nthposition online magazine

Nobody's fault

by Ron Singer

[ places - july 10 ]

There exists a media stereotype of Africa as the continent of innocent populaces and terrible rulers. This stereotype hearkens back to the Noble Savage and other icons of historical racism. My own memories of Nigeria, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1960s, do not prompt a kindred binocular vision, a contrast between then and now. Certainly, that Tom-Brown era so soon after Independence (1960) has come to seem an optimistic, often happy time. Yet poverty, suffering and strife were already endemic, and the politicians were at each others' throats, wheeling and dealing for big slices of the post-colonial pie.

Not only should we avoid generalizing from press images of abjectly miserable victims crushed by heartless kleptocrats. We should also try not to let news items about mosquito nets and concerts for Darfur warm our liberal hearts and put our minds to sleep. Americans and Europeans who take the trouble to learn some basic facts about Africa have exciting roles to play in moving its postcolonial history, which, by historical standards, is still very short. Even those not in a position to join the growing numbers of mostly young people working for NGOs across the continent can become advocates and supporters of useful programs, such as local small-business initiatives (micro-lending) and measures that ameliorate suffering by, for instance, providing clean water and, yes, mosquito nets. Informed advocacy can also steer our own governments' policy makers in useful directions.

Our preconceptions about Africa, stemming from our political perspectives and from the big news stories, are often wrong. A George W Bush-hater, I was brought up short at a panel discussion on Liberia by Rev Samuel R Enders, Executive Director, Liberian Dream Academy, who informed the audience that in Liberia, Bush is a hero, the world leader who finally chased the murderous military ruler Charles Taylor into exile.

Or consider Darfur. Howard W French, former West African Bureau Chief of The New York Times, recently reviewed Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War On Terror, by Mahmood Mamdani, a scholar at Columbia University. Without excusing the Sudanese government's role in creating two-and-a-half million refugees from this region, Mamdani's book also asks readers to consider less-known aspects of the well-known conflict. These include geographical change, such as desertification; colonial policies that laid the ground for, then sparked, conflict among ethnic groups; the misconception, which feeds into current stereotypes about terrorism, that Darfur is an Arab-African conflict; and the inconsistencies and injustices of the International Criminal Court, which recently labeled Sudanese President Bashir a war criminal, but has ignored more blatant, clear-cut cases of genocide, such as in Professor Mamdani's native Uganda, ruled for the last 23 years by a new breed of Big Man, and an American friend, Yoweri Mouseveni. All these complicating factors should pull the fair-minded reader toward a more nuanced view of Darfur. As French's review concludes:
Mr Mamdani's constant refrain is that ... virtuous indignation ... about Darfur is no substitute for greater understanding, without which outsiders have little hope of achieving real good in Africa's shattered lands.


Even a passing knowledge of modern-day Africa should include, for instance, an awareness of the huge range of accomplishment among its leaders, from notable successes, to relative successes, relative failures, and all the way down to the basket cases, the heads of failed states. Among those at the top of the table are Nelson Mandela and, less known, the capable and honest presidents of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and of Ghana, John Atta-Mills, and his very similar predecessor, John Kufuor. At the bottom since independence have been, for example, the notorious Idi Amin and the self-styled Emperor Bokassa, a ruler of the Central African Republic who wrecked his country and was convicted of ordering the massacre of 100 schoolchildren (but cleared of rumors that he had eaten some). The middle ranks are crowded. Perhaps, Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, a plausible, tyrannical technocrat, belongs there. And where do you put Rwanda's Paul Kagame, who has gone from leading murderous military incursions into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR), to leading his country back from its own hideous genocide and far along the road to economic reconstruction and ethnic reconciliation? (More on these last two later.)


A nuanced view of the continent can also benefit from a contrast of extremes, for the causes of extreme success and failure are potential blueprints for progress. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Botswana, similar in one notable respect - vast mineral wealth - but as different as imaginable with regard to the interlocking issues of leadership, ethnicity, corruption, and economic development.

The Congolese Big Man in question was, like many, a fascinating figure. This colossus bestrode his vast nation (905,000 square miles) for 32 years (1965-1997). Like his Roman prototype, Mobutu (1930-97) was a soldier who marched to the rescue during an acute crisis in his nation's history, then refashioned that nation by force of his own titanic will.

