August 1, 2006  

The undecided continent

The new struggle for Africa

frica has suffered many curses, from massive corruption to AIDS to dysfunctional borders drawn by cynical Europeans. Oppression, illiteracy, deadly ethnic and religious rivalries — Africa’s litany of disadvantages resembles that of Europe in the 14th century (when the Black Death struck far harder and more swiftly than AIDS has done south of the Sahara). But there is one inexcusable curse: the casual assumption on the part of Americans that Africa is all of one hopeless piece.

In fact, there are many Africas, some as nearly irredeemable as any territories on earth, others remarkably promising. Writing off black Africa is as wrong strategically as it is morally, and lumping together countries as diverse as South Africa, Congo and Senegal is as foolish as assuming that, because they’re both North American states, Mexico and the U.S. must be identical.

Four research trips to Africa over the past four years have made me a cautious optimist. If they make only a few more correct decisions, states such as South Africa, Mozambique, Ghana and Senegal may escape, at last, most of the curses that have made sub-Saharan Africa the mockery and pity of the world.

Increasingly, African states have realized that the ultimate price of corruption is far higher than the mere tally of money changing hands, that socialist economies cannot deliver progress and that markets work. In numerous states, there’s a new sense of self-reliance and disgust with the begging bowl. While Africa will need development aid for many years to come, the regulation and application of that aid — while still imperfect — is more effective than it was during the decades when Western donors and lenders did little more than drop money on the ground.

Men and women are making a positive difference in Africa. And this time around, they’re Africans.

Admitting the failures

No sane observer would claim that all’s well with Africa. It is utterly impossible for the vast region known as Democratic Republic of the Congo (aka Zaire) ever to function effectively as a unitary state. The series of wars that have engaged Congo and its neighbors for the past dozen years, with combat from Kigali to Kinshasa, adds up to the worst man-made death toll since Mao’s Cultural Revolution. And intermittent ceasefires do not promise a final end. Few of the volatile issues plaguing Congo and its neighbors have been admitted, let alone solved. Local power brokers and international diplomats alike deny that a state such as Congo can fail irredeemably. So the misery continues.

Nor is there much to be hopeful about in another vast country, Nigeria. Diseased by oil revenues, one irresponsible government after another, military and civilian, has only worsened the plight of Nigeria’s poorest citizens while polarizing religious and tribal rivals. With routine Muslim-on-Christian and Christian-on-Muslim violence, growing insurgencies in the oil-haunted Niger delta, and the most-corrupt major military on earth, the best that can be hoped is that Nigeria will continue to muddle through, avoiding all-out civil war and a bloodbath that could not be contained within its borders.

Zimbabwe, recently an agricultural export power with a promising civil society, has been torn apart by the egomania of its president-for-too-long-a-life, the octogenarian Robert Mugabe. With populist rhetoric and cynical policies, Mugabe guaranteed his personal power by destroying a farming culture that profited Zimbabwe’s white and black citizens alike. Famine claws yesterday’s breadbasket of southern Africa, with the minority Matabele tribe purposely starved and even Mugabe’s majority Shona tribe suffering miserably (while regime supporters, black and white, party on caviar and fresh lobster flown in on pirate aircraft by crews from the former East Bloc — frequently funded by Chinese “investment” money).

The indifference of Zimbabwe’s neighbors to the suffering of millions thrown out of work, made homeless and left hungry revealed a significant African weakness: the reluctance of African leaders to criticize one another or challenge another state’s internal abuses. Once a hero of the liberation struggle, Mugabe has been permitted to savage his people to a degree that the bigoted, but not genocidal, Rhodesian government never did.

Ivory Coast, once France’s model colony (and thereafter a neocolonial model of successful exploitation), is struggling to move beyond a ruinous civil war condoned initially by Paris — which sought to play the sides against each other. But the demons of factional strife are hard to put down once unleashed, and Ivory Coast may continue to play out its delayed post-colonial dramas in blood. If they take place as planned, the elections scheduled for October could begin to patch up the country — or lead to yet another round of fighting.

The recent Islamist takeover in Mogadishu forced Somalia back into the international spotlight, exposing yet again the Clinton-era fallacy that neglected problems simply go away. The world community also failed by refusing to recognize Somaliland, Somalia’s successful, peaceful northern territory, as the independent state it claims to be. By their reluctance to accept changes in international boundaries, no matter how sensible and just, the world community and Somalia’s fellow African states may have condemned the promising and comparatively tolerant society of Somaliland to civil war with Islamic extremists supported by al-Qaida.

