Lessons Learned in Africa
A reporter replays history so past mistakes don’t become future policy.
Robert M. Press’s “The New Africa: Dispatches from a Changing Continent” is a new addition to the list. Assigned to the Nairobi bureau office of The Christian Science Monitor from 1987 to 1995, he mainly covers West and East Africa. He writes at a time when sub-Saharan Africa has undergone some major political changes that began in 1989. He applauds how, after the Cold War ended, local dissent bubbled up more forcefully. Civilian and military autocrats throughout the region came under unprecedented pressure to legalize opposition parties and, consequently, expand the space for criticism. Some leaders fell from power; others held on but had to work harder.
In Kenya, for instance, Press narrates the major events along that nation’s bumpy road to a pluralistic political system. Daniel arap Moi, President since 1978, was compelled to change the constitution in 1991 and allow opposition parties to get established. By then, his government had increased corruption to an unprecedented level, in a country considered an African success story during the 1960’s and 1970’s. And according to Africa Watch, the regime was responsible for instigating ethnic violence, which began in 1991 and continued sporadically in subsequent years, to discredit competitive elections. This resulted in some 1,500 deaths and the displacement of 300,000 people. Multiparty elections had not been held since 1966. They finally took place in 1992 and fell short of being completely free and fair. Moi won over a fractured opposition with 36 percent. He was reelected in 1997 with 40 percent.
Press’s storytelling method relies more on the eloquent power of the characters he chooses to highlight than on critical sketches of Moi and his aides. However, Press does make two minor errors in his Kenya chapter. First, he states that Kenneth Matiba, a wealthy businessman who finished second after Moi in the first election, ran again in 1997. He did not. Second, he claims that most of the killings took place in Central Province. They were actually in the Rift Valley, Moi’s home province, and were mainly carried out by his Kalenjin ethnic group against Kikuyus and other Kenyans who had settled there from other regions. Nevertheless, Press is, on the whole, well-balanced and informative.
The author also tries to capture the less dramatic side of Africa. His concluding chapter takes readers into the lives of a select group of Africans who are quietly trying to change their lives for the better. “Such individual efforts may depend on assistance from government,” he writes, “but the desire for greater economic and social freedom does not…. The stories of such individuals seldom make the news and thus go unnoticed by most Africans and non-Africans alike. Yet they make up an important part of what is happening in Africa today.”
“The New Africa” contains more than 100 photographs taken by Press’s wife, Betty, a photographer. The book as a whole is different from, for example, “The Africans,” by David Lamb, published in 1983, or “Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent,” by Blaine Harden, published in 1990. Both reporters were stationed in Nairobi by their respective papers: Lamb by the Los Angeles Times and Harden by The Washington Post. While both wrote in an engaging and very readable style, one still had the sense of journalists who, when all was said and done, would move on. In “The New Africa” there’s a more lingering feeling.
With Press, the pace is slower, the observations more calmly noted, and the general style of presentation is journalistic with an academic flavor. Of special importance to him is the humanitarian and political strife that broke out while he reported from the continent—especially in Somalia and Rwanda—and the grim lessons they held for the United States. For instance, he carefully reconstructs how in 1993 about 100 elite U.S. soldiers, already stationed in Somalia, were flown by helicopters to try and capture warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed and his top aides at a house in Mogadishu where he was supposedly meeting. The warlord led one of the feuding clan factions in the civil war that erupted after the ouster of the country’s leader, General Mohamed Siad Barre, in 1991. Aideed was wanted because his men had killed 24 Pakistani U.N. soldiers in Mogadishu four months earlier.
When the troops got to their sites, what originally seemed like an operation that would succeed quickly turned into a 14-hour battle. Americans took heavy fire from men “in wraparound Somali skirts and flip-flops,” according to Press, who hid in the nearby buildings. One helicopter was downed, another one crashed. When the fighting was over, 18 Americans were dead and the naked body of one of them was dragged through the city’s streets. The grisly scene was captured on camera and immediately flashed around the world. Understandably, there was a harsh public outcry back in America. President Clinton, who inherited the operation from President Bush, had never given Americans a clear explanation as to why the United States was engaged in combat in Somalia. He quickly ordered the troops to be returned home within five months.
