23 April 2004

Africa's Lost Decades - A Reporter's Lament

book review

Washington, DC — 1 A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa
Howard W. French
April 23, 2004
Alfred A. Knopf

New York Times correspondent Howard French's relationship with Africa has been both personal and professional. His father ran a World Health Organization programme in West Africa. French later reported from the region for, among others, Africa News Service (the predecessor of AllAfrica), eventually becoming the Times' regional bureau chief. Always keenly interested in the interaction between Africa and the West, French has written a book that explores the responsibilities for Africa's plight, for which he apportions blame widely, along with the prospects for recovery and what might be called redemption. Arguing that the West has always benefited materially from its African engagements, French also reminds the reader that the world community -- after saying "no more Rwandas" -- has largely ignored the continuing Congo conflict, which has killed over three million people in the last five years. Akwe Amosu reviewed the book for AllAfrica.

If ignorance can be described as darkness, then Africa is indeed a dark continent in the minds of most Western readers.

That they know so little about such a huge, important continent is part of Africa's tragedy and part of the reason Howard French has written this book. But he is not only inviting them to acquire more knowledge: he would like them to discover the profound connection between their ignorance and Africa's troubles.

This makes A Continent for the Taking a far better book than it might have been, although I predict that it will also discomfit some critics who might feel more comfortable with the more usual Africa traveller's "no strings" offering of exotic locations, frightening experiences, extremes of misery, violence or both, leavened nonetheless with accounts of individual Africans' profound humanity and generosity and the reassuring fact that the writer gets to leave the continent in the end.

This formula - it is all too commonly deployed - has the comforting effect of confirming to those outside that the heart of Africa is still dark and there is nothing we can do about it, yet promising that Africans may produce solutions some day, thus releasing outsiders from responsibility.

French's project is quite the opposite. Although bearing many similarities to other books in the genre, his determination to include explanations for what happens in Africa sets him apart.

Far from being in the dark, he argues (deploying en route a great quote from John Le Carre), Western governments and their agents have long been fully aware of what is happening on the continent and are active players in seeking outcomes which often condone, or even provoke, the very misery and violence we are led to believe are Africa's own contribution to its plight.

As he explains in his introduction: "...this book is a chronicle of the disastrous continuum in the encounter between Africa and the West." He aims to "help remedy our complaisant forgetfulness and our hypocrisy."

America, says French, has chosen friends on the continent such as Idi Amin, Hastings Banda, Samuel Doe and Jonas Savimbi: "It bears repeating, given their disastrous legacy," he comments, "that we supported leaders like these for our own strategic reasons, and for those reasons alone, during the long years of the Cold War."

Those who have long felt comfortable in the West's very own heart of darkness may well choose to put the book down at this point; it isn't going to get any easier.

A number of different narratives weave their way through the book, reflecting French's own experience as a reporter, switching between countries and stories as they shift in and out of the spotlight.

Central Africa after the 1994 Rwanda genocide dominates, with four detailed chapters out of the book's eleven, although by not focusing our attention on the political-economic issues there until chapter six, French manages to give other sub-narratives their place in the sun before they are overwhelmed by events in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He begins with his personal African odyssey as a young man - a long trek from the West African coastal city of Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire to Mali, an African American on the way to find out what Africa might mean to him. It is a journey of self-discovery that will initially resonate with many of his readers, who may assume they are on familiar territory.

French turns the tables by suddenly ditching his discovery of Africa's dignity and culture in favour of an economic history lesson, which readers familiar with conventional accounts of African history will find clarifying, boiling down hundreds of years of relations between Africa and the West. By the end of Chapter 1, (which acknowledges a debt to John Reader's excellent Africa: A Biography of the Continent) it is obvious that French is a man on a mission.

There follow - in no particular order - a chapter on Nigeria under Sani Abacha, the Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, two chapters on Liberia, as it is torn apart by warlords, and a troubling excursion to visit Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi dying of Aids in a village.

French also makes another visit to Mali - this time to acknowledge the profound and (so far) successful political transition to democracy which, for French, offers a counterweight to the grim downward spiral of war and the failure of politics in central Africa.

