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Out of Africa

Always the same thing

The Sudan

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 couldn’t 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 pretty clear 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 personally I believe him. It was a small but poignant reminder of the human reality behind the politicians and their arguments for intervention.

International bureaucrats

Yet tears or no tears, and despite the fact that men like Kofi Annan may well have their hearts in the right place too, they are incapable of dealing with the problem. Because of course it isn’t a “problem” in any useful sense of the word. Problems are manageable. Problems 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, on a continental scale, is not something bridgeable by political will. Nor (in the case of Sudan) can a war in a huge country be terminated by uncomprehending foreign soldiers when it has been going on for fifty years, and before that intermittently for centuries, and 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.

As if this didn’t make things bad enough, add also the fact that the Kofi Annans of the world belong to a rarefied and very 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 personally 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. They constitute a class with distinct interests of their own, interests not necessarily coinciding with those of millions of subsistence farmers trying to scratch a living from the African soil.

Machetes chopping off heads in Sierra Leone, or Rwanda, or wherever—the flies, the corpses in the sun, the cries of grief and the stench—are matters such bureaucrats are separated from by a huge and irreducible social gulf. While in some cases sincerely appalled, like Ahmed Diraige, as Africans themselves they seem unable to honestly describe such things or to offer any realistic explanation. They are perpetually 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.

Western morale

The morale of the West is very much the morale of its numerous well-meaning educated middle classes. In the African case, what media influences play on their minds today? They are firstly 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 Médecins sans Frontières 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 Médecins sans Frontières 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 May Literary Review the 36th Kabaka of Uganda (who the Review refers to as His Majesty and who almost certainly resides in the UK) reviews a book by Tom Stacey idealizing African ethnic culture in unmeasured terms. He tells us approvingly that Mr Stacey’s “belief in the tribe and ethnicity is almost religious: ‘the proper sense of his ethnicity feeds Man the conviction of his identity and a glimpse of his grandeur. No substitute exists for that food. For a man to be deprived of it in the context of his grandeur is as for a man to be deprived of his childhood in the eye of his maturity … Ethnicity is a requirement of soul’”. That in Africa whole hecatombs are day after day sacrificed to this romantic vision of the ethnic soul does not seem to trouble either Mr Stacey or the reviewer one little bit.

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.

High expectations

No—there’s nothing new out of Africa. Not any more. Not today. Maybe there was in Ancient Rome in the days of Pliny the Elder, and that’s what inspired his much repeated and deeply misleading quotation—’out of Africa always something new’. But that was long ago: for the rest of us it’s been an unending chronicle of chaos and corruption 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.

To the children in the theatre at the American Museum of Natural History gazing up at all this African excitement—many of them from schools in Harlem—there didn’t seem to be a problem. Nor did I point out any. Nobody did. As for Kwame Nkrumah, a left-wing journalist who had lived in London and the USA and who knew every rhetorical trick in the book, he 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.”

The colonial reality

Such passages were certainly stirring—but were they true? The late, distinguished economic historian Peter Bauer was the author of two books drawing on his African experience—Reality and Rhetoric: Studies in the Economics of Development (1984), and Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion (1981). He 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.”

The essential principles of British colonial rule in Africa were described by the novelist Joyce Cary, reminiscing about his life in the colonial service of Nigeria:

“It was the rule then in the Nigerian Service, and this has always been one of the guiding principles of British colonial policy, to preserve local law and custom as far as possible, and to do nothing that might break the continuity of local government. Tribal chiefs and tribal councils were to be maintained, and progress made by educating chiefs, by improving their roads, public services—which (as experience shows) by itself modifies the whole situation and can (if that end is kept in view) quite quickly build up a class capable of some share in the government.”

Cary’s picture is doubtless somewhat idealized. There were many slips between policy statements and policy implementation. Nevertheless, in Bauer’s words, colonial government in West Africa ensured “The establishment and maintenance of public security (which encompassed suppression of slavery and slave-trading and also of tribal warfare); the effective management of the monetary and fiscal systems; construction and maintenance of transport facilities; provision of some basic educational, public health and veterinary services; and some agricultural extension work.”

Post-colonial chaos

That was then. This is now. 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—and 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. And nothing can be done without lies and bribes and payoffs at every step and 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!”