In 1965, Mobutu's coup seemed inevitable, for it grew out of a period of chaos that he dubbed la pagaille - the shambles. What made Congolese leadership so weak and thin in 1960, the point of Independence? The centerpiece of the colonial era had been the atrociously exploitative Belgian rule of Leopold II, aka 'The King Incorporated'. * Ideological window dressing for the proto-Fascist colonie belge, popularly dubbed "Bula Matari," or "he who breaks rocks," was provided by the Catholic Church, which had also emphasized primary education to such a degree that in 1960, very few Congolese had any higher education. Ironically, as Mobutu's own powerful state would become more and more dysfunctional, one of the myths which propped it up was that education, tattered but still chugging along, thanks in large part, still, to the Church, provided a glimmer of hope for an otherwise desperate citizenry. This has been one of the most durable myths across post-Independence Africa. The Church had also weakened traditional rule, regarding the chiefs as cultural and religious foes.

Subsequently caught short by the groundswell of mid-20th century nationalist movements, and thinking to 'retain' good will, Belgium acceded to demands for Independence much too fast (1958-60). Not only did this foreign relations ploy fail woefully, but the lack of resistance to Independence meant there was no forging of even temporary unity within the disparate groups that comprised the leadership. Almost immediately, the army mutinied, then collapsed, and Belgian officers, civil servants, scientists, and businessmen all fled.

Within the Independence movement was a very radical element, notably including Patrice Lumumba, a fiery 31-year-old with no international experience, other than having skilfully played off Belgian factions against each other during the Independence push. As soon as he was elected Prime Minister, Lumumba tried this tactic with the US, the USSR and China. The effect was disastrous, in large part because President Eisenhower did not countenance neutrality. Subsequent events are quite well-known. Our covert agencies went after Lumumba, not actively trying to assassinate him, but assisting (as did Belgium) the Katangan secession that rapidly led to his murder (1961). There followed the corrupt dual regime of President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Moise Tshombe, who had led the secession. Under their ineffectual, bickering government, corruption, external threats, and ethnic strife quickly spiraled into chaos, la pagaille. 1965: enter Mobutu, in a virtually unopposed military coup.

In the first years of his reign, Mobutu made Herculean efforts to clean up la pagaille. Almost immediately, he outlawed all political parties: he would be the State, and his party, the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution (MPR), the party. Mobutu was a gifted manipulator, organizing elections in the one-party democracy with great tactical shrewdness, and moving his erstwhile fellow-leaders in and out of office in ways that enhanced his personal power. He took draconian measures to root out corruption - by all but his own minions - and to refashion multiple ethnic identities into a single national identity.

Mobutu was also a master manipulator of the symbols of power. In the afro-centric spirit of the 1960s, the name of the country was changed from Congo to Zaire, which kept the connection with the great river. ('Zaire' comes from the Kikongo nzai, a form of nazdi, or 'river'.) Even his own birth name, Joseph-Desirée Mobutu, was decolonized to "Mobutu Sese Seko," a shortened form of the praise name, "Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga," which roughly means "the all-conquering warrior who triumphs over all obstacles." Which, for a while, he did.

Mobutu's need for afro-creds or, as he called it, "authenticité," was sharp. In the early years, he was widely regarded in the third world as being hand-in-glove with the colonial and neo-colonial forces that continued to loot the country's mineral treasure. Draconian economic reform became a key to authenticité. In 1974, he nationalized the extractive, and related, industries and set in motion vast development schemes. In the process, he reinvented himself from crony capitalist to third-world hero, quickly becoming an eminent, distinctively costumed, ultra-African figure on the world stage. One of many symbolic high points came in 1974, when he hosted "the rumble in the jungle." Another detail illuminates the stagy paternalism of his rule. In his travels around the country, he would carry large amounts of cash, dollops of which he would dispense on the spot for local projects. Thus did the public purse become his own, and thus was his ultimate responsibility for venial, incompetent local administrators blurred. For a while, Mobutu was a national hero, the incarnation of bula matari, but an indigenous incarnation.

