10 November 2004

Africa: Reporter Counters `Wrong-Headed' Notions About Conflict and Corruption

interview

Howard French began writing about Africa in the early 1980s as a freelance journalist and professor based in Ivory Coast. After six years in West Africa, he took a permanent position with the New York Times. Many years passed as he negotiated what he calls the "cutthroat environment" of the Times' newsroom before he returned to West Africa as a foreign correspondent in the mid-1990s.

French has just published his first book, "A Continent for the Taking: The Hope and Tragedy of Africa," about his experiences as a reporter in Africa. He shared his insights with AllAfrica's staff.

Why did you write the book and why are you spending time promoting it?

I wrote the book, not for fame or fortune, but because I thought I could perhaps affect the discussion about Africa in the United States, to help create a healthier awareness of the continent and the political and historical realities surrounding Africa.

Why is that important to you?

Before I went to West Africa for the Times, I was working in Haiti. My assignment was Caribbean and Central America correspondent for the Times. A book came out then called "The Coming Anarchy" by Robert Kaplan. This book was terribly influential in academic and policy circles in the United States. I thought it was ill-informed and somewhat shallow in its take on the continent.

I thought, this is really unfortunate. This guy doesn't really know anything about Africa. He is going to ambassadors' cocktail parties and riding around in swaddled conditions and selling himself as the opposite - some guy who is really out there on the edge, seeing 'the real Africa,' which is a way of thinking about Africa that I have always distrusted.

I thought, I have to write a book. Now it's not just something I want to do, it is something I have a responsibility to do, because I have seen more of the continent than the kinds of people who have began to influence the debate about Africa who are writing essentially wrong-headed things about the continent. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to pull this off.

What were some of the biggest stories you covered in Africa?

The central story of my stay was the fall of Mobutu and the early part of Laurent Kabila's rule in the Congo. I wasn't holding back. I was doing my best to cover that story for the Times but I was contending with other forces. A colleague based in East Africa, who was part of that coverage in our newspaper, had a very different take on the conflict. I had editors who trusted me for the most part - as has always been the case in my career as a foreign correspondent - who were influenced by another writer who I thought had a very wrong-headed take on the conflict on Central Africa. This is a person who had visited occasionally and was relying on his relationships he had formed very high in the Rwandan government - essentially a friendship with Paul Kagame and some other people around him. I am talking about Phillip Gourevitch, a New Yorker correspondent.

I began to describe the Congo conflict as an invasion of Congo by Rwanda in which the United States very much cooperated. I was running into resistance both from my colleague, who I shared the story with, and from my editors, who were reading Gourevitch. Gourevitch had not too long before that written a very influential book about the Rwandan genocide. It was very well-received. He had a certain amount of prestige. My editors were saying, 'This kid's view of the war can't be all wrong. There must be something to it.' I just felt this tremendous tension in terms of being able to tell the story as I understood it and as I saw it. I was seeing it in immediate terms on the ground, as a witness in the fullest sense of the word.

Later we became aware of a figure of 3.3 million people who died as a result of that war. I didn't have that figure at my fingertips at that time, but I did have a very real sense that something akin to a reverse genocide was taking place with regard to the floating Hutu refugee populations in the Congo. They were Hutu and we had so completely bought into the argument of good/bad: Tutsi equals good, Hutu equals bad.

We are seeing it right now in Darfur, maybe tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people will die there. These are not criminals. Nobody makes the case that they've done anything wrong. Yet the world doesn't really seem to feel any great sense of urgency in terms of coming to the help of these populations. If that can happen to people not tainted with any crime, [just think] what the attitude would have been toward the Hutus, who in their majority were women and children. I was following these populations around Congo as they were fleeing the assault of Tutsi troops, who were nominally Kabila's troops. It was very difficult to get people to take this seriously. The Darfur people are invisible. These people were worse than invisible. They are not just Africans, but they were African bad guys.

When did you begin writing the book?

