“Destined for war? China, America and the Thucydides trap”

“As China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye,”

Copyright The Financial Times March 30, 2017

As Trump and Xi prepare to meet, Gideon Rachman looks at the tests ahead for the world’s most important bilateral relationship
An excerpt follows. To read the entire piece, please click here.
“A big difference, however, may be that Xi’s vision of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” seems much more fully formed than that of the new US president. As the journalist and academic Howard French tells it in Everything Under the Heavens, China’s leader is essentially seeking to return his country to the position it has traditionally exercised in Asia — as the dominant regional power, to which other countries must defer or pay tribute. “For the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under heaven,” writes French. In practice, this meant “a vast and familiar swath of geography that consisted of nearby Central Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia”. This traditional Chinese aspiration had to be shelved for almost two centuries. From the mid-19th century, China was humbled by powerful outsiders — first European imperialists and then Japanese invaders. After the Communist victory in 1949, the country went through a period of economic and cultural isolation and relative poverty. By the late 1970s, when China reversed course and embraced capitalism and foreign investment, it had fallen far behind the “tiger economies” of east Asia. In its catch-up phase, China pursued friendly relations with its capitalist neighbours — including Japan, its old wartime foe. These Asian neighbours were important sources of expertise and foreign investment for a country that was desperate to make up for lost time. But French, like many observers, sees a change of mood and tone in China’s relationship with the outside world since Xi came to power in 2012. The primary target of Chinese muscle-flexing and ambition is not, in fact, the US — but Japan. “As China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye,” writes French. Much Chinese resentment of Japan is focused on the Japanese invasion and occupation of the 1930s. But, as French makes clear, the roots of the resentment stretch deep into the 19th century. In one of the most compelling sections of this fluent and interesting book, French shows the importance of Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu Islands in 1879. These islands retain their significance today, as they include Okinawa — the site of the largest US military base in east Asia. The current focus of territorial disputes between Japan and China is the much smaller set of islands known as the Senkakus to the Japanese and the Diaoyu to the Chinese. But reading French’s book, one cannot but wonder whether Chinese ambitions will also eventually encompass Okinawa.”

Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens, reviewed: The last empire

For Canada, managing relations with an expansionist and impatient China will not be easy. French’s closing words seem particularly apt for us. He notes, reasonably enough, that China has much to contribute and deserves to be treated as an equal. That’s not a problem. It’s the next part of French’s formula that Ottawa so often either avoids or gets wrong. It is also important, he says, to approach China with “understated but resolute firmness.”

Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens, reviewed: The last empire

  • Title Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shapes China’s Push for Global Power
  • Author Howard W. French
  • Genre Non-Fiction
  • Publisher Knopf
  • Pages 330
  • Price $36.95

Donald Trump isn’t the only global leader with wall-building ambitions. China’s President, Xi Jinping, recently called on his officials to encircle restive Xinjiang province, home to China’s Muslim Uyghur population, with a “Great Wall of steel.”

Trump’s Great Wall can be dismissed as an opportunistic policy gambit, but Xi’s wall-building impulse has deeper roots. The default symbol for the United States is the Statue of Liberty, which famously welcomes the huddled masses. China’s most notable structure, the Great Wall, was built to keep the masses out, particularly those with dynastic ambitions.

For China’s mandarins, trouble typically arrives in the form of the twin calamities captured in the gloomy couplet, “Nei luan, wai huan”: chaos at home and invasion from abroad.

Avoiding these linked perils remains a priority for Xi, a preoccupation that shapes his foreign and domestic policy. Xi presides over the world’s last surviving empire, a country that has devoured ethnic rivals such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans whole, and that treats neighbouring states as vassals to be kept in line. All non-Han “Others” are expected to understand and appreciate the concept of tian xia, or “everything under heaven,” the rather ambitious zone of influence that China has traditionally attributed to itself.

Living up to this imposing mandate means that China is forever managing others, walling them in or fending them off, hoping to pacify them with the offer of membership in a China-dominated order.

In his new book, appropriately titled Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Shapes China’s Push for Global Power, former New York Times journalist Howard W. French makes it clear China’s sense of national superiority is of more than historical significance. While China’s power has waxed and waned, its sense of being the Middle Kingdom has remained constant. So, too, has its inclination to manage those who lie outside the centre. Living up to its awesome self-image has required China to dispatch fleets and armies, and to develop a highly sophisticated diplomatic stagecraft of flattery and intimidation. For centuries, exercising this mandate of heaven has meant relentless efforts to manage and cajole, to pacify and control.

