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Africa: Chewed Up And Spat Out
Africa: Chewed Up And Spat Out
The East African (Nairobi)
March 20, 2007
Posted to the web March 20, 2007
Benon Herbet Oluka
NEW YORK TIMES Journalist Howard French first stepped on African soil in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, in January 1980, after graduating from College in the US.
In his almost childlike eagerness to "find myself while plotting my next moves in life," the African-American was soon traversing some of the most remote West African countryside by road "to see the continent from the ground, much as any ordinary African would."
After his initial expedition, which started with a visit to rural Mali, which he says shaped his understanding of the African heritage, French fell passionately and intimately in love with Africa, a continent he confesses has seduced him.
He mastered a number of local languages, married a local woman - who bore him two sons - and worked in Africa, mostly as a journalist, for nearly two decades.
Then he wrote A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.
Engaging in its insight into the harrowing events that unfolded in Nigeria under Sani Abacha, depressing in its description of Liberia during the war that ended with Charles Taylor taking power, dramatic in its account of the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko, and generally comprehensive in the coverage of events that shaped West Africa's political landscape in the 1980s through to the 1990s, the book represents what he calls "a quarter century-sized slice of history."
Indeed, French's reporting career, which started in 1986 and culminated in his eventual posting in 1994 as the New York Times bureau chief for West Africa - a portfolio whose docket involved covering at least 10 of Africa's 53 countries - afforded him the enviable privilege of always being able to travel from his work station in Abidjan to wherever a big news story broke in the region.
French explains in the introduction that his aim is "to help remind those who yearn to know and understand the continent better, and Africans themselves, of the continent's many cultural strengths," because, he adds, "therein lies a genuine source of hope for Africa's nearly 800 million people and for the Africans of the future."
FRENCH'S BOOK CRITICALLY analyses the relationship between the Western world and Africa in a way seldom done before, one which should make the West (if indeed it has any remorse about its actions in Africa) kick itself for having been responsible directly or indirectly for the vast majority of the crises that have crippled the continent right from the time the first Europeans stepped on African soil.
Perhaps nowhere is French's exasperation with Western countries better summarised than when he writes that, "Africa is the stage of mankind's greatest tragedies, and yet we [the West] remain largely inured to them, all but blind to the deprivation and suffering of one ninth of humanity. We awaken to the place mostly in fits of coarse self-interest and outright greed. Once upon a time, these brief awakenings involved a need for rubber or cotton, gold or diamond, not to mention the millions of slaves, branded and ferried like cattle across the Atlantic, whose contributions to the wealth of Europe and its coveted New World are scarcely acknowledged.
"Today," he adds, "the pickings are as 'exotic' as ever, but have been updated to meet the needs of our modern era. Africa interests us for its offshore oil reserves, which are seen as an alternative to supplies from the explosive and difficult-to-control Middle East, or for rare minerals like coltan, which power our cellular phones and PlayStations. There is one new twist on our selfishness, however - an interest in Africa driven by fear of Aids and Ebola and emigrants."
INCIDENTS SUBSTANTIATING the West'scold-blooded interest in Africa are captured in almost each of the book's 11 chapters: From the West's reluctance to offer any support to victims of the Liberian war (best illustrated by the fact that in 1996 the United Nations was spending $25 million per week on peacekeeping in Bosnia, which is $4 million more than it spent in Liberia in the entire year), through their decision not to intervene during the Rwanda genocide, right to the resolution not to impose sanctions on the Abacha regime after the hanging of human-rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa.
"After the 'Black Hawk Down' debacle in Somalia in 1993," French writes, "the United States had resolved that helping Africa was not worth another American life. In fact, for all their gilded rhetoric about democracy and human rights, the actions of the US, France and Britain had long shown a pronounced preference for the devils they knew well in Africa - Abacha, Mobutu, the apartheid system in South Africa - over the untidiness of their democratic opponents."
