They were a strong and proud race; living fulfilled lives in small and great monarchies strewn across the continent. Oblivious to other worlds, they tilled the ground, hunted beasts for food and fun, fished on brooks and rivers and seas, and tended cattle down lush pastures.
They fought internecine battles, conquered kingdoms with bows and arrows, with swords and spears. In the evenings, children gathered to listen to stories and folklores in the moonlight. Millions dwelt in mud or plank-built homes with thatched roofs, patronized witch doctors, grew old and died or got killed by strange, herb-defying ailments. Many were they that lived and died by the sword, metamorphosing into deities and myths to be later worshiped by succeeding generations.
For the African, this was life; a life that existed solely for them. It was a time the land was populated by its owners, when the people lived, as they deemed fit. There were no white skins, (save the albino’s), no machines. There are no ambitious trips to the Mars or the moon; no fear of a sudden Armageddon via a nuclear warhead. Such a time so graphically depicted by the Nigerian storyteller, Elechi Amadi, in his classic novel, The Concubine. But that wasn’t destined to last forever. For the white man came with his Bible, and soon, his gun. Ever since, Africa has never been the same again.
Africa’s journey since that first contact with the Portuguese in the late 1490s is what Howard French passionately takes us through in his new book, A Continent For The Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. French, a veteran correspondent of the New York Times in West and Central Africa, deplored his years of experience to lay bare the promises and frustrations of an immensely fertile land. A land tragically devoured by its own swarm of locusts egged on by an applauding West that looks the other way after its real goals have been achieved. It is the story of a continent of great minds whose recent history is painfully replete with bitter pictures of strife, diseases and death. It is the story of a continent ravaged by famine and drought, despoiled by weed-smoking kid soldiers wielding rifles down the streets of Monrovia. The work paints the graphic details of brothers butchering brothers; a land within the grip of avaricious military despots and pot-bellied civilian dictators. The narrative paints a picture of gloom and doom; of penury and suspense, it is the story of a tomorrow shrouded in palpable haze.
Indeed, as you turn each page of Howard French’s book, the lines in the poem Africa written by the late Senegalese bard, David Diop, reverberates in the the soul of the reader.
Diop had prophesied a life of bliss for Africa and its peoples after the long years of colonialism. Sadly however, decades after Africa countries have been liberated from Europe; genuine liberty still eludes the people because many of them are still ruled by civilian dictators.
French, an African-American would not just do a reporter’s diary of his 25-years’ romance with the dark continent. Rather, he gets involved in the continent’s plight.
Unable to contain those deep emotions long bottled up in his mind and notebook, he unleashed his fury on Europe and America. These countries, he claims, have always seen Africa as a huge dice on a ludo board. He queries America’s role in the plunder of the continent and it’s support for greedy dictators, especially during the cold war era. The author wonders why Washington would always look the other way while the Idi Amins,
Mobutu Sese Sekos, Charles Taylors and Sani Abachas of this world were killing, maiming and looting thereby leaving their citizens to suffer the consequences?
However, French’s role might be understandable. French is an African-American and his great grandfathers were born and raised in Africa, long before the vast continent was partitioned by Europe, and its best men and women shipped across the seas into slavery. Apart from living and working in Africa, French is married to an African. It then becomes more comprehensible reasons why he is not just a narrator, but one who is fully involved.
Thus, French criss-crosses the continent; taking us along into the streets of Lagos and Abuja in Nigeria. He carries his readers along into Charles Taylor’s Liberia, to Mali and the two Congos. He involves us, the readers, in his experiences in the power play and high-wire politics of the mid-1990s in Abacha’s Nigeria; in Ebola plague in the Congo, the Liberian civil war and Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire. French writes of poverty and hunger arising from decades of misrule, and people’s desperation for survival.