Within a decade, however, the regime began to collapse, and by the end, its legacy was a gigantic failed state. Bit by bit, pushed by internal and external forces and by his own hubristic mistakes, Mobutu was forced to undo every major reform. Even under "Zaireanization," there was almost no trickle down: the revenues were used largely to ballast the hegemonic state. In 1977, in the face of gross mismanagement and a catastrophic fall in the world price of copper, he was forced to de-nationalize the industries. Still in the 1970's, and then into the 1980's, he tried to woo back foreign investment, but there were no takers, so the country defaulted on its massive debt. In 1977, humiliatingly, the army could not defend Congolese borders from Angolan incursion without the help of foreign troops. As Mobutu's popularity shrank, party politics crept back in, and in 1991, when the army rioted in Kinshasa, the capital, he was forced to share power. And all the while, as the country grew desperately poor, he grew richer and richer.

By 1997, Mobutu's time was belatedly over. In nudging the kleptocratic, failed leader, who was by then terminally ill, to relinquish power, US Presidential emissary Bill Richardson dispensed with the kid gloves with which everyone had handled the increasingly megalomaniacal dictator for decades:
"...you are living in a dreamland, pal. You've got a bunch of advisors who are not telling you the truth. You are out. Do you want to leave with dignity or as a carcass?"

In Mobutu's defense, the forces with which he grappled were titanic. Congolese history keeps coming back to geography. Not only is the country huge, diverse, and inhospitable to infrastructure, but even its immense wealth has been a source of continuous misery. From slaves, to rubber, through gold, diamonds, copper, and on to the columbite-tantalite, or coltan, an essential mineral in cell phones, the country's blessing of resources has been its curse, implicated in millions of deaths. This is a well-known, tragic African paradox.

A Yoruba proverb suggests the equation of people with money: "mo lowo, mo leniyan, ki lo tun ku ti mi o tii ni?" (I have money, I have people, what else is there that I have not got?) Ever since Leopold ruled the so-called Congo Free State as his personal fiefdom (1885-1908), that proverb could have served as the motto for the pirates who have mercilessly looted the nation. As it had been for Belgium, the motive for the Katangan secession during the First Republic was to grab resources. In the next era, Mobutu wound up with personal wealth estimated at $4 billion. And so it remains today. Katanga and Kasai have 60 per cent of the mineral wealth, and since the 1960s this region has remained one of the two epicenters of chaos, the other being North and South Kivu, in the east, where ethnicity and minerals have brewed their own particularly lethal cocktail.

The DRC is one of Africa's most ethnically diverse and ethnically complex countries. People in the West think of Hutu and Tutsi as Rwandans, and perhaps, if they know more, as Burundians. But, in eastern Congo, the two groups comprise a single entity, the Banyarwanda, who (like the Pygmy) represent a large minority. Within the Banyarwanda, the majority are Hutu, but, as in Rwanda, the Tutsi have been historically dominant. In addition to a large indigenous component, the Banyarwanda include immigrants who have come in several waves. The whole group, cattle-raisers, have long been involved in conflicts, often over land, both internally and with their neighbors. These conflicts have been fueled by shifting laws governing Congolese ethnicity and citizenship.

By the start of Leopold's regime, many Banyarwanda had already been living in the Congo for centuries. In 1960, at Independence, they could vote, but not hold office. Under Mobutu, for a time the group fared better. By the terms of a 1991 law, they became full Congolese citizens, but, as Mobutu's regime collapsed, terrible, simmering ethnic conflict erupted. With the violence that engulfed eastern Congo in the mid-1990s, the citizenship noose was once again tightened. When thousands of Hutu fled from Tutsi-controlled Rwanda in 1994, their refugee camps were placed among already-settled Hutus, blurring "the ethnic calculus of regional politics." * The DRC government supported the Hutu, driving many Tutsi (including Congolese Tutsi) into Rwanda. A law was passed in 1995 revoking Congolese citizenship for all Tutsi. There followed land seizures and other acts of violence against the group, both by local Hutu militias and by the lawless, usually unpaid Congolese army.

In 1996-97, Tutsi forces, some native to the Congo, others invaders from Rwanda, augmented by forces from Uganda and Angola, captured much of the east. In 1996, these fighters attacked still-armed elements among the one million Hutu refugees in UN camps in eastern Congo, from which havens they had been raiding into Rwanda. The Hutus were massacred or themselves chased back into Rwanda. In May 1997, the coalition captured Kinshasa, the capital.