I left the continent at the end of my assignment personally traumatized by a lot of this. And I mean really traumatized. I was never diagnosed by a doctor in any medical sense, but I had the great privilege of going to Hawaii for a year of language training and school to study East Asian Affairs. I thought, `I will spend this year and I'll at least write the basics of the book down on paper.' I just couldn't do it.

Thinking about Africa during those months back in Hawaii - the first extended time I was able to spend with my family in two years - was just too difficult for me. It was still too close to me. It took Japan to be able to bring Africa back in some strange way. I got to Japan and after about a year of working there, all of these feelings and memories began to well up in me and I thought, `I have a responsibility to bear witness to the things that I saw and to tell this story that I think no one else was in a position - at least in the western press - to do.'

I began writing one Christmas holiday. I told my family, `I'm to wake up every morning and write from eight until noon. After noon we are on holiday; we'll do whatever we want, but from eight until noon every day I am going to write.' In three weeks, I wrote the first four chapters of the book and sent it off to my agent who then showed it to Knopf and they agreed to publish it on that basis. The rest is, as they say, history.

In one passage from Madeline Albright's book, she writes about an incident that you witnessed, "During a press conference with me in Kinshasa, Kabila exploded in anger when asked why an opposition leader had been detained, his policies, grimly reminiscent of Mobutu's produced economic disaster, had contributed to the widest and perhaps deadliest cross-border war in African history." Based on the way you describe U.S. policy during that time, her account sounds a bit revisionist. What do you think the U.S. government could have done differently during that period when Mobutu was clearly on the way out and Kabila was moving towards Kinshasa?

At several moments in this long, drawn-out crisis there were things the United States could have done. I would start before the Kabila war actually began. My essential view is that Washington's long-standing attitude towards Africa is we should maintain relations with the continent as cheaply as possible. If anything happens in a country that's a former French colony, emphasize French responsibility and as long as the French aren't doing anything too outrageous, back them diplomatically. If anything happens in another part of the continent, try to ignore it. If it becomes impossible to ignore, then try to get the United Nations to take care of it. If the United Nations becomes overwhelmed by it, try to get NGOs involved.

Only if all of these things become insufficient and the news media accords a certain prominence to whatever the crisis is, then do we become involved. This is where the role of the journalist is so important, because if you understand that, then it gives a new meaning to the sense of what your responsibility is as a reporter. Not to simply take your direction from what the government, the UN or the NGOs, for that matter, are saying what is happening on the ground, but you are an agent. You are an actor. You are in a position to actually force things to happen.

I didn't set out every day thinking I am going to make this or that happen, but the fact is that when you bring information to the public, particularly for a newspaper like mine which really sets the agenda in a very clear way for so much of the rest of the media, by being ahead of the curve in terms of reporting information, you are affecting the agenda.

The United States could have - had it not had this cheap attitude towards Africa - worked prior to the war to help disarm the Hutu refugees who were in the border area between Congo and Rwanda. That would have been a messy, difficult process but nobody really tried it. The UN tried it in their own very sort of lackadaisical way. Had "Africa on the cheap" not been the prevailing mentality, it would not have been impossible to disarm those Hutus. That was the immediate cause of the conflict.

That didn't happen, so now we have a conflict. I witnessed Canada and then France try to bring this matter to the UN Security Council and the United States blocked it, told them, `If you informally introduce a vote on this cross-border trouble, we will veto.' This was an extraordinary situation. The Rwandan army was shelling UN refugee camps with mortars, right there on the border between Congo and Rwanda and the United States was saying, 'We will not let you introduce a resolution in the Security Council'. That was a second moment when we could have done something very, very real, when it wasn't too late to at least contain the disaster, maybe even avert the disaster.

The next critical one came months later at the end of Kabila's war, when it was clear that he was going to be able to take Kinshasa. You had a civilian opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, in Kinshasa who had a strong claim to some degree of democratic representitivity. He had won election in a national conference and Mobutu had, through very dubious procedures, managed to sideline him. He was clearly a very broadly popular figure who had consistently maintained the language of democracy.