The journalist recalls that in 1994 Nigeria was at a boiling point. The journalist, who was recently posted to Abidjan as New York Times Correspondent, West Africa, had just rushed to the country. What he met on arrival at the airport, and in his trips around the world’s most populated black nation, was however different from what had been on ground a decade earlier. Please read him on pages 26 and 27: “Corruption had eaten away at everything here since that bygone era of pride and optimism. Most people would say that the rot had started under the elected government of Shehu Shagari who was overthrown in a military coup of 1983. and things had gotten steadily worse under a succession of bemedaled generals.
“Nigeria had become one of Africa’s most tragic stories, as if a great family franchise had been run into the ground by decadent nephews prematurely handed the reins of management. The callow nephews in this tale were army generals, and like King Midas in reverse, the officers who had run the country for the last decade had debased everything they had touched, starting of course with politics, which they had turned into a contest of self-enrichment. The leader who ran the country in the mid-1990s, General Sani Abacha, stood out even in this crowd.”
Indeed, General Sani Abacha, who in November 1993 forced his way into the State House in Nigeria, had in 1994 become something akin to a motion picture monster to his countrymen. At the peak of his five-year tyranny, the diminutive, dark-goggled dictator without a middle name had either decreed the assassination of his perceived political foes, or had hurled them into jail. In his dungeon were, among others, Moshood Abiola, winner of the 1993 presidential elections, General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler (now president) accused by Abacha of plotting to sack his regime, Shehu Yar’adua, and all the popular members of the human rights community. Ken Saro Wiwa had been hanged, Kudirat Abiola and many others had been shot dead in a Lagos Street, and a thick, palpable dread filled the firmament.
Mr. French painstakingly takes us through the absurd political dance-drama of those days of gloom, up till Abacha’s mysterious death in June 1998 of a heart condition aggravated, reports said, by an all-out orgy with a couple of sluts imported from India.
But then, Abacha didn’t create those clouds that threatened Nigeria’s very existence. The garlands for such, many argue, should naturally be draped round the copious neck of the country’s former ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida. He it was who annulled the 1993 Presidential elections and nearly pushed his country into the abyss. Abacha, echo those voices, merely benefited from that treasonable venture.
Sadly, the people’s hopes that a democratic regime would put a balm on their battered lives are daily being punctured by the supposedly democratic government of General Olusegun Obasanjo.
Blessed with a haughty mien and the fury of a typhoon, Obasanjo rules the land more like a medieval emperor. The president carries himself with a presumptuous, almost megalomaniac air, apparently seeing himself as the best gift Providence ever bequeathed to the country next to crude oil. In seve
ral fits of raw, uncontrollable ire, he has ordered the destruction of whole communities, verbally assaulted clergymen, and single-handedly annulled an election meant to produce a king for his village.
And already, Babangida, whose action nearly led to the country’s collapse, is seeking a comeback in 2007. Arrayed behind him is a clan of clowns led by that disgraced and late ex-general, Mr. Abdulkareem Adisa whom many insist would have had a more fulfilling career as an Elizabethan court jester.
French narrates his meetings with notable Nigerians, including Baba Gana Kingibe, who would have been Abiola’s Deputy, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Newswatch’s Ray Ekpu, Kudirat Abiola, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, among others. He writes about his trips to several volatile parts of the country. The author writes about the political intrigues and power play and of treachery in high places; of dashed hopes and a country sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines.
But Abacha’s “Giant of Africa” was not the only country on the boil. A systematic carnage had gradually reduced Liberia, that once promising country founded by freed slaves from America in 1821, into a land of living ghosts. Enter Charles Taylor, described in The New York Times by Robert Rodberg, Director of the Programme on Interstate Conflict at the Kennedy School of Harvard University, as one of the more colorful thugs of West Africa’s recent past.
Having lived in the forest from where he waged war against the repressive regime of the marijuana-loving illiterate soldier, Samuel Doe, Taylor forced himself into world consciousness as a fiend who fed minors with dope and sent them to their death on the battlefield. Indeed, as commander-in-chief of a mostly under-aged, drug-addicted youth guerilla army, Taylor had waged a war not only against Doe’s government, but against any perceived threat to his ambition to rule Liberia.