To make the invasion seem a war of liberation, with American approval, Mobutu was replaced by Laurent Kabila, a Congolese revolutionary leader left over from the 1960s, and a Luba from Katanga, rather than a Tutsi. Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Kabila quickly, widely and correctly came to be regarded as the puppet of foreign armies. As soon as he felt secure, however, he boldly tried to kick these armies out. In reaction, Rwanda re-invaded from the east, leading to another round of war, now against Kabila, who found support in Angola, Zimbabwe, and other neighboring countries. The upshot was a stalemate by which Congo essentially became two countries, the east and the rest. Initial carnage was followed by a treaty and elections -and by a new outbreak of war.

In 2001, Kabila was murdered, reportedly by a bodyguard, and succeeded by his son Joseph, who is a client of the US and the EU. In 2004, the law was liberalized again, this time to give citizenship to anyone in the country at the point of Independence (1960), but this meant the continued exclusion of recent refugees. In 2006, a fairly democratic election gave 58 per cent to the party of Joseph Kabila, who is still trying to consolidate a new democratic dictatorship.

The situation in eastern Congo remains bewilderingly complex and horrific. As debate continues in Kinshasa, so does the fighting in North and South Kivu. Government weakness and ongoing legal ambiguity over the status of the Banyarwanda keep the situation volatile. As is so often the case in anarchic war zones, women are the targets of the most heinous atrocities. Both the army and the numerous ethnic militias continue to use rape, mutilation, and murder as means to make people flee their villages, after which minerals can be more conveniently looted.

Since 1995, directly and indirectly from all the fighting, an estimated five million Congolese have died, the large majority in the east. This is the greatest slaughter inflicted on the human race since World War II. Whose fault would you say it is?

Consider, in stark contrast, Botswana. In a sense, this country has led a charmed life. After the Berlin conference of 1884-85 set in motion the scramble for Africa, the British feared that the German colony of South West Africa would join the independent Boers in the Transvaal (part of South Africa) to swallow their smaller, weaker neighbor. So the British formed an alliance with Tswana and Ngwato chiefs in what became the Protectorate of Bechuanaland. This alliance proved a durable marriage of convenience. Tswana and Ngwato lands, and later the whole Protectorate, were successfully shielded, and, through the British South Africa (BSA) Company, Botswana became a lynchpin in the development of British commercial interests across the region. Like other durable marriages, this one involved give-and-take:
... white settlement remained restricted to a few border areas, after an attempt to hand it [the Protectorate] over to the BSA Company was foiled by a delegation of three Tswana kings to London in 1895. The kings, however, had to concede to the company the right to build a railway to Rhodesia through their lands.

Thus, the arrangement was imperfect. Until the 1950s, the Protectorate was, in large measure, a rather stagnant economic appendage of South Africa: Short-lived attempts to reform administration and to initiate mining and agricultural development in the 1930s were hotly disputed by leading Tswana chiefs, on the grounds that they would only enhance colonial control and white settlement.

In the 1950s, an Independence movement formed around a Big Man very different from Mobutu, one of the Ngwato chiefs, Seretse Khama. This movement was widely supported by other, venerable chiefs, including Tswana. A new administrative capital was built at Gaborone, Independence was granted in 1966, and Seretse Khama founded the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and became Prime Minister. When, in 1967, diamonds were discovered, economic dependence on Britain quickly ended, and, under the leadership of Seretse and his successors, the new nation took its place among the polity of progressive nations:
From 1969 onwards Botswana began to play a more significant role in international politics, putting itself forward as a non-racial, liberal democratic alternative to South African apartheid. From 1974 Botswana was, together with Zambia and Tanzania, and joined by Mozambique and Angola, one of the ‘Front Line States' seeking to bring majority rule to Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.

Meanwhile, Botswana resisted economic pressures from the neighboring apartheid regime, until the tide shifted and the huge, erstwhile potentially threatening neighbor was transformed, at last, from a racist police state to a mostly benign democracy, currently focused on solving its own huge internal problems.

