History blended with firsthand reportage of postcolonial Africa, “the stage of mankind’s greatest tragedies.”
Center stage, writes New York Times correspondent French, but also sideshow, at least so far as the West is concerned. “We awaken to the place only in fits of coarse self-interest and outright greed,” he argues, as when new offshore oil reserves or mineral lodes are discovered. Otherwise, Western governments hold Africa at arm’s length: “Serving up atrocities is a business of diminishing returns, and Washington, having experimented with so-called African solutions to African problems, silently recognized its failure and vowed to stay away altogether.” In a land sowed with the dragon’s teeth of colonial sergeants turned generalissimos, the results of this distancing could only be bloody, and French, who is often moved to anger, spares no chance to lay at least some responsibility for the continent’s troubles at foreign doors—and, particularly, those of the Clinton White House, where clucking sympathies and admonitions took the place of any direct action to, say, rein in a client state or tinhorn dictator (Mobutu, Savimbi, Taylor) gone haywire. “It is foolish,” French acknowledges, “to think that Washington should carry the burden of blame for most of Africa’s problems. . . . [But] it would be dishonest to pretend there is no link between what has perhaps been the least accountable and least democratically run compartment of America’s foreign policy—African affairs—and the undemocratic fortunes of the continent.” Thus, French suggests, the genocide that swept Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990s might have been curbed, Liberia might have been spared its recent horrors, and more than three million Zairians might still be alive had the US, and the other Western powers, acted in a timely way or even paid attention.
Of a piece with Daniel Bergner’s In the Land of Magic Soldiers (2003): a sobering and much-needed portrait of a land that merits, and requires, our attention.