Yet, listing present and looming crises such as these — the usual approach to Africa — tells only the dark half of the story. Long ignored, Africa is becoming a global center of attention for the first time since the 1960s and the depths of the Cold War. And it isn’t only the U.S. European Command and U.S. Central Command that are interested: The Chinese are back.

China’s contact with the East-African coast dates back at least a thousand years. A matter of trade goods, the first, long period of wealth transfers peaked with the visit of a mighty Chinese fleet 600 years ago. Thereafter, China curled up like a porcupine — as China has done intermittently though its history.

The second, more aggressive wave of Chinese involvement in Africa splashed over the continent in the 1960s, when liberation (and communism) was supposed to arrive at the barrel of a gun. China invested far more heavily then, in proportion to its available resources, than it is doing now, sending military trainers, doctors, engineers and money it could ill-afford to build ill-constructed factories that stand today as derelict monuments to the failures of socialism. In recent discussions with American analysts, I’ve felt as though sentinels were running through the halls, screaming, “The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!” Yet, the truth is that the Chinese have already been in Africa in force — and they failed miserably.

Beijing is on a path that will lead to ultimate failure again. While it is only sensible to monitor Chinese involvement in Africa, the correct response is “Chinese,” in the sense that we should be patient, watch and wait. Many of China’s seeming successes are hollow — the results of desperation rather than clever strategy. While there are ever more Chinese in the streets of African cities, there are no Chinese in African hearts. There are no long lines outside Chinese embassies with Africa’s best and brightest begging for the equivalent of a green card.

Our fears regarding Chinese engagement in Africa blind us to China’s weak hand (and low investment levels). Our fears also incorporate tacit racism — an assumption that Africans aren’t wise enough to see dangers that seem obvious to us. But Africans aren’t fools, nor are their powers of observation in any way inferior to ours. Indeed, if anyone has a distorted view of African reality, it’s the foreign players, American, European or Chinese. Africans, delighted to play the Chinese against the French, wouldn’t mind playing Americans against the Chinese, either.

Instead of panicking over the “Return of Fu Manchu,” consider China’s difficulties in attempting to exploit Africa over the long term:

• China’s support for rogue regimes, such as those in Sudan or Zimbabwe, alarm us — but they damage China’s image terribly in African eyes. Africans have no more taste for Chinese imperialism than they do for French neocolonialism. Beijing’s choice of prime clients makes Africans wary, not welcoming. And the Chinese are making the classic error Americans made in the past: believing that repugnant regimes (remember the shah of Iran?) are stronger and more durable than they really are.

• China isn’t in Africa because Beijing is brilliant but because Beijing’s desperate. With popular expectations and the consumption of raw materials soaring at home, the Chinese are searching the world frantically for any possible sources of oil, minerals — and markets. Yet, every significant tie China has with Africa depends on sea lanes that Beijing cannot begin to control. No matter how successful its diplomacy might be on the African continent, the U.S. Navy’s control of the Indian Ocean negates any strategic advantage Beijing might hope for in a crisis.

• The Chinese aren’t liked in Africa. Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve found packs of Chinese. And they stay in packs. They do not mix with the locals, and Africans have no difficulty identifying the 19th-century intensity of Chinese racism. Nor are Chinese goods considered desirable — Africans buy them only when they cannot afford European or American goods.

And despite exaggerated claims of global anti-Americanism, a visitor to Africa who breaks free of the politician-academic-journalist web of reflexive prejudice finds that no country on earth so fascinates and attracts Africans as does the U.S.

In dealing with Chinese meddling in Africa, we need to have the wisdom to let China fail. Let a desperate China overextend itself. And keep the U.S. Navy strong.

The great multicolored hope

At least one-fifth of the population is HIV-positive; it has the highest rape rate in the world, along with massive unemployment, forbidding slums and simmering tribal rivalries: Those are the usual things said of South Africa from a distance. But South Africa also offers a stunningly different aspect to those who look more closely. It’s becoming a postmodern empire, a power whose reach exceeds that of any historical empire on the African continent in terms of scale and wealth.

