77 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on 17 August 2001
Bill Berkeley spent a decade writing about Africa for US publications, such as Atlantic Monthly, which left him free from deadlines and indulged his taste for interminable journeys on local transport to places journalists rarely go. Thousands of interviews with those in power and far from power gave him a picture of the last violent decade as Africans saw it and lived it across the continent. The great virtue of Berkeley's book - apart from the fact that he is a lovely writer - is that he has a coherent idea of what lies behind the wars in the six countries he writes about: Sudan, Liberia, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Berkeley ended his travels determined to rebut what he calls the "nonsense" written by influential journalists such as Robert Kaplan and Keith Richburg, who have pictured for an American audience a mysterious Africa where people are different - inscrutable and savage. "Fully evolved human beings in the 20th century don't do things like that," wrote Richburg of the Rwandan genocide. Kaplan meanwhile speculated that the Liberian civil war came from "new-age primitivism" born of superstitions that apparently flourish in tropical rain forests. "In places where western enlightenment has not penetrated . . . people find liberation in violence." That such claptrap has been so respectfully received in western intellectual circles underlines what is different about Berkeley - he has spent a decade listening to Africans, unlike most western journalists, academics, diplomats and aid workers, who prefer to talk to each other and recycle their own ideas.
The countries Berkeley writes about all have a long history of racial or ethnically based tyranny, from the oligarchy of the Americo-Liberians and apartheid to Arab domination in Sudan and Belgian colonial rule in Congo. His book is mainly about the methods of tyranny, the way ethnicity is used to maintain it, and the violence that is a product of that strategy.
In Liberia, Charles Taylor ousted the crass Master Sergeant Samuel Doe and then promoted an anarchy that left him in sole power of a ruined country. He did it in part by using the greed of British and French businessmen, who paid him well for their ore and timber firms to continue business as usual while the war raged. During this time 60,000 people, mostly civilians and many of them children, were armed; half the population was displaced, and most of the others were living on international aid.
So far so familiar as an account of Liberia's tragedy, but Berkeley then has a most revealing chapter on the role of Chester Crocker, US undersecretary of state for Africa, in legitimising the tyranny of Doe. "A case study in the ruinous consequences of the cold war at its least-known fringes - what might better be called destructive engagement." Crocker was best known (and loathed in southern Africa) for his policy of constructive engagement with South Africa, which involved redrawing the political map of the region. It meant making apartheid respectable, getting the Cuban military to leave Angola in return for independence for Namibia, and leaving Angola prey to an American-backed covert war by Jonas Savimbi, out of what was then Zaire. The result has been yet another African country as deeply ruined as Liberia.
Berkeley's interviews with Crocker (now an academic), Jenkins Scott ( Liberia's justice minister) and Tienie Groenewald (director of South African military intelligence in the mid-1980s) would be hilarious if these people were not so transparently evil and the consequences of their acts not so catastrophic. They explain carefully to him "the context" in which things happened, and these formulations go to the heart of how personal responsibility was evaded and terrible evil was normalised.
36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on 18 October 2004
This is a frightening book, but perhaps one of the most important ever written on the state of the continent over the last 10 years. The author destroys all the myths about tribal politics in Africa, especially that old chestnut about 'age old tribal hatreds' we hear so often in the western media. He shows that most of these hatreds were no more than mere rivalries, but that in modern times these rivalries and prejudices against other tribes have been manipulated and turned into hatred. This has been largely the work of, not military dictators like Amin, but the so called 'intellectuals'. In Rwanda the power of radio broadcasts is shown in its full devastating results with the constant encouragement to continue the killing, because 'the graves are not yet full'.
Besides Rwanda, there are revealing chapters on the Congo, Liberia and South Africa. All are disturbing reports, showing a calculating and brutal leadership all over the continent. The only conclusion I could draw from this book is that Africa has no hope - at least not with the current leadership, and with the attitudes among western governments, many of which benefit from the chaos in those countries.