect from a Times correspondent, French has an expert’s understanding of the overlapping histories and political complexities of the region and he writes about these difficult subjects with clarity and poise. But whereas the conventions of daily journalism mandated balanced coverage, here French is free to editorialize. He takes a fierce moral stance against the West, particularly the United States, for its role in fomenting and exacerbating many of Africa’s postcolonial conflicts. Even after the end of the Cold War, French observes, Clinton’s Administration “was still placing its biggest bets on ‘strongmen’ who gave the appearance of maintaining order, while in reality sowing the seeds of future destabilization at home and in their surrounding regions.” French lays out the crimes committed on the watch of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Congo’s Laurent Kabila (who was installed in power following a coup against Mobutu and was assassinated in 2001). He also documents the damage done by Western leaders: indifference in instances of genocide, intrusion in cases of selfish interest. French’s reporting on these regimes and the states that abetted them is unsparing. His account of the situation, otherwise brutal, is tempered by passages that reveal deep admiration for the natural landscape and profound sympathy for the victims. This is a wise, haunting book, mandatory reading for any historian of Africa. — Mark Sorkin

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