- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

By Robert B. Edgerton
Westview, $30, 328 pages, illus.

There is, in the blood-stained African continent, more military infamy than honor. In pre-colonial days, as Robert B. Edgerton shows in "Africa's Armies: From Honor to Infamy," African armies militias really fought for grazing, water, prestige, slaves and tribute. Their honor seems to have involved enslaving women and children rather than slaughtering them along with captured warriors. The French, Spanish, Dutch, Germans, Belgians, Portuguese and British came for territory, slaves and to safeguard the trade routes to the wealth of the Indies. The Africans in the main fought them with great tenacity.
Many Africans in World War I and II fought beside the Allies, others with the Germans (French African soldiers, wherever they came from, were known by friend and foe alike as Senegalese). Almost without exception, civilians initially came to power in the newly independent states. But many of these soon proved themselves to be venal and inept, and military rule became the order of the day.
Since 1950, there have been hundreds of military coups in Africa, many of them successful, inaugurating the age of "the Big Man," "the Maximum Leader" and "the President for Life." The opulence of the elite, civilian or military, has been matched only by the penury and misery of the people, many of whom live on less than a dollar a day. Death or incarceration were the wages of those who opposed these kleptocracies.
While falling commodity prices, desertification and drought all were factors in the 1960s they combined to produce massive dysfunctions that smashed the revolution of expectations. Military coups frequently led to brutal civil wars. Of the roughly 40 million people in the world suffering from HIV/AIDS, over 40 percent are in sub-Saharan Africa. Nineteen million have died from the disease. One million African children die every year. Forty million women of child-bearing age are anemic; one million die every year of malaria. Of the 10 worst countries of the world when it comes to quality of life, all are in Africa.
In all, only two of Africa's 44 countries are truly democratic and reasonably prosperous economically. Plagued by tribalism and burdened by $400 billion in foreign debt, Africa has become a continent of mendicants.
Of the $10 billion received in 1991, $8 billion went for weapons and much of the remaining $2 billion was stolen.
Those who have been reading recently about the machinations of a firm called Enron will understand that corporate corruption is not unique to Africa. Indeed, low government salaries (sometimes not paid for months), the kinship pressures of family, clan and tribe and the absence of an economic safety net make a degree of corruption almost inevitable.
But smuggling, embezzlement, extortion and bribery need not become and remain a way of life, an art form.
There are ways to reduce it. Newly-elected President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya has promised to reveal his personal assets and to ask his cabinet members to do the same. The creation of anti-fraud commissions chaired by men with the president's confidence would help. The names of the dead should be removed from the voter rolls.
Some scholars are of the view that the cancer of corruption of "failed states" has eaten so deeply that no solution is possible from within, that countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Sudan and Somalia should become United Nations trusteeships. But nobody (including the U.N.) is enthusiastic about taking on such an Augean task.
Others, equally well informed, feel that no reform movement imposed from abroad can possibly succeed, that only movements from within have any chance of altering the culture of corruption.
But the West, particularly France, cannot afford to let Africa fail. France gets much of its oil from Africa, which is the metropole's second largest market and virtually its only sphere of interest.
"France without Francophone Africa would be no more than an Italy with a few nuclear weapons," asserts one French politician.
The two success stories are Botswana and Mauritius. Botswana was one of Africa's poorest and least developed of nations, when it achieved independence in 1966. Vast discovery of diamonds have made it one of the continents richest lands, with a per capita income of $2,000, Africa's highest.
Wise and reasonably honest civilian political leaders have seen to it that the money has been spent on schools, hospitals, roads and light industry. Botswana has a free press, a decent judicial system, regular and free elections and a small army that stays in its barracks.
The population is only 1.5 million, and corruption is pretty well under control.
It is by no means certain that the african saga will have a happy ending. Indeed, for all the reasons ably enumerated In his book by Mr. Edgerton, the deck seems stacked against African success. Yet this cannot excuse us or the Africans from trying.
The Africans and their friends have shown that change is possible. Now they must demonstrate that with good luck and hard work, change can be equated with progress.

Smith Hemptsone is a former editor in chief of The Washington Times. He served 1989-93 as U.S. ambassador to Kenya.

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