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OT: Africa's Lost Decades - A Reporter's Lament

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  • brent wodehouse
    Africa s Lost Decades - A Reporter s Lament allAfrica.com BOOK REVIEW April 23, 2004 Posted to the web April 23, 2004 By Akwe Amosu Washington, DC [A Continent
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      Africa's Lost Decades - A Reporter's Lament

      allAfrica.com

      BOOK REVIEW

      April 23, 2004

      Posted to the web April 23, 2004

      By Akwe Amosu
      Washington, DC

      [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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