Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Congo Revealed - Some Glory, Lots of Pain

This is a review of Congo - the Epic History of a People by David van Reybrouck, Harper Collins, NY, 2014.

This book provides a fascinating look into the Congo’s turbulent history.  Rather than an academic recitation of facts and faces, the author strove to piece together the fabric of the Congo’s past by linking together anecdotes and memories of people who were actually there.  Imagine how enormous was the task to find and interview such persons - people who essentially constituted the oral repository of the last hundred years.  Yet van Reybrouck found them, even a man who had encountered Henry Morton Stanley in the waning years of the 19th century.   Other interlocutors remembered building the railroads, being the first person in school, fighting WWII in Ethiopia,  laboring in the mines, organizing unions, being persecuted, or elevated, by colonial authorities and the nascent political awakenings of  the post war era.  Independence era memories of men in close proximity to Kasavubu, Lumumba and Mobutu provided insight into their motivations and foibles.  Similarly, additional interviews moved the story forward in time through the Mobutu years to the coming of the Kabilas. The vibrancy of personal recollections gives this book a special aura. Moreover the aura is Congolese because the folks interviewed were/are Congolese. The author reported their perceptions of their history even as he wove those memories into the more sterile historical record.   The sum then becomes more than the parts and the result is a definitive epic - just as the subtitle indicates. 

Although political history is fully recounted, the social aspects of past times were elucidating. What did Congolese people think about Europeans?  and vice versa?  Van Reybrouck makes no apologies for Belgian’s colonial rule, but he does dissect the colonial era carefully; usefully adding recollections from Belgians - including his own father - which show a more human side to the stark version of authoritarianism that is standard historical fare. 

The treatise elaborates on the roles that popular music, sports, i.e. soccer, and religion - Catholics, Protestants, Kimbanguists, Pentecostals and other syncretic sects played in the evolution of society, and of politics.   Similarly, the book covers the rise of tribalism, the phenomenon that plagues the Congo today, but which grew from a number of factors including slavery, urbanism, modern politics and poverty. 

Clearly any history of the Congo has to study political non-functionality and corruption.  These themes pervade the book. Corruption began with Leopold’s Free State, continued with Belgian monopolies, was adapted by Congolese politicians who seized assets for their own use, was refined in Mobutu’s system of control via payoffs, and culminated in the more recent scramble for minerals by warlords and neighboring authorities from Rwanda and Uganda.   Dysfunctional politics too track the same trajectory wherein the need to control, and survive, outweighed any responsibilities to the community or society at large.  The Congo did not fall into an economic and political abyss overnight. Its leaders, with at minimum the acquiescence of the people, took it there.   Van Reybrouck’s book is a history, so does not propose solutions, but it does give readers an appreciation for the complexities of the current situation and of the hurdles that the nation faces as it tries to move forward.

The sections about the fall of Mobutu, the Rwandan/Ugandan invasion, the coming of Laurent Kabila, succession by his son Joseph and conflict in Kivus provide background on recent events.  By and large van Reybrouck gets the facts right, and he does produce some interesting anecdotes, but he does err in adopting assertions by fellow countrymen Reyntjens and Braeckman both regarding the number of Rwandan refugees that died in the conflagration (he uses the inflated number of 300,000 that was bandied about at the time, but that has been subsequently  scrutinized closely) and the role of the U.S. government during that conflict (allegations that U.S. troops and equipment were involved are simply false).   Knowing that van Reybrouck got his facts wrong on those issues, raises the question of credibility throughout the book.  What else is misreported?   

The book closes with a rather strange chapter that discusses the presence of Congolese traders in China, their puzzlement with that society and their efforts to buy goods wholesale for shipment home.  Although it is good to know that entrepreneurs are out there, I suppose the relevance of the ending is that whatever the disaster of the homeland, some of the Congolese people remain vibrant and forward looking.   

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Adventure Fiction set in Kenya

Following is a review of Assegai  by Wilbur Smith, St. Martins Press, NY, 2009.