The painful episode, furthermore, prompted the U.S. government to produce Presidential Decision Directive 25 in 1994, which had the effect of reducing the possibility of committing American forces in future U.N. operations—especially those that held the potential for casualties and humiliating media coverage. All this resulted from an operation in which almost 26,000 Americans had gone in, not as combatants, but as a means to ensure that relief convoys made it to the famine-hit regions, amid a country in civil war and with no functioning central government. The sad fact, as Press warns, is that when Americans look back at Somalia they are likely to remember the 18 Americans who lost their lives, not the thousands of Somalis who were saved from starvation.
The Somalia legacy went on to exact a heavy price for Africa, as later crises in various African countries failed to stir Washington into any meaningful action. Press sums up this legacy best in his chapter entitled “Genocide Ignored: Rwanda.” Of Somalia, he writes, “This was a turning point in U.S. foreign policy: the United States, at least under Clinton, would no longer send its troops on peacekeeping missions that did not directly affect its national security—regardless of the humanitarian needs.” In 1994, in tiny Rwanda, about a million people were killed. Most of the victims were Tutsis who were killed by fellow citizens who were Hutu. The United States, United Nations, Africa and the rest of the world stood by and did nothing. According to Press, the world had not heeded the lesson of the Holocaust.
The book’s no-frills approach in explaining Africa is reminiscent of Sanford Ungar’s “Africa: The People and Politics of an Emerging Continent,” which came out in 1978. Ungar, currently the Director of the Voice of America, is a former host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and dean of the School of Communication at American University. Both writers are short on colorful language but effective if one isn’t looking for a quick read. The advantage of this approach is that when they hit upon a particularly crucial topic, it gets the coverage it deserves.
The message that comes through in reading Press’s account is straightforward, yet his advice is often overlooked: Take time to really understand Africa. Americans, before they landed in Somalia, should have been educated to understand that this was a society steeped in tradition. Its community leaders, Press points out, were almost always men, and were held in respect by the people. Family and clan relationships were more highly valued than official titles. And this same society, comprised of individuals as diverse as desert nomads, entrepreneurs and scholars, rose up and kicked out General Barre. The despot, as a means of staying in power, had set one clan against the other. In other words, Barre tried to undo the important ethnic ties that actually held the country together and had dangerously politicized clan awareness.
When American troops went after Aideed, they suddenly lost their neutrality and appeared—to the warlord’s clan and allies—intent on preventing him from becoming the nation’s leader. This is when the mission took an especially dangerous turn. Also, Press contends that the search for peace was flawed. The United States and U.N. paid too much attention to Aideed and his main rival, Mohamed Ali Mahdi, the interim president. Other potential leaders, who might have helped to negotiate an agreement, were left out. All these points now seem particularly worth studying given how the Somalia experience inhibited action in Rwanda.
Whether the world is now ready to confront the next conflict that threatens to become another Rwanda remains to be seen. What was the lesson, this past May, from Sierra Leone? There, the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group trying to seize power, held 500 ill-equipped U.N. peacekeepers hostage and stole their weapons, equipment and personnel carriers. What would have happened if Britain had not sent in troops? Is peacekeeping without any risk of losing lives realistic? What’s considered a fair expectation of America’s peacekeeping role as the world’s remaining superpower? Do partisan disputes in Congress over appropriating money to pay the U.N. to confront far-flung hot spots unintentionally embolden warmongers? These questions deserve continued debate in a dispassionate manner. Press’s book enriches the discussion.
Wilson Wanene, a Kenyan-born freelance journalist in Boston, has lived in the United States since 1978.
Every so often an American foreign correspondent will wrap up a tour in Africa and decide to put the whole experience into a book. For readers in the United States who follow news reports from the continent closely, the account becomes a more personal way to know the journalist. It’s also an opportunity to see favorite topics and personalities in a fleshed-out form.