Nothing is quite what it seems. The generous offer of inclusion in a Chinese world masks a condescending disregard for partially sinicized neighbours, such as the Vietnamese and Tibetans, and contempt for the barbarians beyond. The offer of a peaceful place in a Chinese world is inevitably backed up by the sword.

French’s account, not surprisingly, runs counter to the official Chinese narrative. Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who led a Chinese armada to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and the east coast of Africa, is lauded in China as an unconventional explorer. Unlike his Western counterparts, whose voyages were marked by greed, violence and conquest, Zheng, the story goes, was an ambassador of Chinese benevolence. The reality, as French reminds us, is that Zheng’s massive ships were actually troop carriers, whose menacing arrival conveyed a distinctly different message about the nature of the Chinese deal on offer.

Modern China continues to proclaim this theme of benevolent internationalism, something French challenges with numerous examples. The most chilling is his account of the Chinese navy’s 1988 massacre of flag-waving Vietnamese troops on the disputed Johnson Reef in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese protest is captured on a grainy YouTube video that is suddenly interrupted by Chinese naval gunfire. When the smoke clears, the Vietnamese are, shockingly, gone. It’s worth noting this happened just a year before the Chinese military perpetrated another massacre, this time of student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Nei luan, wai huan.

China is clearly in the midst of a new period of exuberance and expansion, and, as French makes clear, this inevitably involves friction with the two powers, Japan and the United States, that have come to dominate its neighbourhood over the past 200 years.

In recent decades, Japan, seduced by the lure of the China market and by the friendly pragmatism of previous (and needier) Chinese leaders, played down territorial disputes as it helped to rebuild China. The tables have since turned. All things Japanese are now demonized by China, which evokes past Japanese aggression as it steadily encroaches on the rocky outcroppings that mark the beginning of the Japanese archipelago.

Even more worrisome is China’s growing rivalry with its most formidable adversary, the United States. China is rapidly acquiring the weapons and technology to make it highly risky for the U.S. Navy to operate in the western Pacific, an ambition furthered by China’s construction of military airstrips on artificial islands in the South China Sea. French ominously quotes another Chinese aphorism: “When two emperors appear simultaneously, one must be destroyed.”

French suggests the current period of Chinese expansionism is particularly dangerous not just because it involves a clash between two nuclear-armed powers, but also because China’s leaders are in a race against time. The window on their ambitions for regional and broader domination is closing. China’s slowing economy means less money for military modernization. Worse for China is the fact its population will likely peak by 2025, while the United States will continue to enjoy a steadily increasing population, and resulting economic growth, for a long time to come. Much of this U.S. population growth will be powered by immigration. Trump may wish to rethink his wall.

All of this matters for Canadians. Any armed clash between the United States, our closest ally, and China would be devastating. Even if conflict is avoided, we can expect China’s larger ambitions and anxieties will influence the way it manages relations with Canada. The carrots and sticks are familiar.

Trade is one potential motivator. Even though it flows in China’s favour, its partners, Canada included, are all-too-easily persuaded that permission to do business is a benefit conferred only on those who agree to play by China’s rules. And access to China’s leaders is so carefully meted out and stage-managed that it becomes an objective in itself. Leaders refuse to kowtow at their peril. Recall that former prime minister Stephen Harper was widely castigated for declining to attend the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which took place only months after ugly scenes of unrest and repression in Tibet.

For Canada, managing relations with an expansionist and impatient China will not be easy. French’s closing words seem particularly apt for us. He notes, reasonably enough, that China has much to contribute and deserves to be treated as an equal. That’s not a problem. It’s the next part of French’s formula that Ottawa so often either avoids or gets wrong. It is also important, he says, to approach China with “understated but resolute firmness.”

That’s another way of saying that, like China, we need to align our international strategy with a hard-nosed reading of national interest. Let’s hope Ottawa’s mandarins are paying attention.

David Mulroney is the author of Middle Power, Middle Kingdom: What Canadians Need to Know about China in the 21st Century, and is president of the University of St. Michael’s College. He was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.

