Can it be? A book about Africa that eschews genre staples like cataclysmic portents and Conradian metaphors. The distinction belongs to New York Times journalist Howard French’s A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. What sets this account apart from so many others is French’s sincere compassion, or more to the point, his sense of solidarity with those who are suffering under some of the most appalling conditions in the world.
Unlike many Western reporters who cover the continent, French’s journalistic career was not his ticket to Africa. As an African-American growing up in Washington D.C., in the 1960s, French became interested in Africa because of his parents’ insistence that he learn about black history. He moved with his family to Ivory Coast when his father, a doctor, began running a regional healthcare program for the World Health Organization in Abidjan. French would later spend six years in Abidjan as a translator and a university lecturer before joining the press. Africa was not a way station for French; it was a place he had made home.
Feeling at home in both Africa and the West, French is uniquely suited to his task, which he describes as a “chronicle of the calamitous continuum in the encounter between Africa and the West.” On this continuum, we find the US-backed coup that killed Congo’s nascent democratic experiment in 1960 and installed the cleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko; US support for Liberia’s ghastly dictator Samuel Doe; and Western inaction during the Rwandan genocide. French is also critical of Western-controlled financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Instead of forgiving debt run up by Western-backed dictators — many of whom scandalously pilfered vast sums from government coffers to enrich their own Swiss bank accounts — the IMF preaches austerity and the panacea of free trade to financially strapped African countries.
Sadly, even today the West has not shown much willingness to change its approach to Africa. The US, in particular, remains attracted to “Strong Men” like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and Congo’s late president Laurent Kabila (who was succeeded by his son Joseph in 2001). As French rightly observes, US foreign policy toward Africa has been “morally bankrupt,” bereft of concern for Africans’ democratic aspirations and all too narrowly focused on the U.S.’s own strategic and economic interests. The U.S.’s role in the Congo’s descent into chaos in the late 1990s is emblematic of its history in the continent. After almost forty years of backing the shamelessly venal regime of Mobutu, the US, wise to the winds of change, switched horses, throwing its support behind Kabila, whose rebel forces committed massive human rights violations during Congo’s civil war.
French’s account of the origins of this war, which has destabilized central Africa and claimed an estimated 3 million lives, is one of the most comprehensive and lucid I have read. The conflict, which drew in six African countries, is considered the continent’s First World War. While the Western media readily believed the story that war had broken out because an obscure ethnic group was rebelling in eastern Congo, the war was, in truth, a Tutsi invasion from Rwanda, as French clearly points out. In 1997, Mobutu’s health and regime began to falter, weakening his control over the sprawling, fractious country that is Congo. The Tutsi-led government of Rwanda, intent on avenging the genocide committed by Hutu extremists in 1994, had recruited Laurent Kabila to lead the push against Mobutu.
After Paul Kagame and his Tutsi army gained control of Rwanda, Hutus were forced to flee to United Nations refugee camps located on the border with Congo. Hutu genocidaires were among the refuges sheltered by the UN camps, from where they would launch attacks into Rwanda. By backing Kabila, who had been waging an ineffective guerilla war against Mobutu since the 1960s, Rwanda’s Tutsi army was able to penetrate deep into the Congo to kill Hutu refugees believed to have been involved in the mass murder of Tutsis in Rwanda. As Kabila’s rebels advanced toward Kinshasa, the Tutsi-led Rwandan army followed with its own campaign of slaughter, massacring even Hutu women and children (those least likely to have been involved in the genocide). The mass killings of Hutu refugees in the province of Mbandaka in 1997 provoked international condemnation and calls for Kabila, who had taken over the reins of power in Congo, to allow UN investigators to examine the crime scene. Kabila refused, and was aided in this effort by Washington, who blocked French and Canadian attempts to intervene in the Security Council.
French attributes Washington’s support for Kabila to guilt over its inaction during the Rwandan genocide. “With a new strategic vision wheeling into position in Washington — one based on fighting Islamic radicalism in Sudan, securing the lion’s share of Angola’s petroleum reserves for American oil companies and atoning for its criminal negligence during the Rwandan genocide — the White House anointing of Kabila as one of its newly designated group of African renaissance leaders was an act of expiation meant to soothe Tutsi-led Rwanda.”
The Rwandan army’s massacre of Hutu refugees went unreported for the most part in Western media, a silence that French argues was rooted in the West’s desire for neat “good/bad guy dichotomies:” “From start to finish this war had been nothing less than a Tutsi invasion from Rwanda. The most powerful factor behind our self-perception was an entirely natural sympathy for the Tutsi following the horrors of the Rwandan genocide.” Many simply thought Hutus were getting their just desserts. Influential journalists like The New Yorker‘s Philip Gourevitch were instrumental in downplaying concerns about Kabila and the treatment of Hutu refugees by the Rwandan army.
French also faults the international media for what he describes as its “insatiable market in images of horror.” Whether it’s an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Congo or the site of child soldiers in Liberia, journalists often seek to shock rather than inform. He argues that many Western journalists are poorly versed in the history of the African countries they cover, making them susceptible to sensational reporting. The idea of the Africa reporter as a “fireman” running after the latest scene of carnage is utterly repellent to French. It was ironic, then, that he spent most of his tenure as the Times‘ man in Africa covering Charles Taylor’s murderous rise to power in Liberia, the ruthless regime of Nigeria’s Sani Abacha, and Kabila’s bloody march across Congo. Events had overwhelmed him. “In short, I became something of a glorified fireman, despite my best intentions,” he writes toward the end of the book. This disappointment, coupled with the Malaria he contracts while reporting from Congo, leads him to conclude that he had to leave Africa because it was starting to kill him. We can only hope that he will give Africa a second chance. We know that much of the world seems to have given up on it already.