Power in Botswana has passed from leader to leader in an orderly fashion. In 1980, Seretse Khama died and was succeeded as President by his deputy since 1965, vice-president Quett (aka Sir Ketumile) Masire. Then, in 1998, Masire retired, and was, in turn, succeeded by his own Vice-President, Festus Mogae. Recently, the main opposition party, the Botswana National Front (BNF), which began to approach parity with the ruling BDP in the elections of 1994, has been split in half by a leadership dispute. But elections have all been fair and free from violence. The current ruler is Ian Khama, Seretse's second child and first son, and an erstwhile military man.

One cause of modern Botswana's history of generally enlightened rule may be that Seretse Khama, Quett Masire, and a number of the other founders were graduates of a progressive Christian school of social work located at Tiger Kloof [Ravine], in South Africa. Whatever the causes, the leaders have generally used their popularity and energies to serve the nation. Having enjoyed annual growth rates as high as 12-13 per cent, Botswana efficiently manages mineral exploitation and other enterprises. According to the most recent figures available (2007), the country boasts a rich-world unemployment rate of 7.5 per cent. Drought relief has been relatively effective, and welfare services have been extended to the poorest. The use of local judicial mechanisms reduces strain on the courts.

No African country is, of course, completely immune to problems. Over the last decade, there have been signs of fraying in the democratic fabric. Some stem from prolonged reliance on what could be called a democratic oligarchy, or even a democratic dynasty. The current global economic slump has also disproportionately affected Botswana, because that quintessential luxury item, the diamond, comprises about two-thirds of its exports. In 2008, corporate debt at Debswana, a joint venture of the government with De Beers, stood at $22 billion, which was more than the estimated value of the company ($20 billion). In the longer term, however, diamonds will, no doubt, prove a hardy perennial. But even before the downturn, despite an estimated 4.8 per cent GDP growth rate in 2007, as in so many of the world's growing economies, inequality in Botswana was as bad as it had ever been, and perhaps even worse. By the 1990s, public safety had also become a greater issue than even 10 years before. In the 1970s, it was a point of pride that the country got by without a regular army, relying solely on border police, but by the 1990s the military was receiving an ever-growing share of resources.

Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room, HIV/AIDS. Yes, Botswana has had by far the highest per capita level of expenditure on HIV/AIDS treatment in southern Africa. But the percentage of the population infected with HIV is the highest in all of Africa. The implications for the nation's future are unimaginable.

From this stark contrast between two African extremes, what conclusions can be drawn that might apply to some, at least, of the continent's 50-some other countries (in which over 800 languages are spoken)? Across the continent, ethnicity remains a thorny problem, the ultimate source of which is the map created by distant, arbitrary, self-interested colonial powers. Botswana is favored by size - unlike the DRC, it is a manageable entity - and, in some sense, by ethnicity: the Tswana are the dominant ethnic group, but rule is shared with the Ngwato, and the country has not suffered destructive ethnic conflict. But even Botswanan ethnicity poses a smaller problem of its own, and an ironic one, given the enlightened policies the government has pursued.

The leaders have "avoided the manipulation of ethnicity for political objectives." For instance, neither the Tswana nor the indigenous minority (5,000 of 1,000,000), the Baswarwa ("Bushmen"), have special rights - or protections. Although these policies have put Baswaran lands and livelihood at risk, certain of these lands are, in fact, reserved to them. At places where their people cluster, services such as water, transportation, and education are provided. But these provisions have led to the extinction of wildlife, and because the Baswara have been nomadic hunters ever since the Stone Age, as they cluster around points of service, their culture is also fast disappearing. These nagging issues are currently under litigation.

That sounds like a fairly mild problem. In countries such as the DRC, where ethnicity has been instrumental in creating chaos and catastrophe, it is of paramount importance to develop inclusive, enforced legal definitions of citizenship. Without such measures, sections of the population will continue to be deprived of fundamental human rights, and the nation will never really be a nation. If the groups in question are cross-border ethnicities, imperfect laws will also remain a cause, or excuse, for incursions by powerful neighbors - especially where booty is involved.