The United States deliberately and openly chose not to back him, and not only not to back him directly, but not even to talk about him as if he should be part of the solution. It bet on Kabila and got behind Kabila with the idea that we want close relations with the person who's going to be in charge and we think this guy has the gun power. We are going to get behind him. It doesn't matter what the concequences are.

If you have any broad view of modern African history, you come to understand very quickly that seizing power by the gun leads more often than not to more trouble than it resolves. Never mind the United States' historic attachment to the virtues of democracy and our long rhetorical tradition in that regard. We got behind Kabila with both boots and we stuck with him.

She said in that press conference that they regard, and I quote her in my book, "Kabila as part of this new generation of African leaders who give so much hope to the continent." You can't have it both ways. There's no hint of that in what she is saying in retrospect and I think it's dishonest. I thought she was dishonest then and I think it's even more dishonest for her to say that now.

Do you think the United States' position on the Congo was an isolated case?

It's not an isolated case. I think that's pretty clear. I think it flows from a problem of low regard for Africans. I think that there's a feeling in the very elitist diplomatic tradition of our State Department and our foreign policy establishment more broadly that Africans are not quite like the rest of the world, that they are not really ready for a lot of stuff. This term `ready' is thrown around sometimes, that Africans are not ready for democracy, that it's better simply to find somebody that we can work with. `Work with' means a lot of things, but it doesn't mean democracy. It has never meant democracy.

Look at the choices that Clinton made in terms of his renaissance leaders which is just an offensive term. They are all people who came to power by the gun. All of them! And none of them, not a single one of them even to this date pursues any serious intentions towards democracy. All of them are excuse makers about democracy. ' It's really a nice idea but doesn't work for us,' or `We're not ready for it in our country.' I think it flows from - and I don't use the term racist lightly - but just a low regard for Africans, and also this feeling of relationships of policy on the cheap. If you have your man, you don't need to have broad institutional relationships. You simply work through your man. That's cheap. They don't want to have to invest diplomatic and political energy.

Can you point to another example of where this has happened?

When Ivory Coast was falling apart three or four years ago, the United States pretended this was a French problem [and] showed no interest. Anyone who knows anything about West Africa know that Ivory Coast is the aorta of the region economically. Everything for hundreds of miles in each direction depends on what's happening in Ivory Coast. It's not just a matter of this little country that we never really had terribly vigorous relationships with. It is the matter of the fortunes and fate of an entire sub-region. We just pretended like we didn't see anything. Had we not had this `policy on the cheap' pattern still in force, we could have gotten politically involved there.

The problem was a political problem at heart. When countries begin to unravel in other parts of the world, we engage them politically [and] intensely. We don't just have the ambassador go to the foreign ministry and deliver a message. We send envoys, and when the envoys don't suffice, we send more envoys. We invite people to Washington to talk. We bring them to Camp David. We engage them politically because we recognize that it's a political problem. We don't have that energy when it comes to Africa. This is a matter of our own great irresponsibility toward the continent and part of the reason why recent history in that part of the world has been so tragic.

How did this play out in Liberia during the time you were watching?

My time in Liberia is almost as long as my time with Africa News. I was in Liberia very early in my days as a freelance journalist in 1985. Liberia had a very interesting civil society back then. It was a country that had serious problems, but it had a fairly high literacy rate. It had people who had spent a lot of time in the United States and not just Americo-Liberians.

It had serious advocates of democracy and we were not on their side. Samuel Doe was our man. Samuel Doe rigged an election. He had Jackson Doe beaten physically and threatened with death. You can't go back and prove this but I believe firmly [Jackson Doe] would have won a fair election handily over Samuel Doe. We had our Assistant Secretary of State at the time, Chester Crocker, testify on Capitol Hill that this [election] was an advance for democracy in Africa. We just have tended to be on the wrong side time and time again where Africa's concerned, and absent when we need to be present.

