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|First published in the New York Times Book
|Review Sunday, June 10, 2001
|IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF MR. KURTZ
|Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's .
|Illustrated. 338 pp. New York: Harper
|THE GRAVES ARE NOT YET FULL
|Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa.
|Illustrated. 309 pp. New York: Basic Books.
It is almost possible, but not quite, to squeeze
out a tear for Mobutu Sesse Seko in his last days as the diminished dictator of Zaire.
Everyone was cheating him, from his own children to the suppliers of the pink champagne he
popped open each morning at 9. He had lost control of the military. He could not believe
that after 32 years as unquestioned ruler, the "Helmsman" of a huge nation
ridiculously endowed with natural riches, he could be defied. But in 1997 a group of
rebels took Zaire with little fighting, later restoring to the country a name that
conjures many images: Congo.
As Mobutu fled to Morocco, his own elite guard pocked his getaway plane with bullets. The
relevant symbol at this point was not his trademark leopard-skin hat, but the diapers he
left behind in one of his palaces. Dying of prostate cancer, Mobutu was incontinent.
All this makes for a rich morality play, not only about one man corrupted absolutely (even
gleefully, it seems) but also about a continent in a very big mess. "In Mobutu's
hands, the country had become a paradigm of all that was wrong with postcolonial
Africa," Michela Wrong writes in her firsthand, and first-rate, account of the Mobutu
era, "In the Footsteps of Mr.Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's
Congo." It was a parody of a functioning state. Here, the anarchy and absurdity that
simmered in so many other sub-Saharan nations were taken to their logical extremes."
This is no stretch: Mobutu, a cook's son and bright star of Congo in its early days,
looted billions while his people were reduced to meal a day. He played off one ethnic
group against another. He presided over an ever-deepening disorder, which he discovered,
no doubt to his sublime satisfaction, he could manipulate to his own good use. This
remains the state of play, with few exceptions, around Africa. Mobutu was a pioneer.
Neither Wrong nor Bill Berkeley, the author of "The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race,
Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa," gets far in prescribing what might haul
Africa out of its chasm.
|Ian Fisher, who has reported from East Africa
|since 1998, is about to cover Eastern Europe
Neither spends much time poking around for the exceptions to the continent's crisis of
spirit and structure. That is not their intention. These two books are about how Africa
got the way it is. Both are also briskly written, Wrong's in particular. That is a plus
for a subject most outsiders do not even bother to ignore actively.
There are many excellent books about Africa, some of them by journalists like Wrong, who
has spent several years in Congo, and Berkeley, with almost 20 years of reporting around
Africa to his credit. But they tend to fall into two categories: broad apologies for
Africa or screeds lamenting the continent's evils - "the horror," if you will.
Responsible people might disagree, but to me Wrong's book is a few cuts above because she
presents Mobutu's tale as simply that - a good tale. Her version is, in fact, a bit of a
romp. But her first order of business is to rescue some of literature's most quoted last
In the 1890's, when the Congo had barely begun to exist for outsiders, Joseph Conrard went
to work there as a steamship captain. He turned his experience into the novella
"Heart of Darkness," the story of Mr. Kurtz, whose mission of commerce and
general betterment ended with him, a classical convert, going more native than the
natives. Among other unspeakables, the book hints, Kurtz became a cannibal. "The
horror, the horror," Kurtz said, and he died, his body steaming enigmatically away on
the Congo River.
As Wrong notes, the words are often summoned to describe Africa's latest wretchedness:
Aids, Ebola; war-induced famine in Ethiopia or Sudan; limbs hacked off children in Sierra
Leone; half a million or more dead in a genocide in Rwanda. But, as she rightly says,
Conrard was more preoccupied with rotten Western values, the white man's inhumanity to the
black man, than, as is almost always assumed today, black savagery." Kurtz had gone
to Congo largely to export ivory, just as the founder of the Belgian Congo, King
Leopold II, made his main business supplying rubber to the new pneumatic tire industry,
costing the lives of perhaps 10 million Africans who were forced into labor.
Thus, many of the troubles of Africa - which was mostly sealed off until only a short
century ago - start with outsiders. First came the slave trade, by Arabs and, later, by
Europeans. Then Europe carved up the continent, imbuing Africa with a profound
identity crisis. Maybe worse, the colonists created illogical boundaries that split the
natural divisions of geography and ethnic groups, making democracy and state-building
after independence in the 1950s and 60s no easy task.
Enter Joseph Mobutu, who showed how African leaders could profit from the West's sorry
legacy. A tall army sergeant who tried his hand at journalism, Mobutu was initially a
friend of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first prime minister, then his Brutus. Taking power in
1965, Mobutu worked both sides of the cold war, and in the process ensured that no bad
behavior would go unrewarded. He stole everything he could.skimming millions off
consignments of copper or diamonds. No one had any doubt what he was up to. He barely even
bothered to conceal it, except tauntingly to keep up appearances. Wrong describes him at
news conferences, as reporters pricked him with questions about his crimes: "It was
difficult not to feel a certain grudging admiration for the impeccable politeness, the
fake innocence, the ironic demeanor that all broadcast one defiant message: I know your
game and am far too old and wily a fox to be caught out."