Smith has his formula for adventure action books down pat. This one is no exception.   Set in Kenya before World War One, the author weaves his story around actual historical figures such as Lord Delamare, President Roosevelt and Colonel Lettow von Vorbeck.  However, the tale’s main characters are fictional and often outrageously so. They are too handsome, too honorable, too cruel, too evil, too knowledgeable, too brave, or too beautiful. Even so their entrance and exit from the plot provides the pace of the story.

The basic plot revolves around a stock Smith character this time Leon Courtney, a young man who comes into his own as a hero, hunter and spy.   He kills many animals - always minutely described - beds a series of women, relies on his African guides for bush and cultural savvy and despite flirting with disastrous failure time and again, ultimately succeeds in all endeavors.  As noted, it is a well told tale.

Assegai is fiction so the author can create geography, which he does.  He also throws in a bit of Swahili, which helps shore up the Kenyan setting , but the title is strange.  Assegai is a Zulu word from southern Africa that is the name for a stabbing spear used there.   Although the Masai people of Kenya also use a similar weapon, the Swahili name for that spear is mkuki or fumo, neither of which, I guess, are as recognizable to modern readers as assegai.  I first picked up the book thinking it was about southern Africa.  

Wilbur Smith’s novels always require a certain suspension of belief by the reader, but his African settings are valid and his tales move along.  Assegai is a great beach or airplane book.   

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kenyan History and Mystery

 A review of The Ghosts of Happy Valley - Searching for the Lost World of Africa’s Infamous Aristocrats,  by Juliet Barnes, Aurum Press, London, 2013.


This is a difficult book to categorize. It is part history, part speculation, part gossip, part travelogue and part a glimpse into contemporary rural Kenya.   However, all of the parts do come together in a satisfactory fashion.   The author undertook to visit the colonial era houses of Kenya’s infamous Happy Valley set, both to see what has happened to the buildings, but also to see if an inquiry into places and memories of the times would shed light on the 1941 unsolved murder of Joss Hay, the Earl of Erroll.

Author Barnes was spurred on in her quest by Solomon Gitau, a conservationist from the area without whom entre into the decaying houses and to the lives - and the memories - of the people who live there today simply would not have been possible.  Barnes complimented her research through numerous contacts with European settlers and their descendants who shared reminiscences of the long ago times.

Barnes’ book focused on three epochs.  First the 1920s and 30s, the heyday of the drunken parties, orgies, partner swapping and such carrying on that gave Europeans in Kenya a scandalous reputation.  Idina Hay, her house at Slains, and Alice de Janze, hers at Wanjohi, were prominent femme fatales of those times.  This decadent group gave Kenyan settlers notoriety, but as people aged, died, divorced and remarried, their shenanigans faded away, especially after the murder of Hay and the intrusion of war.

The second epoch Barnes reveals in the book is that of post war Kenya , the era of prosperous farming - and non-scandalous social life - when the great estates of thousands of acres were carved up into still large farms for demobilized British soldiers. This era morphed into the Mau Mau years when the region under the Aberdare Forests was under siege by Kikuyu nationalists/terrorists.   

The third time frame is the current one where Kikuyu small holdings blanket the landscape.  Some of the old houses remain. They were  hard to find. Most were decayed, including Clouds, Idina’s second home. Some have become schools or clinics, but only one, Kipipiri, former residence of Sir John Ramsden, retained a semblance of its former grandeur.   However, the value of the contemporary epoch was the glimpse into the everyday lives of the current residents.  Life is hard scrabble; there is little work aside from subsistence farming or charcoal making.  The pristine environment of yore is only a memory.  Families are large, schools are poor and prospects limited.  Yet Ms. Barnes and her many visitors over the years were hospitably received.  Solomon helped locate elders who for the most part fondly recalled the denizens of Happy Valley.  Indeed those who remembered specific individuals were children or youngsters themselves in the 20s and 30s. The elders recalled with more clarity the Mau Mau years and their participation or not in events of those times.  

The author returns throughout to the problem of who killed Joss Hay.  His murder in Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi, has been the subject of many books and lots of theories.  One set of theories revolves around motives of jealousy or revenge in which at least a half dozen suspects could be guilty. The second theory is that he was assassinated by British agents on account of his Fascist views and danger to the war effort in east Africa.   Barnes assembles lots of information, but makes no conclusion.

