- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2000

Some years ago I was in Cotonou, onetime capital of a former French West African colony then known as Dahomey and now called Benin. I was there at a strange moment: Dahomey, with a then population of 2.5 million distributed among 42 ethnic groups, had been without a government because of a coup three weeks earlier. It was the fifth coup in six years.
In the absence of an executive and a constitution, three army colonels were running things, just as if there were a legitimate government. The streets were calm. Traffic lights, like the telephones, were working, more or less; mail was being delivered to my hotel, water came out of the shower, goods and foodstuffs were purchasable in the marketplace.
I recalled this event a society functioning without an official government as I read the many articles in publications like the Economist ("Hopeless Africa," was the title of its lead editorial May 13) about sub-Saharan Africa: civil wars, genocide, dictatorships, corruption, poverty, collapsing agriculture and famine, low life expectancy, malaria and other diseases like HIV/AIDS. The President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, told Reuters July 8 that his diamond-rich country of 1.6 million people faces extinction from the disease. The United Nations estimates that one in three of the country's adults are living with HIV/AIDS, giving Botswana which is roughly the size of France the highest percentage infection rate in the world. Life expectancy in Botswana could fall to as low as 29, according to a study by the U.S. Census department cited by Reuters.
Sub-Saharan Africa shouldn't be a basket-case. After all in four decades, Western official aid and development assistance to Africa totalled $410 billion. (In 1998, sub-Saharan Africa had the highest per capita foreign aid $21 of any geographical region; the Middle East & North Africa with a per capita of $18 was second.) The economies of sub-Saharan Africa are of little consequence in the global economy.
But it is a basket case thanks largely to its rulers. No sooner is one kleptocrat demagogue overthrown by coup or death Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin then another rises in his place Mohammed Aideed, Gen. Sani Abacha, Charles Taylor and now Foday Sankoh, the Sierra Leone war criminal and diamond merchant.
It is not surprising that the Nigerian historian, J.U.J. Asiegbu, in his book, "Nigeria and Its British Invaders," praised the British colonialists for their "patriotism and probity … self-discipline and other remarkable ideals of public duty and responsibility as now remain, unfortunately, yet to be learned and emulated by the succeeding generations of indigenous African leaders."
Have the industrial democracies learned anything since the scramble out of Africa began in 1960? Not much. Nor have African countries and their leaders who still have to learn that the Western tradition of a central government ruling large territories will not work in most of Africa because there still is no legitimacy to their territorial boundaries: the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria and, most recently, Eritrea's secession from Ethiopia. Neither the U.N. Security Council nor the Organization of African Unity nor the State Department's African desk can bestow that legitimacy.
The European colonial powers who chopped up Africa in the 1880s signed treaties with kings and tribal chiefs whose writs rarely extended beyond a few contiguous villages. On the basis of such scraps of paper, France, Germany, Britain, Portugal and Belgium administered strongly centralized colonial empires for decades. And in so doing they created countries Nigeria, Congo, Dahomey and some 40 others few of which had any basis in history and therefore any legitimacy. That was the legacy of European colonialism. The Dutch did the same in the Dutch East Indies and look at what is happening in what they left behind as Indonesia, in Acheh, East Timor, the Moluccas.
Nigeria is a case in point. There was such great hope for Nigeria when it received its independence from Britain in 1960, especially so when the nearby Belgian Congo had just erupted into what became a civil war and eventually a kleptocracy. Despite the hopes and cheers, a decade later, Nigeria suffered a 32-month-long civil war Ibos vs. Yorubas in which a million people died. And how many died in Rwanda and Burundi? Now more bloodshed Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ethiopia, Eritrea.
The Western concept of nation was well summarized by Edmund Burke: "A nation is a moral essence, not a geographical arrangement." Colonialism's geographical arrangements obviously do not a post-colonial nation make. It may be that even if there were world enough and time to overcome sub-Saharan Africa's ethnic divisions and crazyquilt boundaries, little would be settled because the idea of strong government would be acceptable only to the top functionaries whose legitimacy would be rejected by ethnic rivals with their own ethnic armies.
Federalism, centralism, military dictatorship, democracy, African "socialism", Marxism, free market all have been tried, none, with a few exceptions, have prospered in sub-Saharan Africa. Those once inspiring slogan-words like "market economy," "development," and "nation-building" have little or no meaning for sub-Saharan Africa today; "stagnation" and "decay" do. Just because the Cold War is over, we cannot in good conscience allow the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa to become wandering armies of victimized refugees. Nor is it conceivable that there can ever be a rectification of boundaries without more bloodshed. Is a continuing policy of "benign neglect" for sub-Saharan Africa in the cards? Will it always be, as the Economist put it, "Hopeless Africa"?

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