The fact is that many forces kept him far from accountability: the West was so eager for
his friendship, and do-gooders so eager to do good, that Congo received some $9.3 billion
in foreign aid between 1975 and 1997, when rebels finally forced him from power. In Zaire
the state was the only real path for advancement, and so nearly everyone, from soldiers to
functionaries to the revolving door of top officials, had a stake in keeping the chaos
"The momentum behind Zaire's free fall was generated not by one man but thousands of
compliant collaborators, at home and abroad," Wrong writes. The details are what
gives her story its juice. She documents the excesses: Mobutu's marriage to identical
twins; the lavish palaces and gifts of Mercedes; the suitcases full of cash for European
spendfests. Here too is Western treachery: the C.I.A.'s ludicrous approval of a plot to
kill Lumumba with a vial of poison; the clockwork meetings with United States presidents,
very much aware of the riches of copper, cobalt, uranium and diamonds that Congo had to
offer by the ton. She also shows how poor Mobutu, in his last pathetic days was consumed
by the system he had created.
As in many African countries, loyalty was largely bought. Wrong quotes Mobutu's Belgian
son-in-law, white and a playboy (a fascinating side story in itself), on the drawers full
of $100 bills Mobutu continually dipped into to keep the system going. "He paid out,
and paid out," the son-in-law says. He was surrounded by leeches, thirsting for
dollars ... I looked into his eyes and I felt sorry for him.
Through it all, Mobutu, who died less than four months after fleeing Zaire, left behind
one undeniable gift: Wrong notes that most people in Congo actually feel like Congolese,
citizens of a coherent nation in one of the world's least coherent geographic states, as
opposed to a collection of dozens of ethnic groups. The paradox, of course, is that with
Congo now split into fiefs of warlords, rebel groups and foreign armies, it has never been
so close to being dismembered. Mobutu himself was often fond of quoting the French saying
"Apres moi, le deluge."
Wrong's narrative is only barely strung with the spine of an overarching
ideas, but this is no great weakness when well-reported anecdotes can do the work.
Beckeley's book does have an organizing principle: that the violence and chaos in Africa
are not "as senseless as they seem." Rather, African leaders deliberately
exploit ethnic divisions, disorder or outside ties to hold on power and to make
money. There is no such thing as "ancient tribal hatred." The real problem is
states that operate like criminal sydincates. "Ethnic conflict in Africa is a form of
organized crime," with its gangsters in control of states, he says.
It can be a dicey thing for comfortable outsiders to write about what is wrong with
Africa, particularly in language as blunt as Berkeley's ("Mobutu Sesse Seko was
nakedly, flamboyant evil," he says at one point). On the one hand, as Berkley points
out, Europe and America do not have to look far back for their own examples of genocide,
slavery, militarism or corruption. And there are inevitable questions of race when white
people condemn Africa. On the other hand, there is no denying Africa's problems (and
Africans themselves are the first to point them out, ever more loudly, I believe).
Berkeley resolves this problem neatly: His book begins with the statement, "This is a
book about evil." But he goes on to say that it is about evil in Africa - not Africa
or Africans, are evil in themselves. This may sound obvious or patronizing, but five
minutes of conversation with most American on the subject of Africa makes the need to come
out and say it quite clear. In fact, Berkeley explains that his book is partly a
"pointed rebuttal" to two other authors who have attracted attention in recent
years for books on Africa: Robert D. Kaplan, who argued in "The Ends of the Earth: A
Journey at the Dawn of the New Century" that a chaos and "new-age
primitivism" were emanating from places like Africa; and Keith B. Richburg, a
Washington Post reporter whose portrait of Africa and its citizens in "Out of Africa:
A Black Man Confronts Africa" was grim, to say the least.
Berkeley's palate is broader than Wrong's: rather than focusing on one country, he moves
around Liberia, Zaire, South Africa, Sudan and Rwanda. In each he shows how leaders like
Charles Taylor, in Liberia, or Sudan's Islamic leaders and rebels (a disturbing number
with Ph.D.'s), hold on to power as they disregard what their people might need. Like
Wrong, he lays a good deal of the blame for Africa's problems on the West: one chapter is
devoted entirely to Chester A. Crocker, the top Africa official in Ronald Reagan's State
Department, casting him as a distant version of the African "Big Man," on whom
many lives depend. I would never in a million years tell you I was seeking what was in the
best interests of Liberia," Crocker tells the author at one point, about how the
United States befriended one dismal regime after another in Liberia. I was protecting the
interests of Washington." Crocker deserves points for candor.
Over all, Berkeley's book is a smart and broad introduction to the political crisis in
Africa, even if it suffers from a bit of hand-wringing. He is certainly less amused than
Wrong. One almost wishes his book had come out a few years earlier: the reporting, while
still illustrative, is aging. Crocker, for example, left the State Department in 1988.
Berkeley does take a stab at what might turn Africa around, citing how President Museveni
has made Uganda a largely peaceful, developing place, if not a full-fledged democracy. The
last chapter is the most hopeful: how the cycle of impunity, with African leaders like
Mobutu managing to escape responsibility for their acts, is being chipped away, if slowly,
as an international tribunal brings the criminals of Rwanda's genocide to justice.
Several years ago, The Economist wrote that "it is easy and fashionable to be
pessimistic about Africa's future." There is not much in either of these two books to
dispute that. What endures is the amazing ability of Africans to suffer, survive and wait,
in some dignity, for better days.
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