What deceives observers about South Africa is that the contours and concerns of its growing empire do not fit traditional templates. South Africa isn’t in the business of conquering its neighbors militarily. It’s in the business of business. And its sprawling business empire stretches as far north as Kenya and as far northwest as Ivory Coast. From supermarkets to cell phone networks, South Africa is an African power catering to African markets. Its penetration dwarfs China’s. In Nairobi and Accra, I found that locals fear the fierce competitive skills of South African companies — owned and run by aggressive teams of blacks, browns and whites who cracked the code the moment the old apartheid regime fell: By cooperating, all could grow rich.

Admittedly, there are dark sides to South Africa’s success. First, it has been built on a willingness — resembling that of India’s upwardly mobile class — to ignore the poverty of millions of citizens, tossing them a few placating programs and a wealth of empty promises. AIDS, crime, inadequate medical care and housing, poor schools — such issues have been slighted to free up capital for investment.

Capitalism works. But it doesn’t work evenhandedly.

Second, South African businesses are ruthless abroad. The utter destruction of Mozambique in three decades of liberation struggle and civil war taught South Africans a lucrative lesson: Anything destroyed in southern-African countries will have to be rebuilt. And South Africans are best-positioned to profit from the needs of shattered neighbors. Directly or indirectly, South Africans control Mozambique, where they bought in at rock-bottom prices in war’s wake. They are now applying the lesson to Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe regime has been allowed to run up debts it cannot begin to repay while ruining the country. When Mugabe finally disappears, South Africans will own the country’s treasures. Nor does South Africa worry about the present engagement of Chinese or Libyan players in Zimbabwe, because South Africa has the power to close the direct-access routes through Mozambique, leaving a long and tortuous route through Tanzania as the only — and fragile — lifeline for players who do not follow South Africa’s rules.

That ruthlessness may be inhumane, but it is proving to be the best formula for success and constructive wealth accumulation the continent has seen. But South Africa is approaching a crucial point internally. Its next presidential election will be the most important vote the continent has seen — it will decide not only the fate of South Africa, but also potentially that of much of sub-Saharan Africa. If South Africans elect a skilled technocrat as their next president, there will be no stopping the country. If, however, South Africans fall into the old regional trap of voting for a populist demagogue, all of the progress to date could fall apart, leading to internal strife, capital flight and an economic breakdown. One man, Jacob Zuma, a populist firebrand recently acquitted on the charge of raping an HIV-positive family friend, stands an ugly chance of becoming South Africa’s next leader. If he does, one man may destroy not only a country’s hopes, but also a continent’s.

Brightening lights elsewhere

If Mozambique has been conquered by South African investors, it nonetheless may turn out to provide the most successful development model yet seen in Africa. A darling of the aid community for more than a decade, Mozambique has defied the pattern of failure that has afflicted so many post-independence African states. One of the world’s poorest countries, ravaged by war, Mozambique has struggled to avoid becoming an aid addict, seeking instead projects that allow it to help itself, to get the training wheels off the development bicycle as quickly as possible. Lacking everything, Mozambique avoided the trap of trying to do everything at once, only to fail on all fronts. Instead, there has been a steady concentration of infrastructure development — and the government has battled corruption more aggressively than any other regional state except South Africa.

That said, corruption remains the biggest hurdle to long-term success. Mozambique’s poverty has exposed it to Nigerian and Pakistani criminal organizations, and it has become an important transit point for heroin and laundered money. Whether or not this battle can be won is undecided for now, but a visitor to Mozambique cannot help feeling optimistic. This is a country trying hard to get better — and without making unreasonable demands or indulging in paralyzing blame. It is also the only country in Africa in which I was never asked for a handout.

To the north, Tanzania, which avoided the internecine savagery that ravaged so many of its neighbors, is rebounding from its long romance with socialism. Despite spotty election-cycle violence, the country’s minority Muslims (on the coast) and majority Christians and animists (in the interior) have achieved a functional identity as Tanzanians — a triumph in a region of my-tribe-first loyalties. Fostered by Julius Nyerere and abetted by the absence of a single dominant tribe, Tanzanian identity may still be fragile, but it exists — something that simply is not the case elsewhere, where tribal identity consistently trumps national identity. Poor and underdeveloped, Tanzania nonetheless has a chance to become a healthy state — and a helpful U.S. ally.