On the road to Monrovia, where he would later rule as President, this brutish ‘gentleman’ who stole his country’s as well as Sierra Leone’s diamond to prosecute his warfare, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his countrymen as well as foreigners to book a passage to the Presidential Palace. Among his victims were two Nigerian journalists, Tayo Awotusin and Kress Imodibe whose murder Taylor ordered because of Nigeria’s role in ECOMOG. Ironically, Taylor who is on Interpol’s wanted list for committing crimes against humanity now lives in opulence in Nigeria, shielded from justice by President Obasanjo against the wish of the international community.
Interestingly, Taylor’s one-time ally and Liberia’s former warlord, Prince Yormie Johnson was also offered refuge by Nigeria, a country that is fast becoming a safe haven for modern day Hitlers. Many would remember Johnson as Doe’s nemesis on September 10, 1990. Like a possessed demon straight out of hell, Johnson presided over Doe’s systematic slaughter, supervising his men as Doe’s ears, hands, legs etc were gradually sliced off even as the cameras beamed the despot’s long, agonizing death to the world.
French, in his book, captures Taylor’s grand entrance into Monrovia and his first press conference where he labored hard to justify his war. But Mr. Taylor had replied with a calmness quite alien to many of his ilk: “I just believe in the destiny of man being controlled by God, and wars, whether man-made or what, are directed by a force. And so when I say it is God’s war, God has his own way of restoring the land, and he will restore it after this war.”
Another real tragedy for Africa in the last decade was Mobutu Sese Seko, the late grandiose ruler of the former Zaire. Mobutu’s story strikes a chord with those of his fellow travelers in tyranny. A former soldier in the Congo, Joseph-Desire Mobutu seized power in 1965 and was ‘elected’ president in 1970. Donning a fake toga of an enforcer of cultural awareness, he changed his country’s name to Zaire, forced Europeans out of the country and rechristened himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Wa Za Banga (“The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”).
A sick soul plagued with prostate cancer since 1962, Mobutu’s countrymen were to discover too soon after he stole power in 1965 that he also suffered from another malady: chronic kleptomania. The leopard, as Mobutu was known, did little for his country but much for himself, looting his nation’s wealth and fortifying his personal fortune to an incredible tune of four billion dollars as far back as 1984.
In May 1997, a rebel group, led by Laurent Kabila closed-in on Kinshasha. Mobutu, ravaged by a deadly mix of cancer and the people’s odium, had little strength to counter the insurrection. The Great Man fled to Morocco, where he died like a dog four months later, booking a speedy one-way passage to hell. French takes us through the streets of Kinshasha, just as he does with the Ebola epidemic of the neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, describing Mobutu’s final fall and the rise of Laurent Kabila. His vivid account of the chaos that descended on the country would later win him the Overseas Press Club of America’s award for the best newspaper interpretation of foreign affairs.
Critics might query the rationale behind the French’s blaming of the West for much of Africa’s woes. Such people would argue that the continent’s rulers should take most of the blame. French’s position, in his book, is that the West has always aligned with African despots in order to achieve certain goals. If the West had taken a more decisive stand against these demons in human form, perhaps Africa would have risen beyond its present stagnant state.
Yet others might argue that the author doesn’t really proffer any solution to Africa’s leadership problems. He cites the examples of African leaders who guided their countries through the democratic path. President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali is singled out as a flourishing flower amidst a cluster of thorns.The lesson here is clear. Africa’s sun will never shine until its leaders have eschewed their desperation for power and greed for their country’s wealth, and begin to relate to their people like fellow humans.
Laced with various quotes and references, with 16 photo pages and a map, A Continent For The Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa in its 280 pages is a rewarding excursion into Africa’s recent past. Indeed, this book published by Alfred A. Knopf and sold for $25 is a rich guide for anyone with a remote interest in that continent’s chequered history. In the unlikely event that you quarrel with French’s submissions in the book, you definitely won’t have any quarrels with his breezy style, lucid presentation and free-flowing prose. Even as readers digest the last pages of the book, they might find it difficult to expunge the nagging question off their minds: will the Black Giant ever cease to totter?