The Lost Continent

A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa
By Howard W. French • Knopf • 280 pages • $25.00

The appointments of Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as the president's national-security adviser raised hopes in some quarters that the United States would begin to take more serious interest in Africa and its problems. But those hopes have been largely dashed. The government has failed to provide adequate funds for the campaign against AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean on which the president pledged to spend $15 billion over five years. And the administration has done nothing to reverse the cynical indifference of U.S. policy toward Africa's corrupt governments.

In A Continent for the Taking, Howard French, a former New York Times West Africa bureau chief, gives us the context necessary to understand Africa's current problems and the deeper reasons for the indifference -- and complicity -- of European governments and the United States. Recounting his travels through Nigeria, Congo, Liberia, and Mali, French weaves the history of Western machinations in Africa into the sordid series of events that befell the region in the mid-1990s to try to make sense of its current sorry state.

For French, who is African American, reporting on Africa became a personal quest to understand what has happened to the fabled continent of his ancestors. He describes how over four years he traveled to tiny backwater villages to see the impact of the gruesome Ebola epidemic, braved checkpoints guarded by drug-addicted child soldiers in Liberia, and tracked the final days of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. On a more upbeat note, he cheers one of Africa's few successful democratic transitions in Mali.

The more French saw, however, the angrier he became, whether at American news organizations that only cover Africa when its current tragedy outdoes its last horror, at Europeans for their willful amnesia about their historical role, or at the U.S. government for embracing the region's worst dictators at the expense of promising reformers who offer real opportunities for democracy. Although he couldn't allow his fury to color his reporting for the Times, French has no qualms about letting it spill all over the pages of his book. That lends this broad-ranging work a passionate quality, but while French's judgments are generally on target, they're often unnecessary. These facts speak for themselves.

Consider Nigeria. When French first landed there in 1994, the country was in chaos. While other parts of Africa were beginning to "go democratic," the murderous General Sani Abacha had seized power, annulled Nigeria's presidential elections, and imprisoned the winner. A foreigner arriving unaccompanied in Lagos was in serious jeopardy of kidnapping and murder, and life had so hardened the locals, according to French, that when a car hit a pedestrian on the highway, no one stopped to help. "I saw for myself," writes French, "the remains of a man run over so many times he had been reduced to the thickness and consistency of wallpaper."

Nigeria's problems stem directly from its history. Britain created the country in 1914 from an amalgam of unrelated tribes and provinces composed of some 250 different ethnic groups. The British encouraged these divisions, which made it easier for them to maintain power. But ever since Nigeria's independence in 1960, tensions between the dominant regional groups have simmered and served as a convenient excuse for national leaders' militarism and repression.

Nigeria's vast oil reserves have increased the opportunities and incentives for government corruption. And because the United States and Europe increasingly rely on that oil, they're reluctant to object to stolen elections. "Seriously chastising Abacha for aborting Africa's biggest experiment with democracy was never seriously considered," French writes.

Then there are the Western oil companies, which contract with the government and provide the bulk of its revenues. To understand the companies' impact, French traveled to the swamps of the oil-rich Niger Delta, where he found little to show for the billions of dollars worth of crude that has been sucked out of the ground. While huge gas flares have burned off local vegetation, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, which dominates local oil production, says it has met its obligations to the community because it has built a few schools. French isn't convinced. "It is difficult to say with precision what responsibility for the welfare of the local people a company like Shell should bear when it interlopes and extracts billions of dollars worth of oil, fully aware that virtually none of it is being locally reinvested by the government," he writes. But "they must also acknowledge the fact that extraction without local development equally amounts to theft."

The story in Zaire is even more gruesome. Appropriated by Belgium in the mid-1880s, the region then known as Congo was rich with ivory, hardwood, rubber, and copper. The Belgians governed with striking brutality, making farming a crime, for example, wherever they needed men to cultivate rubber (those that dared to cultivate the land instead had their hands chopped off). After Belgian rule ended in 1960, the Congolese elected a popular leader, Patrice Lumumba, but the United States, fearful of his communist leanings, helped oust him in a coup, paving the way for the rise of the eccentric dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Despite Congo's vast reserves of diamonds and copper and the assistance of U.S.–financed power projects, Mobutu ran the country into the ground.

When French arrived in Zaire in 1996, Mobutu was facing the most serious challenge of his political career. In Rwanda, hatred between Hutus and Tutsis aroused under Belgian rule had led to the genocidal massacre of 800,000 two years earlier, and its aftermath was spilling over the border. Hutu refugees living in United Nations–run camps in Zaire were rearming for a counterassault against Rwanda's new Tutsi government when Rwandan-backed forces suddenly emerged in Zaire to extinguish them. The United States, embarrassed by its failure to intervene in the slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda, denied what was happening. Western journalists, meanwhile, were so ignorant of Africa generally that they didn't even understand who was fighting whom. "Anywhere else in the world we would have been judged incompetent," writes French, in one of his many condemnations of the Western press, "but in Africa being able to get somewhere quickly and write colorful stories was qualification enough."

Not until months into the conflict did journalists, the United Nations, and the United States admit that tens of thousands of Hutus were being slaughtered in Zaire. But by then it was clear that Mobutu, "America's longtime favorite African dictator," was losing to the rebels, led by the Rwandan-backed Laurent Kabila, who was situating himself to seize power. At this point the United States, despite the emergence of a promising reformist opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, cynically aligned itself with the shadowy Kabila, who took over the country soon thereafter.

When then–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made her second official visit to Africa in 1997, she praised the continent's newest leaders for "bringing a spirit of hope and accomplishment to their countries." French, disgusted, declined an invitation to accompany her. "We had come full circle, renouncing an old guard of 'Big Men' only to embrace a brand-new crop of them. The renaissance leaders Albright was visiting were Africa's new soldier princes, men who had come to power not through the ballot box but at gunpoint." The same strategy had led the United States to support the murderous President Samuel Doe in Liberia, the authoritarian Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and the brutal anti-communist guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi in Angola.

How, French wonders, can Western governments so easily rationalize the ruinous role they've played in Africa? "The answer lies partly in the fact that for Europeans, Africa has always been an irresistible 'other,'" writes French. "Like the indelible taint of original sin, the problem with Africa in the minds of Westerners is that it is Africa."

Today, the United States is only strengthening its ties to such countries as Angola, despite well-documented official corruption. As we purchase increasing amounts of African oil, we have the same reasons for doing business with despotic governments that we have long had in the Middle East. Of course, President Bush has announced that we will no longer accept tyranny and instead insist on democracy for Middle Eastern governments. But Africa is apparently different. It always has been.