The boneyard

On television today (August 15 2004) viewers were given a break from fly-covered skeletal infants in Darfur—what they saw was a massacre in Rwanda instead. One hundred and eighty Tutsi had been killed by a raiding group of Hutu. The usual ruined huts, scattered clothing, pitiful household items lying about, but of course never the really grisly stuff Keith B. Richburg describes from Tutsiland exactly ten years ago, the “bloated, discoloured bodies floating down a river and over a waterfall”, the unbearable stench, this going on for days. Today, turning from the smoking ruins, the cameraman finds a spokesman asking for the “international community” to take action through the UN to stop this sort of thing.

Author 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.”

All this was an ordeal because as a black American, Richburg writes, “when I see these nameless, faceless, anonymous bodies washing over a waterfall or piled up on the back of trucks, what I see most is that they look like me.”

We must all sympathise. How can millions of Afro-Americans feel when they see this sort of thing, even cleaned up and sanitized and moralized to accord with mass media expectations, on the evening news? How does the young woman I recall meeting as a student at Columbia, and who became an industrial chemist, feel about what she sees? Or the talented young man from the Caribbean who was making a career for himself in French literature: how can he feel today? I suppose the three of us do the same thing—change the channel as quickly as possible so we don’t have to see it at all.

For roughly 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 patience and detachment by Stephen Howe: his Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso 1998) presents a scholarly treatment of this controversial topic of the highest order.

He notes at the outset 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 fairly 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-coloring chemical melanin.” It has produced an orgy of mythography, of feel-good pseudo-scholarship utterly useless as a guide to Africa or its people today.

As one crisis after another assails us, now is surely the time for everyone to come to their senses. Readers anxious to know about the pre-independence colonial world might usefully start with Colonialism in Africa, 1870–1960, five volumes from the Cambridge University Press edited by Lewis Gann and Peter Duignan and published between 1969 and 1975. Volume Three contains twelve essays on African traditional societies by leading anthropologists of the day. Volume Four is on the economics of colonialism. Volume Five is a 500-page “Bibliographic Guide to Colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa”. This annotates a wide range of materials in history, law, anthropology, economics, and geography, most significant work up until 1973 being included. Later economic history worth looking at can be found in the chapter ‘The Africans’ in Thomas Sowell’s 1998 Conquests and Cultures, a book which also discusses the post-1960 African leaders and their disastrous policies, Kwame Nkrumah among them.

Painful cultural facts

But whatever the past can teach us, we still have to come back to the present situation and the decline into genocidal mayhem of one country after another—and must also decide what we should do. Plainly, the efforts of various agencies such as Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières should be encouraged. Relief should be provided where practicable and effective, especially where it can be seen to be so.

The generous impulses of western middle classes, however misled they may often be, are not to 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.

The disagreeable fact must also be faced that in Africa life has always been cheap, that extraordinary cruelties have been all too common, and that anything even vaguely resembling notions of human rights in its traditional societies were entirely unknown. Events of the kind reported each month or so in the media, and described in the story by Damon Galgut printed in Prospect magazine, are alas not exceptional when seen in the context of African cultural history as a whole. Two examples from the 19th century are printed below as appendices. These describe what visitors saw in two different African kingdoms in widely separated parts of the continent—the Bemba of north-eastern Tanzania, and Benin in West Africa. They don’t make pleasant reading—they are horrible—but perhaps a sharp reality check may be useful.

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 modern 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 fear of 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.

Appendix one: the Bemba

“In nearly every village are to be seen men and women whose eyes have been gouged out; the removal of one eye and one hand is hardly worthy of remark. Men and women are seen whose ears, nose and lips have been sliced off and both hands amputated. The cutting off of breasts of women has been extensively practised as a punishment for adultery but … some of the victims … are mere children … Indeed these mutilations were inflicted with the utmost callousness; every chief for instance has a retinue of good singers and drummers who invariably have their eyes gouged out to prevent them running away.”

Appendix two: Benin

“Altars covered with streams of dried human blood, the stench of which was awful … huge pits, forty to fifty feet deep, were found filled with human bodies, dead and dying, and a few wretched captives were rescued alive … everywhere sacrificial trees on which were the corpses of the latest victims—everywhere, on each path, were newly sacrificed corpses. On the principal sacrificial tree, facing the main gate of the King’s Compound, there were two crucified bodies, at the foot of the tree seventeen newly decapitated bodies and forty-three more in various stages of decomposition. On another tree a wretched woman was found crucified, whilst at its foot were four more decapitated bodies. To the westward of the King’s house was a large open space, about three hundred yards in length, simply covered with the remains of some hundreds of human sacrifices in all stages of decomposition. The same sights were met with all over the city.”

Posted in Africana.