- Witnessing Africa’s Woes and Hopes
A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. By Howard W. French. Knopf, 2004. 304 pp.
In contemporary Africa, hope and tragedy often seem strangely to coincide. The unfolding tragedy in the western Sudanese province of Darfur—whether called genocide or ethnic cleansing on a horrific scale—came to widespread world attention just as a negotiated settlement of Sudan's twenty-year-old north-south civil war seemed imminent. Ten years ago this past April, the Rwandan genocide—perhaps history's most intense such slaughter, in which nearly a million people were murdered in only a few months—began just weeks before the South African elections that heralded the end of apartheid.
In the afterglow of apartheid's abolition, who would have predicted that the new South African government would vituperate and procrastinate while HIV/AIDS cut a grim swath through its newly liberated people? Or that Ethiopia and its former province Eritrea would go to war against each other and lose tens of thousands of young people a mere seven years after they had worked together to oust the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam? Zaire likewise had seen the removal in 1997 of the 32-year-old despotism of Mobutu Sese Seko, only to plunge into unceasing strife that has been responsible for the death of more than three million people. And let us not forget that Zimbabwe, now sadly reduced to penury and disorder by the tyrannical rule of Robert Mugabe, was once a byword for valiant struggle on behalf of dignity, freedom, and the promise of majority rule. Why is it that whenever beleaguered African peoples dare to think things are looking up, their own horsemen of the Apocalypse so often sweep down and crush their hopes? [End Page 173]
Students of the continent have striven mightily to develop an intellectual framework that can explain the wide diversity of outcomes since the first stirrings of political opening in 1989. Journalists too have struggled with this patchwork of varying results. With several years of African experience before he became a New York Times correspondent in 1994, Howard W. French embarked on "an intensely personal quest" to understand why the continent had "settled into a spiral of bloody traumas and chronic disorder."
The result is a book that is indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the uncertain course of democratization efforts in Africa, the intractability of corruption, and the catastrophic consequences of war, poverty, and disease. The key protagonists include: Westerners, beginning with the early explorers, slavers, imperialists, missionaries, and colonizers; the indigenous rulers and political elites of today's Africa, whose predatory behavior sometimes exceeds that of their European predecessors; the common people, who stitch together a brute existence against immeasurable odds; and a determined journalist taking risks that must have made him, on occasion, question his own sanity.
French ably and unobtrusively sketches the context of the events that he relates. In discussing Liberia, for instance, he depicts a small republic—long ruled by descendants of freed slaves from the United States and the Caribbean—that reeled first under the brutal rule of the U.S.-financed, barely literate Sergeant Samuel Doe, then under seven years of chaotic strife after Doe's regime ended in 1990, and still later under the savagery of the warlord and conman Charles Taylor until his forcible exile to Nigeria in 2003. French paints the harrowing conditions that Liberians endured, and is unsparing about the callous refusal of U.S. officials to take firm action to stop the devastation of a country with such deep U.S. ties. When he meets a triumphant Charles Taylor in 1997,French casts off his journalistic cloak to remonstrate: "Isn't it outrageous for someone who has drugged small boys, given them guns, and trained them to kill to call this God's war? . . . How dare you call the destruction of your country in this manner and the killing of two hundred thousand people God's war?" One wishes that more of Africa's criminal despoilers were similarly confronted at home and abroad.
French's chapters on the country once known as the Belgian...