China Invades Africa

Copyright The New York Review of Books

Trying to figure out China’s true intentions in Africa has resulted in a cottage industry of analysts, writers, and bloggers investigating just how much aid China provides (foreign aid is a state secret in China), as well as whether the pledges, memoranda of understanding, and so on really are panning out, or are just empty announcements designed to give meaning to the barrage of summits and visits between Chinese and African heads of state. Their conclusions can be confusingly different, with some arguing that China is a new imperialist power and others seeing a more benevolent approach that, at worst, is no different from Western policies.

Howard French’s new book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, takes a different tack, giving us a bottom-up look at China in Africa. A former New York Times Africa and China correspondent, he is fluent in Chinese, French, and Spanish, enabling him to speak directly to many of the people involved. He doesn’t bypass the pundits and analysts, but tries as much as possible to let the Africans and Chinese speak for themselves as he travels through fifteen countries. The result is a rich, complex, and satisfyingly contradictory look at this strange marriage.

French sets his story in broad terms, helping to convey its relevance to general readers. He points out that when China began its ascent in the 1970s, it was during an earlier phase of globalization that primarily involved Western countries developing export industries in poorer countries, mostly in Asia, but also in Latin America and Eastern Europe. In other words, it was globalization carried out on the West’s terms.

Now we are in an era when rising powers like China, and to a lesser degree India and Brazil, are investing heavily in one another—and other countries down the food chain. China, writes French, is “rapidly emerging as the most important agent of economic change in broad swaths of the world.” China uses Africa as a proving ground for its companies, most of which are not quite ready to take on their Western competitors on their home turf, but which can provide Africans with robust, low-cost alternatives.

Although China’s foray into Africa has been a staple of media reports for the past decade, it’s worth pausing to consider just how dramatic this change is. When China first entered Africa in the 1960s, it was something of a curiosity, positioning itself as a fellow victim of imperialism, a socialist brother, or a provider of modest, low-end technology. Generally, though, it did little more than build the odd showpiece factory or railway line—good deeds to complement a kind of missionary Maoism not unlike the religious and ideological opportunism that drew Europeans to Africa in earlier eras. When China launched its economic reforms in the late 1970s, it was more concerned with its own development, and although engagement with Africa didn’t disappear, it was minimal.

That began to change in the 1990s, as China increased its aid to Africa, culminating in the triennial 2006 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing. Delegates from forty-eight countries attended, and the Chinese capital was lined with billboards hailing “Amazing Africa.” China pledged to double aid within three years and suddenly the world woke up to the fact that Africa had a new suitor besides the two chief colonial masters, Britain and France, and the winner of the cold war, the United States. China’s export-import bank estimated that it would provide $20 billion in loans during the three years after the forum, while the World Bank planned $17 billion.2

But it’s another statistic that underpins French’s reportage: one million. This is the number of Chinese that French reckons are active in Africa today, not only as guest workers building the continent’s telecommunications or transport infrastructure, but also including thousands of ordinary people who see Africa as a land of opportunity. For Westerners, Africa is mostly a series of kleptocracies, natural disasters, violent conflicts, and public health crises like the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa. But for many Chinese, Africa is an underpopulated region of forests, plains, and seemingly fallow lands, a vast continent (three times larger than China) of just one billion people that, in some places, is starting to grow quickly. As French sees it, we are in the midst of a “historic movement of Chinese to Africa.”

One of French’s most colorful chapters is set in Mozambique, where he finds a Chinese pioneer farmer named Hao who is determined not only to build a homestead, but to start a clan that will be part of the country’s economic takeoff. He has brought over two sons whom he wants to set up with local women. Hao hopes they will marry, procreate, and establish a clan of economic titans with vast holdings of land that can only be dreamed of in overcrowded, highly regulated China. It seems delusional, but is it more so than the white homesteaders of earlier eras?

French is extremely open-minded. He tells us that he’s here to challenge the stereotype of Chinese being insular and clannish, and to show how many are excited about Africa. Examples like Hao help make this point about how outgoing and entrepreneurial Chinese can be, although French’s reporting is good enough to let us make up our own minds. Personally, I saw Hao as almost a caricature of a Han chauvinist, spewing racial stereotypes about the locals and treating the women like walking receptacles for his sons’ semen. Not surprisingly, the local women seemed to hate him, and I wondered how long he could last out there on the range, with so little empathy or understanding for local people. French isn’t as judgmental, and as readers we are probably better for it.