Yet even here French is not about to let anyone bask in self-congratulation. In his view, the United States could have done much more to reward Malians seeking to take their country on a new path. That view is rebuffed by senior U.S. diplomat George Moose, who sourly comments that "virtue is its own reward," thereby confirming the oft-repeated observation that in Africa it is the squeaky wheel that gets the U.S. grease (for which read cash). African governments that do the right thing have been strangely low on the priority list.

The chapters where the intensity of French's own project and the urgency of the story are most to the fore are those on the DRC, formerly known as Zaire.

As he tracks tens of thousands of Hutus - among them the perpetrators of genocide - eastward from the border with Rwanda whence they have fled, he pursues a number of threads: eyewitness accounts of Hutu civilian suffering; international guilt and therefore refusal to take responsibility for the hounded Hutus, thereby compounding errors made in Rwanda; the final decline of the cancer-ridden Mobutu; his chillingly efficient replacement with Rwanda's placeman Laurent Kabila, the defeat of popular political will in Kinshasa and much more besides.

The DRC's story is clearly the one which most absorbs (and nearly kills) Howard French who, in common with many before him, swings between fascination and disgust for the human suffering and venality he encounters, eventually surrendering in a haze of cerebral malaria.

As French records the pursuit and slaughter of Hutus across the vast forests of the DRC, the carnage in Monrovia and diplomatic dissembling continent-wide, one is increasingly aware of his scorn, and his passionate determination to bear witness and to hold those responsible to account - whether foreigner or African. This conviction - that there is an explanation for what takes place and that it is right to take a view - points up the difference between the travelogues produced by some reporters and the journalism practiced by those like French.

For example, French thinks it is important that terrible crimes were committed against Hutus, as well as other Rwandans, and he intends to name those responsible. Others who were fearful of appearing to speak out on behalf of those who committed or were complicit in genocide have muted their condemnation or ignored the story altogether. For French, this issue was a critical test of the human rights principles allegedly endorsed and embraced by the international community. For the most part, he seems to believe, they failed the test.

Occasionally, you sense that French is settling scores. I wouldn't like to be in the shoes of U.S. diplomat Dudley Sims, for example, now having read the damning account of his failure to protect a Liberian journalist working for Voice of America. If the quote is accurate, Sims betrays the disingenuousness and lack of human empathy frequently evinced by those of his trade. The point is less that Sims behaved like a diplomat than that French chose to record it; once again, this is a man who believes in individual accountability.

Which is why I was struck that he used a word I always think is odd coming from a journalist - "our".

"It is foolish to think that Washington should carry the burden of blame for most of Africa's problems, or even of tiny Liberia's, but a thread of ignorance and contempt ran through OUR (my emphasis) covert sponsorship of Africa's first coup d'etat..."

French, in common with many of his compatriots, sometimes uses "we" and "America" interchangeably.

Insofar as it is compatible with being a free commentator on his subject, it jars. But insofar as this demonstrates his willingness to accept responsibility for his government's actions, it is valuable.

I personally don't feel comfortable using the 'We' word in relation to any national grouping of which I might claim membership. But this may be a journalist’s affectation.

The overwhelming impression left by this book is of a government - in this case led by Bill Clinton, but French believes it to be true of other administrations too - that damages the U.S.’ reputation in Africa, and fails Africa to boot. Mr. French's conscience may lead him to take responsibility for his nation, but the rest of us might wonder how much leverage he and his compatriots really have over what is done in Africa in their name.

French's book does feature massacres, illness, violent elections and other African clichés in significant volume. But unlike many of those who have written comparable volumes, he has made common cause with Africa’s people, rather than seeing them, from afar, as unfortunate victims.

In what now seems like another time, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney and similar voices dominated the discourse on Africa with their uncompromising message about who was responsible for Africa's predicament. French is certainly in their camp. But I think he would also endorse a new mantra that is as important for these times as was the challenge to colonialism in theirs.

Africa's most impressive thinkers today argue that Africans have to take responsibility for our own experience and, above all, that we are up to that task. Such a self-confident approach implies an ability to own one’s faults rather than blaming others.

The new determination in Africa to bring change to the continent is not contradicted by French’s conviction that the international community can serve Africa better. On the contrary, the possibility that the two views may combine should give readers new hope for the future.

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