 As a Peace Corps volunteer in the late sixties I lived in several old European homesteads while building water systems in western Kenya for the million acre settlement scheme.  Happy valley, the Wanjohi valley, the Ol Kalou salient and the Kinangop, areas that Barnes visited, were all part of settlement.  Certainly some of my Peace Corps colleagues probably stayed in houses she visited before they were turned over to Kenyan owners.  All this is to say that I wondered, but never knew, who built those edifices we inhabited and what their lives were like.  This book helps fill those gaps.

I found the portrait of contemporary Kenya edifying. Obviously, settlement as envisaged for the million acre scheme in the early sixties failed.  The idea was that African farmers endowed with fairly good sized plots of 40 acres or so would constitute a yeomanry - a rural middle class.  In the Aberdares area they would grow pyrethrum, wheat or potatoes and keep dairy cattle or sheep. They would become relatively prosperous.   Perhaps that was true for the first generation, but  even then many plot holders were absentee “big men”  who settled poor relations on their farms.  And after the loans were paid off either the legal entailments ceased or they were just ignored.  In any case today the settlement areas are no different from the rest of rural Kenya.  Plots have been subdivided time and again. They are barely viable for subsistence agriculture. The area is overcrowded, the land degrading, the forest disappearing and the long term prospects are, sadly, only more of the same. 

My editorializing aside, I did enjoy this book.  It is a bit disconnected at times as it jumps back and forth depending upon who is being interviewed or reported upon, but  the theme of houses and history against the backdrop of current times remains vibrant.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Kenyan Dreams Crushed

A review of Galana - Elephant, Game Domestication and Cattle on a Kenya Ranch by Martin Anderson, Stanford University Press,2013..

Galana ranch was a great swath of Kenya, over  2,500 square miles located adjacent to Tsavo East National Park in Coast Province.  Author Anderson led a team of American and  Kenyan investors in convincing Kenyan authorities in the late 1960s of the vast potential of the area for cattle and game harvesting - both for meat and as hunting trophies.   Consequently, the team was granted a long term lease and went to work. It was an enormous job to build the necessary infrastructure - roads, airstrips, water impoundments, wells, housing, etc. -   employ the right people and to make a go of ranching, game ranching, hunting and high end tourism in the theretofore pristine area.  Elephants roamed in vast numbers and lions preyed upon livestock.  Yet it was not the natural obstacles that ultimately derailed the venture, but misunderstandings, politics and corruption.   Although Galana appeared to be registering success and began returning a bit on investment by the mid-1970s, a new unchecked wave of poaching coupled with nasty allegations and false accusations led the central government finally to cancel the lease. 

Anderson’s book is the story of Galana - how it came to be, how physical obstacles were surmounted, how local herders were involved, how game ranching developed, how the hunting ban affected operations, how poaching threatened people and animals and ultimately how the whole  operation began to come apart on account of falsehoods and the greed of Kenyan politicians.  It is a sad story with some blame on the investor team for not having been able to make their case and doing the necessary ground work that might have avoided the demise of the project, but most of the blame rests on the failures of the Kenyan government, its high ranking civil servants and its politicians who deliberately sought to terminate the project in order, presumably, to hide their own involvement in poaching and to benefit from the spoils of the ranch.
Unfortunately for all concerned there were no spoils. The acreage has devolved into largely unproductive use

Utter Balderdash

A review of Rwanda - the new scramble for Africa by Robin Philpot.

 I rarely review books that I find inaccurate and absurd, but this one fits both adjectives.  Ostensibly it is a relook at events in Rwanda that led up to the genocide and some of what happened afterward, but from the beginning the theory is that the United States and other western powers, especially the U.K. and Belgium, plotted and conspired to replace the Habyarimana regime with the RPF and thus to render central Africa part of a greater Anglo-American sphere of influence.  Philpot bases this conclusion on the observation that the international community never responded forcefully enough to the invasion of Rwanda by Ugandan RPA mutineers.  He judged the lack of a stinging rebuke and action to reverse the situation proof that the U.S. sponsored and approved the invasion.  Secondly, he cited as proof of conspiracy the fact that Habyarimana was hamstrung and sidelined during the Arusha negotiations and afterwards by what he judged were western manipulations of Habyarimana plus endorsements of RPF objectives.  Thirdly, Philpot believed the fact that no credible international investigation was ever mounted into the assassination of presidents Habyarimana and Ntayarmira when their plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, proved collusion.  Further proof of conspiracy arose from the U.S. recalcitrance to provide for an adequate UN peace keeping operation both prior to April 1994 and afterwards when genocide was in full swing.