A second, perhaps obvious conclusion from my contrast of two nations is that, instead of looting resources, good governments use them to establish viable economic development programs. They build roads, hospitals, schools, clean water systems, electricity grids, and so on. In many post-Independence African nations, including the leading oil producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea, kleptocrats have usurped revenues and derailed, or made a mess of, infrastructure and other development projects. In the DRC, a half-century of chaotic conflict, grandiose, ill-conceived schemes, and indifference to the populace has meant the decay of agriculture, negative growth in real income, and negligible infrastructure development.

In South Africa, Botswana, and elsewhere, wealth has been channeled into substantial development. But, even in these more successful cases, development plans and policies have been fraught with problems. As writer Norman Rush, who, with his wife, Elsa, was Botswana Peace Corps Co-Director from 1979-83, and who has since re-visited the country several times, observes about local development projects:
Getting the balance right between bottom-up top-down is one of the stress lines in these projects. NGOs, their contacts and representatives among the local leaderships, locals, the government, and the basic memberships of the projects often have different and conflicting interests and agendas. NGOs need to impress their funders by demonstrating measurable progress according to listed criteria... the liaison group among the local leadership has an interest in contriving an appearance of meeting the NGO criteria, with which they are intimately familiar... the government wants to see benefits flowing particularly to its supporters in and around the projects... the membership in the projects is of course stratified, and those who can will tend to work to benefit themselves and their families rather than collectivizing the fruits of a group effort.

One way in which this bottom-up top-down problem, generic to development projects in capitalist economies, has been addressed in Botswana is the enterprise known as the Brigades Movement, pioneered by now elder-statesman Patrick van Rensburg, who was one of Rush's principal models for Nelson Denoon, the hero of his 1991 novel, Mating. Van Rensburg's work was based on his perception that the dream of upward mobility in what he calls "the formal sector" was a tease to most of Botswana's primary-school graduates and other poor, unemployed people. Taking the name "Brigades" from Kwame Nkrumah, and his inspiration and many ideas from Julius Nyerere, van Rensburg set up an ambitious, egalitarian training and employment program designed to serve the cause of rural development in a poor, developing nation by moving the populace toward boiteko, or self-help (in Setswana). When, in 1981, the Right Livelihood Award was conferred on van Rensburg, his work was summarized as follows:
...van Rensburg took up residence in Bechuanaland, now Botswana, of which he became a citizen in 1973. There he founded the Swaneng Hill School, and, following its success, two other schools in association with the Botswana government, as well as the Swaneng Consumers Cooperative and the Brigades Movement. ...

Van Rensburg's education approach was radically different from usual practice. The school was seen as a centre of development and thereby of better learning. The curriculum included practical subjects like agriculture, building, carpentry, metalwork, technical drawing and typing. ...In an effort to bring schools within the reach of ordinary people, costs were lowered by the Brigades, which were self-help education and training organisations producing goods and services both for themselves and for public sale to help finance teaching and training.

But just as no country is perfect, neither is any model of development. The Brigades sound like a Socialist utopia (and Rush so depicted Denoon's program in his novel Mating). Over time, many Botswanans have rejected the Brigades model in favor of schools with a traditional, more prestigious academic curriculum that, rightly or not, they see as their ticket to wealth and power. (This is the same dream to which the Congolese clung during Mobutu's latter days.) In 2007, van Rensburg, by then 75 and Director of a Brigades offshoot called the Foundation for Education with Production, hailed the full, final takeover by the government of his program. But, since then, the government has begun to "rationalize" the Program, or, as we would say in the US, to "downsize" it. The Brigades are a good example of how even Africans of good will continue to struggle with problems such as development.

A final broad implication of the Congo-Botswana contrast is that any African country can begin to solve its problems if and when it musters effective leadership. Nowadays, good governance is beginning to seem more widely attainable across the continent than it was even a decade ago. Historically, the lions of uhuru (freedom, or Independence) left very different legacies. For instance, Nkrumah built a foundation for Ghanaian economic development and national unity, whereas Nigeria's Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo's unwillingness to share power set the stage for a half-century of corruption and regional and ethnic division. Today, hope can be seen even in countries that have suffered recent, traumatic conflict comparable to Congo's. The jury is out regarding Joseph Kabila, but in Rwanda and Liberia, as mentioned, relatively able leaders have been moving their people in positive directions.

