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Out of Africa -- Always the Same Thing

The Salisbury Review — Winter 2004

Roger Sandall
author of
The Culture Cult

Mr. Ahmed Diraige of Sudan has my sympathy. On August 4th he entered a BBC London studio soliciting help for his native land. The way he sees it the 'international community' has a clear obligation to go and stop his countrymen killing each other (something they've been doing for fifty years), to separate combatants, to calm them down, to feed them, clothe them, and enable them to get on with their lives. He could not have been more polite. Yet at the BBC he got mercilessly banged about the head.

'Why is it that all the problems in Africa have to be solved with large quantities of blood? Why do we never learn any lessons?' asked Tim Sebastian of Hardtalk. And when Mr. Diraige started in on the sins of the colonial powers fifty years ago he was rudely stopped: 'You can't blame the colonial powers for a million dead in Rwanda, three million dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a million people at risk of dying in Darfur...'

But Mr. Sebastian had only started. He wanted to know 'why killing seems to be a first resort rather than a last resort in Africa?', why Africa itself wasn't taking responsibility, why the African Union was failing to do anything effective, why well-dressed people like Mr. Diraige were travelling about the world calling for the 'international community' to send troops when the root problem was plainly not one that could be settled by force.

As he sat there blinking awkwardly behind his glasses it seemed to me that the Chairman of the Federal Democratic Alliance, one of Sudan's opposition parties, is a good man who means well. When Tim Sebastian asked him whether he didn't want to weep when he saw the state of his country Ahmed Diraige answered simply: 'I did several times, believe me. Several times I did.' And I believe him. It was a small but poignant reminder of the human reality behind the politicians and their arguments for intervention.

Yet tears or no tears, men like Kofi Annan may well have their hearts in the right place too, but they are incapable of dealing with the problem, because it is not a 'problem' in any useful sense of the word. Problems are manageable and have solutions; human intelligence and human will can puzzle them out, but the immeasurable gulf between the existing state of African society and the modern world, the 'big ditch' dividing communal kin-based cultures and modern economic arrangements in country after country, is not something bridgeable by political will. Nor can a war in a huge country like Sudan be ended by uncomprehending foreign soldiers when it has been going on for fifty years, and before that intermittently for centuries. It has today a strong messianic element in which the Arab north sees itself as having an Islamic duty to overrule, dominate, convert, and if necessary murder the part-Christian non-Arab south.


The Kofi Annans of the world belong to a rarefied and privileged African elite of international bureaucrats who think in terms of Commissions and Conferences at which more-or-less impractical protocols are discussed and more-or-less noble resolutions are passed. They have escaped and put behind them the murders and misery of their homelands, they have risen into the well-fed social stratosphere of diplomacy in Geneva, Paris, London, and New York, and they understandably value the glittering lifestyle this provides. Their interests do not coincide with those subsistence farmers trying to scratch a living from the African soil. Machetes chopping off heads in Sierra Leone, or Rwanda, — the flies, the corpses in the sun, the cries of grief and the stench — are matters such bureaucrats are separated from by a huge social gulf. While in some cases sincerely appalled, like Ahmed Diraige, as Africans themselves they seem unable to describe such things or to offer any realistic explanation. They are always on the defensive, invariably use the 'legacy of colonialism' to intimidate Africa's critics into a state of guilty fear — after which the 'international community' is invited to come and sort things out.


The morale of the West is the morale of its well-meaning educated middle classes. They are bombarded day and night with appeals. In today's newspaper Amnesty International reports that 'countless thousands of women and girls have been raped in Darfur, many in front of their families and their communities' and urges 'the international community to prevent further attacks'. In the post comes a letter from Medecins sans Frontieres telling of a 'crisis of epic proportions unfolding in the Sudan. Over 1.2 million people have been displaced by militias and their villages have been burnt to the ground... Please make an immediate tax-deductible donation to Medecins sans Frontieres to help the Sudanese people...' Also in the post is the August National Geographic with an article about Loango National Park in Gabon. Unsurprisingly, it enthuses about the wildlife but makes no mention of either child trafficking or the fact that after three and a half decades of corrupt and autocratic rule President Omar Bongo is one of the world's richest men (Freedom in the World).

