African Fantasies

There is so little room in the American consciousness for Africa.

“Treat Africa as if it were one country,” Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina advises all would-be chroniclers of the continent in his satirical piece for Granta. “Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs, and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”

While the actual details of Africa might not capture the attention of Americans, the continent has a tenacious hold over our imaginations and our nightmares. Except for occasional forays into romanticism like Out of Africa, Hollywood still relies on Joseph Conrad for its scripts: Africa remains a vast heart of darkness. We see genocide in Rwanda and Sudan (Hotel Rwanda), bloodthirsty tyrants like Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland), a plague of illnesses from AIDs to ebola (Outbreak), and seemingly endless conflicts in Congo, Somalia, and Uganda (Black Hawk Down, among others).

The Bush administration tried to script yet another nightmare scenario for Africa: the spread of terrorism from Afghanistan across the deserts of North Africa. In this week’s focus on Africa at FPIF, Jeremy Keenan exposes this supposed second front in the “war on terror” as a fantasy worthy of Hollywood. Al-Qaida did not take up residence in the Sahel region, Pakistani jihadis did not set up shop in mountain fastnesses, and the area did not become, in the words of one U.S. military man, a “swamp of terror.” Keenan explains the how and why of this peculiar U.S. concoction.

Growth and Voice

If it weren’t for the vast material wealth that lies beneath the varied landscapes of Africa, the continent would drift even further from the attentions of the global north. FPIF co-director Emira Woods has recently returned from a trip to Liberia, Nigeria, and Chad. In her column this week, she explains that the oil wealth in these three countries has been a decidedly mixed blessing. The rich have pocketed the profits and the poor have suffered the environmental consequences, though the Chadians and Liberians still hope they can avoid the polarization that oil visited upon Nigeria.

FPIF contributor Leif Brottem concurs. Aluminum mining in Mozambique, cotton production in Benin, cash cropping in the production of food: these extractive industries and capital-intensive production have brought development money and investment to African countries without necessarily improving the livelihoods of the poor. Poverty reduction requires empowerment, Brottem maintains. People must have a voice in the decision making.

Such voice is lacking across the spectrum, from the village level all the way up to the international financial institutions. At the recent meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Africa once again got the short end of the decision-making stick. FPIF contributors Sameer Dossani and Soren Ambrose explain that “the IMF’s Board of Governors formally approved a previously announced reshuffling of voting shares designed to increase the voting power of four middle income countries—China, Mexico, Turkey, and South Korea. The biggest loser was sub-Saharan Africa; its collective voting share, already a paltry 5%, was cut in half.”

To round out this week’s focus on Africa, Martin Plaut looks at the political future of South Africa. President Thabo Mbeki is scheduled to step down in 2009, but the battle to take his place has already begun. Given the pivotal importance of South Africa on the continent and in the economic and security plans of the United States, the political turmoil in the country has significant global repercussions.

The Thai Coup

Democracy took a global step backward on September 19 when the military orchestrated a coup in Thailand that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. FPIF columnist Walden Bello, who has directed Focus on the Global South out of Bangkok for many years, is skeptical of the military’s promises to restore full democracy. He also worries that the coup is part of a larger trend, “a deep crisis of legitimacy among elite democracies that came into being in the 1980s and 1990s as part of what Samuel Huntington called the ‘Third Wave of Democratization.’ The Thai coup is the second high-profile collapse of an elite democracy in the last seven years. It may not be the last.” A 60-Second Expert version of his essay is also available.

On the other side of the world, pundits are busy dividing up the Latin American left into demagogues and pragmatists. FPIF contributor Juan Antonio Montecino takes issue with this false divide. Working together closely across this perceived gap, progressives in the region seem oblivious to the distinction between a “good” and a “bad” left. “Latin America’s shift to the left is a symptom of the tremendous unpopularity and failure of U.S. policies in the region,” Montecino writes, and these perceptions have created a great deal more unity than the hair-splitting pundits have imagined.

So, we are left with a number of fantasies: of terrorism and development in Africa, the democratic intentions of the Thai military, and an ideological split within the Latin American left. Let’s add one more to the mix. “While the thought of John Bolton selling apples on New York City streets to earn money is an amusing fantasy,” writes John Isaacs in a commentary on Bolton’s sinking chances to win nomination to the UN ambassador post, “it is more likely that Bolton will return to the think-tank world, where he can hurl his thunderbolts at his enemies, domestic and international.”

If Joseph Conrad were writing today, imagine what he could do with a character like John Bolton.