Time and again, French introduces us to risk-taking Chinese. We meet the manager of a copper smelter in Zambia, small shop owners in Mali, and a suave businessman in Guinea whose fluent French puts American diplomats to shame. French takes us on epic road trips through the bush and sprawling cities, and along the way we encounter boosters and critics of China’s growing engagement. He doesn’t come down as hard on the Chinese as some Western critics do, but he talks to enough African skeptics and boorish Chinese that some readers can find plenty of evidence for why China is probably likely to be held at arm’s length in Africa, just as Western powers are.

To read the entire article, please follow this link.

 

Journalist laments agony of a continent

TOPE ADEBOBOYE – The Daily Sun

Tuesday, September 6, 2005
They were a strong and proud race; living fulfilled lives in small and great monarchies strewn across the continent. Oblivious to other worlds, they tilled the ground, hunted beasts for food and fun, fished on brooks and rivers and seas, and tended cattle down lush pastures.
They fought internecine battles, conquered kingdoms with bows and arrows, with swords and spears. In the evenings, children gathered to listen to stories and folklores in the moonlight. Millions dwelt in mud or plank-built homes with thatched roofs, patronized witch doctors, grew old and died or got killed by strange, herb-defying ailments. Many were they that lived and died by the sword, metamorphosing into deities and myths to be later worshiped by succeeding generations.
For the African, this was life; a life that existed solely for them. It was a time the land was populated by its owners, when the people lived, as they deemed fit. There were no white skins, (save the albino’s), no machines. There are no ambitious trips to the Mars or the moon; no fear of a sudden Armageddon via a nuclear warhead. Such a time so graphically depicted by the Nigerian storyteller, Elechi Amadi, in his classic novel, The Concubine. But that wasn’t destined to last forever. For the white man came with his Bible, and soon, his gun. Ever since, Africa has never been the same again.
Africa’s journey since that first contact with the Portuguese in the late 1490s is what Howard French passionately takes us through in his new book, A Continent For The Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. French, a veteran correspondent of the New York Times in West and Central Africa, deplored his years of experience to lay bare the promises and frustrations of an immensely fertile land. A land tragically devoured by its own swarm of locusts egged on by an applauding West that looks the other way after its real goals have been achieved. It is the story of a continent of great minds whose recent history is painfully replete with bitter pictures of strife, diseases and death. It is the story of a continent ravaged by famine and drought, despoiled by weed-smoking kid soldiers wielding rifles down the streets of Monrovia. The work paints the graphic details of brothers butchering brothers; a land within the grip of avaricious military despots and pot-bellied civilian dictators. The narrative paints a picture of gloom and doom; of penury and suspense, it is the story of a tomorrow shrouded in palpable haze.
Indeed, as you turn each page of Howard French’s book, the lines in the poem Africa written by the late Senegalese bard, David Diop, reverberates in the the soul of the reader.
Diop had prophesied a life of bliss for Africa and its peoples after the long years of colonialism. Sadly however, decades after Africa countries have been liberated from Europe; genuine liberty still eludes the people because many of them are still ruled by civilian dictators.
French, an African-American would not just do a reporter’s diary of his 25-years’ romance with the dark continent. Rather, he gets involved in the continent’s plight.
Unable to contain those deep emotions long bottled up in his mind and notebook, he unleashed his fury on Europe and America. These countries, he claims, have always seen Africa as a huge dice on a ludo board. He queries America’s role in the plunder of the continent and it’s support for greedy dictators, especially during the cold war era. The author wonders why Washington would always look the other way while the Idi Amins,
Mobutu Sese Sekos, Charles Taylors and Sani Abachas of this world were killing, maiming and looting thereby leaving their citizens to suffer the consequences?
However, French’s role might be understandable. French is an African-American and his great grandfathers were born and raised in Africa, long before the vast continent was partitioned by Europe, and its best men and women shipped across the seas into slavery. Apart from living and working in Africa, French is married to an African. It then becomes more comprehensible reasons why he is not just a narrator, but one who is fully involved.
Thus, French criss-crosses the continent; taking us along into the streets of Lagos and Abuja in Nigeria. He carries his readers along into Charles Taylor’s Liberia, to Mali and the two Congos. He involves us, the readers, in his experiences in the power play and high-wire politics of the mid-1990s in Abacha’s Nigeria; in Ebola plague in the Congo, the Liberian civil war and Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire. French writes of poverty and hunger arising from decades of misrule, and people’s desperation for survival.