One-party democracies and presidents for life may be jokes in the West, but in Africa they sometimes work, serving the people, although sometimes, of course, they prove disastrous. We might even hope that the African policies of our new leaders in the US will be more nuanced than those of their predecessors. I partly share President Obama's sweeping vision of possible change in Africa. As he put it in Accra on July 11, 2009:
Across Africa, we have seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up... Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions...

A fine sentiment, and an excellent point about laws and institutions, but I think our own strong leader may be overstating the uselessness of strong leadership. He may be failing to recognize the emergence of a new type of Big Man, now that one of the very last of the old ones, Omar Bongo, who kept his boot on the heads of the Gabonese people for 40 years, has died.

In June, 2009, Ethiopian troops resumed earlier, failed incursions into Somalia to support the sitting government against radical Islamist rebels. In so doing, the Ethiopians were also supporting American policy. Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister, is perceived by western governments and the western press as a technocrat and democrat, exactly the kind of man we want in power. However, according to Abiye Teklemariam, executive editor of the country's leading dissident newspaper, Addis Neger ('New Thing'):
This government sees itself as a modern, democratic government ... but there is a gap between what it says it is and what it really is. Our leader has a self-effacing, thoughtful, measured manner that he assumes internationally, in English. He claims to be a mere spokesman for his party and people, and doesn't go out of his way to demonize the opposition. But ...all the so-called independent elements in the Ethiopian government do what he says. He sounds a lot different in Amharic, arrogant and snarky.

If, in fact, the US egged Zenawi into the latest Somalian incursion, we did so partly because that country seems to have such weak leadership. Our policymakers are faced with difficult choices in Africa, in part because our leverage in the affairs of the continent is not, for better or worse, what it used to be.

The map at the start of this essay shows 50-some countries, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, and their dates of independence from mostly European masters. Aside from five - four small islands still governed from Europe, and Western Sahara, governed by Morocco - every country in Africa is now independent, and almost every one has gained its independence since Ghana led the first big wave on March 6, 1957. Seen together, the failures and successes of Africa over this half-century provide a blueprint for a possibly better future, both for single countries and in aggregate.

It is facile and racist to blame either the continent's post-Independence leadership or its erstwhile masters for all of its failures, or to see these failures as permanent. After all, how long did it take Italy and Germany to become viable, democratic nations? For that matter, how far had the US come as a nation by the 1820s, and, even today, where is Russia? Conversely, it is unhelpful to see Africa without its warts, and to regard something called "the African spirit" as somehow the pinnacle of human spiritual possibility. To envision a real, possible future for Africa, its well-wishers should begin by looking at its real past and present.


Special thanks

Mohamed Keita, Committee to Protect Journalists, for introducing me to Abiye Teklemariam. Bronwen Manby, Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP), an initiative of the Open Society Institute, for use of unpublished material on ethnicity issues in Botswana.


Works cited

Ascherson, Neal. The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo. Allen & Unwin, 1963.

BBC Online. Congo timeline

French, Howard W "The Darfur the West Isn't Recognizing as It Moralizes About the Region," New York Times, March 30, 2009, a review of Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, by Mahmood Mamdani, Pantheon Books, 2009

---- A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope for Africa. Alfred A Knopf, 2004.

Gettleman, Jeffrey, "In Congo, with Rebels Now at Bay, Calm Erupts," NY Times, March 4, 2008, p A6

Herbert, Bob. "The Invisible War," New York Times, Feb. 21, 2009, p A28.

Index Mundi: Botswana Unemployment Rate

Manby, Bronwen. Struggles for Citizenship in Africa (African Arguments series). Zed Books, 2009, forthcoming.

---- "Indigenous People," chapter written on Botswana, but not included in Struggles for Citizenship in Africa.

Obama, President Barack. "A New Moment of Promise," address to the Parliament of Ghana, www.whitehouse.gov/.../President-Obama-Speaks-in-Ghana/

Parsons, Neil. University of Botswana History Department. A Brief History of Botswana.

Martin, Dr H Gayle. A Comparative Analysis of the Financing of HIV/AIDS Programmes in Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

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Nobody's Fault was the original title of Charles Dickens' novel, Little Dorrit.