Some years ago I was sitting around with a bunch of colleagues at the Wall Street firm I worked for. These were “two-year analysts” — kids recruited straight out of college to do two years drudge work in the firm’s back offices (“turning out equity margin crap for little old ladies,” as one of them memorably described the experience) before taking up a position in trading, investment banking, or one of the other more glamorous areas of the firm. We were kicking around ideas at random. One of the kids — a white, in fact Jewish, kid from Long Island — declared his intention to start up an Africa fund. Everybody thought this bizarre. The general reaction was along the lines of: “Africa? It’s a sinkhole. Who’d invest in Africa? ” The lad explained himself. “Sure, it’s the worst place in the world. Which means they have nowhere to go but up, right? It’s the world’s last big reservoir of cheap labor. Gotta have a future. You’d be getting in at the bottom of the market!”
I have no idea if this particular idea ever came to reality. A lot of people do invest in Africa, actually, on the high-risk high-reward principle, and some of them do very well. (There was a good report on this in The Economist, 6/3/2000.) I am only making the point that it is, to most people, surprising to hear “Africa” and “investment” spoken in the same sentence. The reason is that we have a low opinion of Africa, one that is constantly being reinforced by news items like yesterday’s out of the Congo, that president Laurent Kabila had been murdered in a palace coup.
“Coup” is in fact one of the first responses that pops up in a word-association test on “Africa.” Others would be “disease,” “corruption,” “tribal warfare,” “poverty,” “famine”… Let’s face it, Africa has a really poor image. It’s no use pretending that the image is a false one, either. AIDS is epidemic in black Africa, famine recurrent in the east African “horn,” living standards desperate almost everywhere, corruption sensational (the late Mobutu Sese Seko, Kabila’s predecessor in the Congo, was one of the world’s richest men, having transferred most of the nation’s meager assets into his own bank accounts). The ghastly 1994 massacres in Rwanda showed the depth of hostility that exists between different tribes, even when — perhaps that should be especially when — sharing the same country.
I suspect that most Americans, if they think about Africa at all, put this all down to one of two causes. Black Americans, and those non-black Americans who have internalized the doctrines of Historical Correctness taught in our schools and colleges, suppose that Africa was a sort of Garden of Eden, populated by wise, dignified princes, floating around in colorful robes discussing metaphysics, until the wicked white man came along and started plundering the place for slaves and jewels. Africa’s present troubles, in this view, are a natural hangover from those centuries of exploitation and degradation. The rest of Americans, those few who have any opinion on the matter, probably believe that Africans are just congenitally hopeless — or, at a minimum, hopeless at governing themselves rationally in nation-sized units — and ought to be fenced off from the civilized part of humanity and left to kill and eat each other without disturbing the rest of us.
Both these views are, of course, deeply uncharitable and unkind, though both surely contain some truth. In support of the first view — that it’s all the white man’s fault — I offer Adam Hochschild’s horrifying book about the Belgian colonization of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost. In support of the second, there is the near-uniformity of African misery. Nations that were colonized by savage brutes like Leopold, nations that were colonized by relatively benign and thoughtful powers like Britain, and nations that were never colonized at all, are now indistinguishable in their wretchedness. Contrariwise, many non-African nations shrugged off the experience of colonization and quickly prospered once free — Malaysia, for example, or Taiwan (a Japanese colony, 1895-1945). It is worth noting, too, how brief and light the hand of colonization was in many parts of Africa. Among the Nigerians who watched the British flag raised in their country in 1900, there must have been many who lived to see it lowered in 1960.
I’d like to suggest, however, that neither of these two uncharitable viewpoints — both of which, I feel sure, are very widely held — is likely to get us very far in forming an Africa policy. There is no doubt that European colonizers did very wicked things in Africa. They also did some un-wicked and value-adding things, however, like building railroads. And the last of them left 25 years ago; in fact, most African countries have been free for 40 years. There is a statute of limitations on excuses — or if there isn’t, there ought to be.