The overriding argument in the book is that Western countries have continued to bank on African 'strongmen' to promote their influence on the continent because, like French President Jacques Chirac once said, the West believes that Africans "aren't ready for democracy" just yet.
A Continent for the Taking does not, however, lay all the blame for Africa's problems solely at the door of the West; it apportions part of the blame to African political and military leaders who sold their country's souls to the West in exchange for the entrenchment of their personal hegemony.
The most recent examples are President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, both soldiers-turned-politicians who fought their way to power. The duo, French says, was taken on by the US to replace Mobutu (their former ally in the region) under the guise that it was "promoting an 'African renaissance' under a generation of new leaders."
"Uganda was an eager partner in the American project to support anti-government rebels in its huge neighbour, Sudan, which was run by a dreadful group of Islamic fundamentalists," French explains. "Just as it had done with Mobutu, beginning in the 1960s when the young colonel was asked to fight a covert war on our behalf in Angola, Washington was beginning to entrust the new renaissance gang with the security of a vast swathe of the continent.
While Museveni walked the beat in Southern Sudan, Rwanda was given the lead - and a free hand - in sorting out the nasty Hutu problem in Zaire."
For their efforts to promote American interests, the two leaders were rewarded generously by the US. President Museveni, whom French calls "Washington's favourite new star" after the demise of old dictators like Mobutu, was taking all the plaudits for making Uganda "a beacon of economic promise for the continent," according to the World Bank, IMF and other Western-backed finance lending institutions, and consequently receiving large amounts of aid from the West.
WITH SUCH STAR RATings already secured, Uganda's leader of the past 20 years would get a lot of backing from the US and exploit it to further his own personal agenda that, one can argue, culminated in his recent amendment of the Ugandan Constitution to allow him to run for the presidency after the end of his two constitutional terms.
Rwanda's Kagame similarly receive star treatment from the US for doing its bidding; his troops received training and other forms of logistical support, his country received more aid from the West; it was more like penance for America's failure to intervene during the genocide, while the Kagame was personally receiving the West's favour as one of the new breed of African leaders.
Yet, such was the eagerness of the US to embrace any leader who toed their line that they were jumping into bed with Kabila almost as soon as he had got rid of Mobutu. It was a ploy that some African politicians could read through. Joseph Kapika, a senior aide to former Congolese prime minister Etienne Tshisekedi, who is quoted in the book, told the author, "It is America that has decided that Paul Kagame is a great leader, and that Yoweri Museveni is a great leader. And now they want us to consider Kabila as a great leader."
It is such fundamental questions about all the political players in Africa that A Continent for the Taking attempts to raise in the better part of its analysis of Africa's dilemma. But more important, it also attempts to provide lessons for the people of Africa, as well as its leaders who are conveniently in bed with the West; that Western countries will chew the juice out of you like sugarcane, and when you are not deemed sweet enough, you will eventually be spat out.
As the writer notes at one point, "Museveni was merely the latest in a long string of charismatic strongmen with whom the West had disastrously waltzed. The political bloodline ran through Mobutu, dictator Idi Amin Dada, Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, Liberia's semi-literate Master-Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe and the Angolan terrorist-cum-guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, whom Ronald Reagan once toasted as Africa's Abraham Lincoln.
Each of them was disowned only after the situation in his country had gotten frighteningly messy, or when America's interests had otherwise shifted."
For Uganda more than any other country in the region, A Continent for the Taking seems to provide an insight into the future of the country, which in the past few months has seen the government openly defy court orders to release on bail suspected People's Redemption Army (PRA) rebels, break up opposition political rallies and - according to recent reports - generally abuse the rights of its citizens with impunity.
All the while, the US and other Western powers remain silent. Maybe it is because, in sending the largest contingent of troops to Somalia on a peacekeeping mission, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is once again doing Uncle Sam's bidding.
Copyright © 2007 The East African.
"Africa for the Africans at Home and Abroad!"-Marcus Garvey
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