Across the continent, where the regional psyche is trapped between the brutality of the recent civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and the potential for a violent collapse of the Nigerian state, two very different countries offer hope.

Comparatively rich at independence only to be bankrupted by its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and his impulsive socialism, Ghana has been on a long road to recovery. Ten years of damage under Nkrumah, followed by another decade of rule by weak, grasping governments, has taken multiple decades to repair. But today’s Ghana has begun to show the potential to build a viable economy and make meaningful improvements in the lives of its citizens.

Confounding liberal Western prejudices, it was the coup-maker (and later elected president) Jerry Rawlins who set the country on the strenuous path back to health. Now, with a succession of free — and generally fair — elections behind it, the population has acquired a taste for democracy, as well as for education and hard work. Ghana is never going to be a regional powerhouse. But it may serve as a regional example and a stabilizing force — although it, too, could be swamped by a flood of violence emanating from Nigeria. Barring Nigerian self-destruction, though, Ghana has the potential to be a key building block in the reconstruction of West Africa.

Another building block and encouraging example is Senegal, a stable, overwhelmingly Muslim state that has refused, adamantly, to be radicalized by Wahhabi or Salafist extremists. For those who insist that all Muslims are uniform in their desire to subvert and dominate Western civilization, Senegal offers abundant evidence to the contrary.

One point that Western Muslim-baiters refuse to recognize is that Islam comes in many varieties, some of which are tolerant and humane, and many of which are tied to cherished local practices and beliefs. From Indonesia to West Africa, I’ve seen how Muslims, confident in their faith, reject the proselytizing of Saudi-funded zealots — who insist that Senegalese Muslims, for example, have gotten Islam all wrong.

Nobody much likes to be told that traditions they’ve cherished for a thousand years are false and devilish. And the Senegalese, with their Sufi influences, marabout holy men and religious brotherhoods, much prefer their own form of Islam, thanks, to the joyless faith inflicted by the Saudis.

A poor country, Senegal nonetheless has refused to be bought by the Saudis and Gulf Arabs. Leopold Senghor, a minority Catholic and the only “big man” leader of post-independence Africa to leave an unblemished legacy, created a state of institutions, rational ambitions and ethnic equity. A long tradition of peace, foreign and domestic, has enabled Senegalese society to develop without succumbing to the internal stresses that ravaged so many other African states. Even the French presence has been relatively benign — although it’s increasingly resented.

It’s easy for rich states to be tolerant. But the tolerance practiced by a poor state such as Senegal is a triumph of the human spirit. Senegal is never going to be a great power, but it’s already a stabilizing force and an encouraging example in West Africa — and proof that Islam does not equal anti-Western hatred. To the contrary, the Senegalese love to regale visitors with tales of friends and relatives who’ve “made it” in America, while decrying the prejudice they’ve encountered in the Middle East, either as workers or pilgrims.

The key point this article seeks to make is simply that Africa isn’t monolithic or doomed to failure. While it’s difficult to have much confidence in a gleaming tomorrow for Congo, Sudan or Somalia, and many other African countries will have to be content to muddle through, there are also states that should offer us encouragement — such as Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Namibia and even savagely poor Mali.

We cannot afford to write off an entire continent. On both strategic and humanitarian grounds, our engagement in Africa is essential. Instead of obsessing on the growing Chinese presence, we should concentrate on continuing to outperform Beijing — not very hard to do, especially given the latent good will toward the U.S. felt by the average African (if you want to find pro-American extremists, visit any state colonized by the French). We see Africa in terms of resources and threats to stability, but we need to teach ourselves to understand its greater potential and to encourage those trends that hint at a spreading recovery from the traumas of the colonial and post-colonial eras. This doesn’t mean huge giveaway aid programs, but intelligent cooperation and a respect for Africa’s own capabilities.

For all the sufferings of Eastern Europe, the Cold War may have been hardest on Africa. Not all of the continent’s failures were homemade. But Africa’s recent successes, from Capetown to Accra, are stamped “Made in Africa.” It’s only the failures, from Harare to Khartoum, that wear an increasingly visible stamp “Assembled in Beijing.”

Africa won’t belong to us. But it won’t become Beijing’s property, either. After centuries of tribulation, Africa has begun to belong to Africans again.

RALPH PETERS is a retired Army officer and the author of the new book “Never Quit the Fight.”