The journalist recalls that in 1994 Nigeria was at a boiling point. The journalist, who was recently posted to Abidjan as New York Times Correspondent, West Africa, had just rushed to the country. What he met on arrival at the airport, and in his trips around the world’s most populated black nation, was however different from what had been on ground a decade earlier. Please read him on pages 26 and 27:
‘Corruption had eaten away at everything here since that bygone era of pride and optimism. Most people would say that the rot had started under the elected government of Shehu Shagari who was overthrown in a military coup of 1983. and things had gotten steadily worse under a succession of bemedaled generals.
‘Nigeria had become one of Africa’s most tragic stories, as if a great family franchise had been run into the ground by decadent nephews prematurely handed the reins of management. The callow nephews in this tale were army generals, and like King Midas in reverse, the officers who had run the country for the last decade had debased everything they had touched, starting of course with politics, which they had turned into a contest of self-enrichment. The leader who ran the country in the mid-1990s, General Sani Abacha, stood out even in this crowd.’
Indeed, General Sani Abacha, who in November 1993 forced his way into the State House in Nigeria, had in 1994 become something akin to a motion picture monster to his countrymen. At the peak of his five-year tyranny, the diminutive, dark-goggled dictator without a middle name had either decreed the assassination of his perceived political foes, or had hurled them into jail. In his dungeon were, among others, Moshood Abiola, winner of the 1993 presidential elections, General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler (now president) accused by Abacha of plotting to sack his regime, Shehu Yar’adua, and all the popular members of the human rights community. Ken Saro Wiwa had been hanged, Kudirat Abiola and many others had been shot dead in a Lagos Street, and a thick, palpable dread filled the firmament.
Mr. French painstakingly takes us through the absurd political dance-drama of those days of gloom, up till Abacha’s mysterious death in June 1998 of a heart condition aggravated, reports said, by an all-out orgy with a couple of sluts imported from India.
But then, Abacha didn’t create those clouds that threatened Nigeria’s very existence. The garlands for such, many argue, should naturally be draped round the copious neck of the country’s former ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida. He was who annulled the 1993 Presidential elections and nearly pushed his country into the abyss. Abacha, echo those voices, merely benefited from that treasonable venture.
Sadly, the people’s hopes that a democratic regime would put a balm on their battered lives are daily being punctured by the supposedly democratic government of General Olusegun Obasanjo.
Blessed with a haughty mien and the fury of a typhoon, Obasanjo rules the land more like a medieval emperor. The president carries himself with a presumptuous, almost megalomaniac air, apparently seeing himself as the best gift Providence ever bequeathed to the country next to crude oil. In several fits of raw, uncontrollable ire, he has ordered the destruction of whole communities, verbally assaulted clergymen, and single-handedly annulled an election meant to produce a king for his village.
And already, Babangida, whose action nearly led to the country’s collapse, is seeking a comeback in 2007. Arrayed behind him is a clan of clowns led by that disgraced and late ex-general, Mr. Abdulkareem Adisa whom many insist would have had a more fulfilling career as an Elizabethan court jester.
French narrartes his meetings with notable Nigerians, including Baba Gana Kingibe, who would have been Abiola’s Deputy, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Newswatch’s Ray Ekpu, Kudirat Abiola, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, among others. He writes about his trips to several volatile parts of the country. The author writes about the political intrigues and power play and of treachery in high places; of dashed hopes and a country sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines.
But Abacha’s ‘Giant of Africa’ was not the only country on the boil. A systematic carnage had gradually reduced Liberia, that once promising country founded by freed slaves from America in 1821, into a land of living ghosts. Enter Charles Taylor, described in The New York Times by Robert Rodberg, Director of the Programme on Interstate Conflict at the Kennedy School of Harvard University, as one of the more colorful thugs of West Africa’s recent past.
Having lived in the forest from where he waged war against the repressive regime of the marijuana-loving illiterate soldier, Samuel Doe, Taylor forced himself into world consciousness as a fiend who fed minors with dope and sent them to their death on the battlefield. Indeed, as commander-in-chief of a mostly under-aged, drug-addicted youth guerilla army, Taylor had waged a war not only against Doe’s government, but against any perceived threat to his ambition to rule Liberia.