 In the Times Literary Supplement for August 6 a well-informed Sudanese writer and historian named Bona Malwal reviews Douglas H. Johnson's The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars (Indiana University Press), but declines to share the author's 'guarded optimism concerning the peace negotiations' currently under way. Finally, the August issue of Prospect magazine has the heading INTO AFRICA blazing inch-high across its cover, superimposed upon an image of a train travelling through a landscape of South African bush, and it turns out that this is a short story about Hutus and Tutsis by Damon Galgut. Mr. Galgut, 'a key author in the new South Africa', recounts an episode from Rwanda in which one brother mutilates, rapes, and kills not only his brother's wife and family but his own mother.

 There's nothing new out of Africa. Maybe there was in Ancient Rome in the days of Pliny the Elder, and that is what inspired his much repeated and misleading quotation: for the rest of us it has been an unending chronicle of chaos and cadavers since 1960. Yet how high our hopes were back then! I was teaching at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and we had a documentary showing Kwame Nkrumah at home in Ghana giving a speech. The African crowd in Accra loved it. Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! they cried at us from the screen, and Nkrumah and his enthusiastic assembly were so carried away it looked as if the very idea of liberty might be enough to do the trick — the trick of course being how to take the tribal fabric of Old Africa, and using a western pattern, create a modern civil society overnight. Nobody pointed out any problem. Kwame Nkrumah too seemed to think independence would be a breeze. As he wrote in his book Africa Must Unite, the first task was to expropriate the expropriators:

 "The colonial powers were all rapacious; they all subserved the needs of the subject lands to their own demands: they all circumscribed human rights and liberties; they all repressed and despoiled, degraded and oppressed. They took our lands, our lives, our resources and our dignity. Without exception, they left us nothing but our resentment..."

This looting of the continent by the whites had left its peoples destitute:

"It was when they had gone and we were faced with the stark realities, as in Ghana on the morrow of our independence, that the destitution of the land after long years of colonial rule was brought home to us."

Such passages were certainly stirring — but were they true? The distinguished economic historian Peter Bauer describes Nkrumah's statements as nothing but 'effrontery playing on guilt and ignorance', since in the years before colonial rule 'conditions in the Gold Coast (as Ghana was formerly known) were extremely primitive and life was short and perilous. People's circumstances improved out of all recognition during the colonial period.' Colonial conquest involved bloodshed, but in West Africa this was largely over by the end of the nineteenth century, and during the first decades of the twentieth century

British colonial administrations governed firmly but lightly. They did not attempt to control closely the lives and activities of their subjects. Taxation was modest and people enjoyed virtually complete personal freedom, including the freedom to choose their own activities, to move around the country unheeded, and to dispose of their incomes as they wished. Tribal warfare, slavery and slave-trading — formerly widespread or endemic — had been effectively suppressed.

Today there is no public security. Slavery is found once more in Sudan, and sinister forms of domestic enslavement that involve the trafficking of children

exist elsewhere too. Fiscal management is a farce — the Nigerian misappropriation of public funds is a farce played on a global stage. Transport is haphazard and unreliable. Education and public health struggle on in deplorable conditions. Nothing can be done without lies, bribes and payoffs at every social and political level, all public revenues tending to leak away into private hands.

Corruption is universal, malignant, and destructive, and the joke retold by Keith B. Richburg in his Out of America: a Black Man Confronts Africa says it all: A western-educated African visits an old university friend in Indonesia and is impressed by his spectacular house, his three Mercedes, his huge swimming pool and numerous servants. How on earth, he asks, can his Asian friend afford all that? The Indonesian points to a grand elevated highway in the distance, and patting himself on the chest says 'ten percent'. A few years later the Indonesian visits the African at his home and is staggered to see a whole fleet of Mercedes, air-conditioned indoor tennis courts, and an army of uniformed chauffeurs and servants. How on earth can his friend afford it all? 'You see that highway?' says the African — but when the Indonesian looks he sees nothing at all, just empty fields right out to the horizon. His host looks at him with a smile, taps himself on the chest, and says 'One hundred percent!'

Richburg spent three years covering Africa for the Washington Post and wrote about it in his book Out of America: a Black Man Confronts Africa — three years of watching bodies, if not floating down

the river in Tanzania, then stacked up like firewood in the refugee camps of Zaire, waiting to be dumped into a mass pit... Or the bodies lying unburied along the roadsides in Somalia, people dropping dead of starvation as they tried to make it just a few more miles into town where the foreign-aid agencies were handing out free food.