As to the other point of view: Can it really be the case that Africans are incorrigibly hopeless? How could such a proposition be proved? If the terrifying Magyar horde could transform itself, in (historically speaking) the twinkling of an eye into the Christian Kingdom of Hungary; if the wild Vikings who made the whole western world quake for two hundred years could turn into the pale, hygienic Scandinavians of our own time; if the Romans, whose military prowess conquered that world and held it for half a millennium, could turn into Italians, whose tanks, as we all know, have three reverse gears and one forward; then who dares to talk about immutable national — let alone continental! — characteristics? I prefer the breezy optimism of my young Wall Street colleague with his idea of an Africa fund: Hey, these are people. With talents. Sooner or later they’ll get their act together and be productive.
(And if you really insist on clinging to your stereotypes, listen to this. I keep up with the news back home — in England, that is — and one of the big news stories recently has been the murder, in a London slum, of a young immigrant boy from Nigeria. It seems that the lad was set upon by a West Indian gang. Among London’s West Indians, it turns out, there is an element that doesn’t like West Africans. They regard them as too well-behaved and bookish, too successful in school. The Nigerian boy was, in fact, on his way home from an after-school computer club when he was killed. Curiously, there is a similar element among inner-city American blacks; but they regard West Indians as deferential nerds! Some years ago a West Indian girl was knifed to death by black classmates at a New York City school for being too scholarly. Lots of luck matching this up with whatever set of stereotypes you favor.)
Does the United States need an Africa policy? As we emerge from the foreign-policy-free zone of the Clinton years, the question is at least worth considering. Sure, there are more important issues likely to dominate our attention in the next few years: China, Mexico, the Mideast. Sure, the U.S. depends on Africa for nothing much, and so has no pressing strategic interest in the place. Africa isn’t ever going to be top of our foreign-policy list.
It should surely be on the list somewhere, though. Black Africa has 600 million people. It has bountiful natural resources — most inward investment currently goes into oil and mining. Wage rates are, as my young colleague pointed out, really low. I know a businessman in England who buys old trucks from local hauling firms when it is no longer economical to have English mechanics maintain them. He ships the trucks to east Africa, where African mechanics, working on African wages, keep them on the road another 20 years.
There are non-economic considerations, too — public health, for example. The continent seems to be the point of origin of most of the world’s really nasty diseases. (It is not at all clear that syphilis was brought back from the New World by Columbus, as most people believe. Portuguese sailors were exploring the west African coast at the same time, and the syphilis spirochete is morphologically identical with that of yaws, a west African disease.) Quite aside from the morality of standing by doing nothing while Africans die by the million from AIDS, malaria, ebola and other horrors, as a matter of cold self-interest it may not be smart to let diseases fester and mutate in Africa unwatched and unrestrained.
And there is, of course, the morality. These are our fellow human beings. If you are a Christian, hundreds of millions of them are your fellow Christians. Many of them — whole nations-full — are in dire straits. The Congo — following the Kabila assassination, you may find a brief news story about it on page 43 of your newspaper — is a pit of unspeakable horrors, where there has been no effective government for decades. You may recall the dreadful news stories from Sierra Leone a few months ago, a rebel leader chopping off the fore-arms of entire townships to make whatever forgotten point he was trying to make. Zimbabwe is sliding back into the bush under the gangster-rule of Robert Mugabe, another famine is possible in Ethiopia … and so on.
I know, I know: the record of foreign countries helping Africa is not very encouraging. Foreign aid money has a way of ending up in the pockets of kleptocrats like Mobutu. Imported political theories, taken up by over-educated local intellectuals, have wrecked places like Tanzania. But surely there must be something we can do. Thirty million Americans, including our new Secretary of State, owe at least some of their recent ancestry to Africa. If the anthropologists are right, we all owe our remoter ancestry to that continent. There isn’t anything we can do to help Africa, with all our wealth and talent and energy and ingenuity? I don’t believe it.