On the road to Monrovia, where he would later rule as President, this brutish ‘gentleman’ who stole his country’s as well as Sierra Leone’s diamond to prosecute his warfare, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his countrymen as well as foreigners to book a passage to the Presidential Palace. Among his victims were two Nigerian journalists, Tayo Awotusin and Kress Imodibe whose murder Taylor ordered because of Nigeria’s role in ECOMOG. Ironically, Taylor who is on Interpol’s wanted list for committing crimes against humanity now lives in opulence in Nigeria, shielded from justice by President Obasanjo against the wish of the international community.
Interestingly, Taylor’s one-time ally and Liberia’s former warlord, Prince Yormie Johnson was also offered refuge by Nigeria, a country that is fast becoming a safe haven for modern day Hitlers. Many would remember Johnson as Doe’s nemesis on September 10, 1990. Like a possessed demon straight out of hell, Johnson presided over Doe’s systematic slaughter, supervising his men as Doe’s ears, hands, legs etc were gradually sliced off even as the cameras beamed the despot’s long, agonizing death to the world.
French, in his book, captures Taylor’s grand entrance into Monrovia and his first press conference where he labored hard to justify his war. But Mr. Taylor had replied with a calmness quite alien to many of his ilk: ‘I just believe in the destiny of man being controlled by God, and wars, whether man-made or what, are directed by a force. And so when I say it is God’s war, God has his own way of restoring the land, and he will restore it after this war.’
Another real tragedy for Africa in the last decade was Mobutu Sese Seko, the late grandiose ruler of the former Zaire. Mobutu’s story strikes a chord with those of his fellow travelers in tyranny. A former soldier in the Congo, Joseph-Desire Mobutu seized power in 1965 and was ‘elected’ president in 1970. Donning a fake toga of an enforcer of cultural awareness, he changed his country’s name to Zaire, forced Europeans out of the country and rechristened himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Wa Za Banga (‘The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.’).
A sick soul plagued with prostate cancer since 1962, Mobutu’s countrymen were to discover too soon after he stole power in 1965 that he also suffered from another malady: chronic kleptomania. The leopard, as Mobutu was known, did little for his country but much for himself, looting his nation’s wealth and fortifying his personal fortune to an incredible tune of four billion dollars as far back as 1984.
In May 1997, a rebel group, led by Laurent Kabila closed-in on Kinshasha. Mobutu, ravaged by a deadly mix of cancer and the people’s odium, had little strength to counter the insurrection. The Great Man fled to Morocco, where he died like a dog four months later, booking a speedy one-way passage to hell.
French takes us through the streets of Kinshasha, just as he does with the Ebola epidemic of the neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, describing Mobutu’s final fall and the rise of Laurent Kabila. His vivid account of the chaos that descended on the country would later win him the Overseas Press Club of America’s award for the best newspaper interpretation of foreign affairs.
Critics might query the rationale behind the French’s blaming of the West for much of Africa’s woes. Such people would argue that the continent’s rulers should take most of the blame. French’s position, in his book, is that the West has always aligned with African despots in order to achieve certain goals. If the West had taken a more decisive stand against these demons in human form, perhaps Africa would have risen beyond its present stagnant state.
Yet others might argue that the author doesn’t really proffer any solution to Africa’s leadership problems. He cites the examples of African leaders who guided their countries through the democratic path. President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali is singled out as a flourishing flower amidst a cluster of thorns.
The lesson here is clear. Africa’s sun will never shine until its leaders have eschewed their desperation for power and greed for their country’s wealth, and begin to relate to their people like fellow humans.
Laced with various quotes and references, with 16 photo pages and a map, A Continent For The Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa in its 280 pages is a rewarding excursion into Africa’s recent past. Indeed, this book published by Alfred A. Knopf and sold for $25 is a rich guide for anyone with a remote interest in that continent’s chequered history. In the unlikely event that you quarrel with French’s submissions in the book, you definitely won’t have any quarrels with his breezy style, lucid presentation and free-flowing prose. Even as readers digest the last pages of the book, they might find it difficult to expunge the nagging question off their minds: will the Black Giant ever cease to totter?