For around fifty years African history and culture has been the province of uplifting idealistic mythomania, part of it from socialist ideologues who imagined that a new era and a new kind of African socialism were being pioneered in places like Tanzania, part of it the work of the academic Afrocentrist industry. Tanzania's 'new socialism' involved rural collectivisation that looked all too like the old socialism in the Soviet Union, brought calamitous falls in agricultural output, and saw the destruction of traditional tribal life and the pauperisation of tens of thousands. Afrocentrist mythologizing itself is a huge field which has been studied and analysed with exemplary detachment by Stephen Howe: his Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso 1998) presents a scholarly treatment of this controversial topic. He notes that Afrocentrism comes in two versions — weak and strong. In its weak version it may 'mean little more than an emphasis on shared African origins among all "black" people, taking a pride in those origins and an interest in African history and culture...' and is relatively innocuous. In its strong version 'it provides a direct analogue to the extreme forms of cultural nationalism, premised on beliefs about race, which flourished in nineteenth-century Europe.' Like German and Serbian ethnonationalism, strong 'Afrocentrism is accompanied by a body of racial pseudo-science, in this case much of it centred on grotesque ideas about the skin-colouring chemical melanin.' It has produced   an   orgy   of mythography, of feel-good pseudo-scholarship which is useless as a guide to Africa today. As one crisis after another assails us, it is surely time for everyone to come to their senses. Howe's book should be the first item on any reading list along with Thomas Sowell's Conquests and Cultures which also discusses the post-1960 African leaders and their disastrous policies.

 Whatever the past can teach us, we must return to the present situation and the decline into genocidal mayhem of one country after another — and what we should do. The efforts of various agencies like Amnesty International and Medecins sans Frontieres should be encouraged. Relief should be provided where practicable and effective, especially where it is visible. The generous impulses of western middle classes, however misled they may often be, should not be discouraged or dismissed. Doubtless there are even some places where the political situation warrants direct government-to-government help: one wishes there were more men like Ahmed Diraige around to deal with.

But pressure on the West by the international African diplomatic bureaucracy, led by Kofi Annan, to define the entire continent of Africa as deserving the permanent, official, mendicant status of a ward of the UN or the 'international community', a vast region to be economically supported by the West into the indefinite future, and to be militarily pacified by western troops whenever and wherever it is incapable of pacifying itself— this should be strongly resisted.

 It has been suggested in these pages that we have an obligation to Christian minorities besieged by radical Islam. With respect, the implications of intervening on behalf of such unhappy people must be clearly understood. On the one hand, it is unlikely that such intervention (as in the Sudan) would be of much help. But if it is, so much the better. On the other, if it is unsuccessful, the British government would immediately be under moral pressure to accept Sudanese refugees to prevent their massacre. 

It is a disagreeable fact that life has always been cheap in Africa, that extraordinary cruelties have been all too common, and that notions of human rights in its traditional societies were entirely unknown. The Bemba, according to Gann and Duignan in Burden of Empire (140-141), 'supplemented their income by raiding, and in time terrorized all the tribes on the boundary of their kingdom. Differences in living standards between Bemba noblemen and commoners were not great, yet the Bemba developed an exceptionally rigidly organized state and a very violent form of rule'. Of Benin they say that 'the more centralized forms of African kingships commonly had a grim and bloody side to their makeup which is sometimes ignored by modern African historiography. In 1897 the British occupied Benin in Nigeria. They found a gruesome charnel house, a kind of small-scale Belsen'. These grim documents provide, from a century ago, a useful perspective on modem horrors.

Excerpts from the report of the 1897 British expedition can be read in Great Benin, Its Customs, Art, and Horrors, by H. Ling Roth. This was first published in 1903. Roth was an anthropologist who also wrote about the peasantry of Eastern Russia, about the Tasmanian Aborigines, and about northern Borneo. His book was reprinted in facsimile by Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1968, with 275 illustrations, and provides one of the few accessible accounts of the situation in 1897 in Benin. It is possible that the scale of the human sacrifices witnessed by the incoming soldiery had been increased by their own arrival, and had been adopted as a defensive measure to prevent it. But if so, what the troops witnessed was still only normal practice carried to excess.

 Roger Sandall is the author of The Culture Cult. His website listed under the weblogs on Arts and Letters Daily, is www.culturecult.com