Orphaned by the Superpowers

Book cover
The Skull Beneath the Skinby By Mark HubandWestview Press. 376p $30.

The major culprit for the disasters in Africa is none other than foreign involvement, claims the distinguished journalist Mark Huband. First came the European colonialists, who delineated territories according to their political interests, and then either created or exploited cultural differences among peoples based on the principle of divide and rule, often privileging minorities that sowed the seeds of later tribalism. With decolonization, the existing African elites became the new ruling class and were wooed by both Western and Marxist cold warriors. This led to a series of fratricidal confrontations within and between states. A political result was a host of dictators, each one seemingly more brutal, arrogant and kleptocratic than the last.

Such kleptocracyliterally rule by theftwas epitomized by the U.S.-supported dictator of Zaire, Mobuto Sese Seko. He robbed his country blind. While many Zaireans (including Mobuto’s administrators, police and military) eked out a living by political graft, Mobuto squirreled away millions of dollars in his private bank accounts, money creamed off aid programs, substantial personal gifts from some multinational corporations and income from publicly owned companies within the country. Even after his fall from power, the country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo remains impoverished and struggling to rebuild itself.


Congo is not alone, of course. The most corrupt country on earth according to Transparency International is Nigeria, rich in natural resources but riddled with corruption and tendencies toward military dictatorships, courted by the West in the cold war, now wooed in its Muslim north by Islamist states that would like to see the whole country under the Islamic legal system of sharia. The cold war certainly contributed toand its regional fallout continues to have a serious impact onthe seemingly endless conflict in Angola, argues Huband. From the early 1960’s to 1975, various nationalist (and socialist) guerrilla movements fought for the end to Portuguese rule in their oil-rich country. As the Lisbon dictatorship collapsed in 1974, the Central Intelligence Agency and the South African Defense Force propped up a formerly Maoist nationalist leader, Jonas Savimbi, and his southern, intensely tribal UNITA movement against the multi-tribal but pro-Soviet M.P.L.A. regime in Luanda. Decades later the conflict continues, despite numerous attempts at mediations, cease-fires and even elections (which Savimbi rejected when his party narrowly lost); despite, as well, the collapse of apartheid and the end of the cold war.

The most horrifying spectacle, particularly after the cold war, has been the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi. Here Huband’s prose rises from journalese and academese to a lyricism of horror and outrage at mass terror. He witnessed in both Rwanda and Burundi mass graves, people fleeing, U.N. forces standing by (politically unable to intervene) as ordinary folk were dragged away to be slaughtered. Interviews with Hutu and Tutsi are often heartbreaking in their mixture of confusion, fatalism and fear. While he tries to get beneath the trite Western answer of tribalism and develop a more sophisticated analysis (rooted in the history of how colonialism manipulated identity issues and tensions over clan and economy and as a result reinvented tribes), Huband is at his best when he simply recounts the horror. More shocking and shameful to the Western reader, perhaps, is the degree to which these conflicts were overlooked by the media and not taken seriously enough by Washington, London or Brussels. The Balkans or the Middle East were more important geopolitically in the post-1989 world.

These are but some of the crises Huband describes and analyzes in his book. The work is dense with detail, often exhaustingly so. At the same timeand this is where the book’s power liesthese details are framed by his personal experiences as a correspondent.

Huband overemphasizes the blame that belongs to foreigners for Africa’s many woes, whether colonialists or cold warriors. While these political and social forces certainly played a very significant role in undermining and destabilizing many of the new African democracies, what is missing in the equation is a certain political Augustinianism that recognizes that people are often corrupt, greedy, xenophobic and even violent. It is all too easy to blame the other instead of seeking viable political solutions. What of the many great African cultural resourceslike the sense of family and community and welcoming strangersthat are spoken of, but seem to have failed so many parts of the continent over the last 20 years?

What is most disturbing is the author’s conclusion: foreigners should leave Africa alone to build her own future, find the appropriate solutions to civil war, ethnic conflicts, economic injustices, ending corruption and dictatorship. In principle this sounds fine. But there is a fundamental flaw: it overlooks the fact of globalization. No country can afford isolation from the world economy. Countries that were formerly isolated economicallylike South Africa under apartheidoften find themselves in a double bind. They need foreign capital and access to the global market, while at the same time they are actively trying to build up through progressive legislation a people disadvantaged politically, economically and socially. This is a fundamental tension that is not easily solved when multinationals go scouring the earth looking for the best deals at the lowest labor prices.

Even a former Communist like President Thabo Mbeki insists that part of his vision of an African Renaissance (for both South Africa and the continent) entails participation in the global economy, not withdrawal from it. The anticolonialist thought of the 1960’s (Huband’s argument seems to echo it at times) had its place in the period of decolonization. Had Africa not been drawn into the cold war as a sideshow, such thought might have helped develop creative alternatives to liberal capitalism and state socialism. But as any non-delusional Marxist would remind us, we need to look at the objective social conditions. Reading the signs of the times leads me to conclude that Huband’s solution, though appealing, is hopelessly naïve and potentially catastrophic.

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