How do you choose what to write about? What stories do U.S. news organizations want?

I've never had anyone tell me when I was going out on an assignment what the story is or what we want. I've never had editors say to me, `This is the story we want or this is the kind of news we want you to send this.' The reporter goes out with the baggage of his own culture and the baggage of his own cultural perspective on the region that he's covering. Everyone has their own different degree of openness to new experience and that's really an important factor in this. No one tells you write this, write that, but you have a sense of what the traffic will bear. It's based reading on your own publication [and] the gut feeling you get with your relationship with your editors.

I say all this to suggest that it's not a foregone conclusion that one simply goes out and writes famine and disaster stories all the time. It doesn't need to be that way. First of all, to be fair to my profession, news, in terms of the way we think of it in this country anyway, tends to be negative. You don't see stories about `All the mail was delivered on time today in Peoria' and `No people were bitten by dogs today in Des Moines.' That's not front-page news, that's not even A-7 news. Nobody writes that. The news tends to be negative. News tends to be about problems. That's the starting energy behind all of this.

Then you get the person, who goes out and often will think in career terms. `How do I get the highest visibility within my newspaper?' Go out and find the biggest problems you can and give it the sharpest coverage that you can. That's a very easy path, especially in Africa, where there's so many problems. I think that's what's happening. It is not a question of orientation in an explicit sense from above, `Go out and do this,' certainly not in my experience.

Are you hopeful about the African Union? Do you think it's working?

As far as Nepad and the African Union and things like that, I maintain that Africa's problems date in a very really sense to the imperial interruption of African political development. You had proto-states in many parts of Africa that were in the process of formation of nations in the modern nation-state sense of the world. The slave trade, and later the imperial period, when Europeans penetrated the continent, and then divided it up, and administered it but only fairly briefly, interrupted this process.

I am not some wide-eyed guy who wants to paint a picture of paradise in Africa before the white man arrived. But this is the same process that any other nation-state in any other part of the world had to undergo. Through a messy and bloody process, states congealed and traditions and custom become formalized in a body of law and you end up with nations. This was happening in Africa, in some places in a very impressive way. This was interrupted for all the reasons that I've just alluded to.

Africa's not going to get back on track, so to speak, because Westerners come with a recipe, [or] because the World Bank or the IMF or UNDP or anyone else tells them, `This is the formula you need to follow. If you do everything just as we say, you're going to end up in a wonderful place.' That's not what's going to happen.

Africa will get on the right track, because of African processes. I count the African Union and Nepad as African processes. You can ridicule them. But my question to the cynics is, `What's the substitute?' Where do you go without these processes? This is an interesting area where outsiders can be of help - not by pretending to tell Africans what to do, but by offering institutional support [and] by offering expertise. But the processes will have to be African, there is just no other way.

I live in China. I lived in Japan before that and I've worked often in Korea. Koreans, Chinese and Japanese ask me about Africa. `What was that like?' I would say, 'It's kind of interesting being in Asia after having been in Africa and watching you guys. You don't seem to get along with each other very well.' They say, 'Yes, but there's a lot of history.' I said, ' Hell, yeah, I understand there's a lot of history, but even in Africa, there's a denser tissue of regional organizations than I can find in a region like this.You guys are rich. You're developed, so to speak, or fast developing. You don't even have functioning institutions that help govern and maintain your relationships.'

For them, it's almost an insult. They can't contest the facts of what I am saying but it's almost a body blow. 'How can you say that the Africans are more advanced than us.' I just start ticking off the institutions. They are just unaware of this, as most Americans would be too. These are the sort of agents that are going to matter for Africa's future. I'm not sure that Africa can make it with 53 countries. It's not for me to decide. But there's a huge cost to be paid for having 53 countries. Is that viable? These are questions for Africans to work out. It's only going to happen by networking and regional and continent-wide institution-building. It could happen by war, too. But it is only going to happen because Africans work them out.

How do you think democracy will come to African countries that aren't democratic now?

The countries that are most genuinely democratic right now - Mali and Benin - became democratic by completely sovereign processes. Nobody told them they had to do this. It was from a groundswell of public civic activism. Interestingly, both Mali and Benin are countries with diverse ethnic mixes. They have big divisions in terms of ethnicity and language. And yet, they decided that through sovereign processes that they wanted to be democratic and they've remained democratic and vigorously so.

I don't get caught up in an idea of democracy being a phenomenon of the West. I don't think the West has tried very hard to promote democracy in Africa, but I think it's wrong to think of democracy as something that is being imported from the West. Maybe I am naïve about this, but I think it is a universal ideal.

How important are ethnic and linguistic divisions in Africa today, in your experience?

Ethnicity in Africa is something that's not going to go away, certainly not in the near term. I think that a few things are needed. As African countries become more affluent and they build assets, I think that will help overcome this idea of sort of grudging suspicion and hatred of people who are not exactly the same as you ethnically or linguistically. You come to think that `We do live in an interdependent world or environment where my peace is your peace and vice versa. If you don't have peace, I'm not going to have peace. If your house burns, my house burns.' That is one thing that has to develop.

Another thing that has to develop is good leadership. Africa needs leaders who are willing to be bold and imaginative about the question of ethnicity, not treat it as something to be afraid of or as an excuse to remain undemocratic. Do you simply wait for a wise leader though? That's not going to work. It won't work often enough. There has to be a consensus among Africans.

In Mali, this happened. It is very much part of the democratic experience in some of these countries where democracy works. People understood that they won't get anywhere by pursuing petty disputes among themselves. How do you get there? I don't know. There is not a pill you can take and wake up not thinking in these terms.

You're very critical of the Clinton administration in this book. What do you think of the first four years of the Bush administration?

On a rhetorical level and at least superficially, in policy terms, I think [the Bush administration] has done some interesting things [and] had some interesting positions on Africa. There are two things that potentially could be very helpful for Africa. One is engaging the continent in business terms, trying to develop business with Africa and beginning, at least, to discuss more favorable terms of trade with Africa, which is vitally needed. Potentially, this is good. I don't trust the Bush administration to implement this vigorously and the early signs are not positive.

The other thing is their Aids initiative, which, potentially, is a wonderful thing. But, again, the early signs are not positive and I don't trust them to implement it well. My sense is that they're robbing the cupboard to fund what they're funding. They're not even funding it to the level they said they would, but the money that they're funding it with seems to be coming from existing monies earmarked for Africa, so there's no real new generousity involved.

The other thing I'd say about the Bush administration that troubles me most, and this also affects how I see the business initiatives, is the obsession with petroleum that the Bush people have struck upon. This began under Clinton. Every five [or] six months there was some big senior official going to Angola because Angola is a real comer in the world oil trade and produces very low-content sulpher fuel, which is ideal for gasoline production.

We have essentially decided that Africa is a place that we can invest heavily in oil production, that presents little of the geopolitical risk of the Middle East. Much of the oil is offshore oil, which - from the perspective of the big oil companies and from Washington - is even better because it's not like there are local communities that we have to fuss with. It favors a lack of transparency. Nobody sees our people in their country. Nobody has any idea how much oil is being pumped out. It's all happening offshore. Nobody has any idea how much money we're giving to the leaders to get this oil. Nobody makes an issue of it.

Angola is a country of 10-11 million people and it's poor. They've been pumping a lot of oil for a long time already and it's coming onstream in much bigger quantities very fast now. Let's watch. Is Angola going to become a wealthy country in 10 years? My bet is no. And Washington doesn't really care. That's not our preoccupation. We don't want to expend any capital on making sure there's transparency or development. We want this on the cheap. The cheapest way is to get these offshore plots, set up our rigs, put the stuff on ships to American refineries - not even to refine it in Angola - put it on ships to American refineries and get it into our cars as quickly as possible.

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