 I took particular umbrage from the assertions in the book that the United States was actively engaged in the Rwanda/Ugandan/ Burundian invasion of Zaire in 1996. I was the U.S. ambassador in Rwanda at that time and I know Philpot’s allegations are just not true.

Philpot sprinkled his book with quotations from Boutros Ghali, Faustin Twagiramungu and others who had axes to grind, and did so after the fact.  In addition to excoriating the United States, Philpot saved special venom for the Canadians involved in Rwandan issues, especially MG Romeo Dallaire and Louise Arbor, who became head of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.  Repeatedly calling Canada  a lackey of the U.S. Philpot took his countrymen to task for their actions regarding Rwanda, but also for not being sufficiently sympathetic to Quebecois sensitivities.  Of course, Philpot extrapolated from the African conspiracy he detailed to similar conspiracies regarding Syria, Libya and elsewhere.

In conclusion, the historical record is fairly clear about who did what and why.  To his discredit Philpot seized upon the what but invented his own why.  Sadly,  in the end Philpot’s conclusions are inherently racist  because of his basic premise that Africans were not competent enough to organize their own politics, fights, disagreements and wars, therefore the guiding hand must be external, i.e. American.  

I do not recommend that anyone read this book.

Monday, December 16, 2013

More Woe for the Central African Republic

This blog was also posted on the blog of the Woodrow Wilson Center in December 2013

Often lost in the whirl of stories about conflict and misery in Africa is the tragic situation that continues to unroll in the Central African Republic. There the state has slid downhill for a decade into ineffectiveness and turmoil. So much so that today the CAR is arguably the continent’s leading failed state.  It is a distinction that no one would seek, least of all the citizens of the nation, most all of whom are victims of ineptitude, lassitude, violence and neglect.  Rule of law is feeble in the CAR. Bandit gangs of thugs, linked to the rebel movement Seleka that put current leader Michel Djotodia in power have looted their way from east  to west, including pillaging the capital city of Bangui.  Their latest predations in the northwest, home areas both to ousted president Bozize and his predecessor Patasse, have taken an especially vicious turn resulting in massacres of entire villages.  Hundreds of  thousands of people are on the run crowding into makeshift camps where food, sanitation and security are minimal.   Violence is driven by tribalism, political hatreds, vengeance and religion.  The religious element is pernicious because when predominately Moslem Seleka fighters confront largely Christian communities and meet resistance the specter of more widespread religious conflict grows.  Indeed it is this threat that has aroused the international community to greater awareness.   In recent weeks both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and French Foreign Minister Fabius have each decried the growing tide of violence, which Fabius described as “on the verge of genocide.” They promised a vigorous response.

 Blame for the catastrophe can be parceled out internally, regionally and internationally. First internally, the central government has been so inept and corrupt during the past decade that citizens longed for the days of Bokassa’s empire, when at least one could travel safely and send the kids to school.  Similarly, the promise of democracy, accountability and progress generated by free elections in 1993 was never realized.  Nascent institutions never developed. New President Patasse reverted to cronyism and tribal politics to rule.   Then violence from a collapsing Democratic Republic of the Congo spilled across the border accentuating internal divisions and leading to Francois Bozize’s coup d’etat in 2003. Bozize’s hold on power was tenuous and the government’s authority continued to erode.   By the late 2000s the combination of economic decline, an ineffective, bankrupt and corrupt central government, and nationwide insecurity rendered Bozize vulnerable.   In efforts to shore up his position, Bozize appointed a prime minister from the main line opposition and cut a deal for integration into the power structure with a political/rebel coalition from the east dubbed Seleka, a deal he repeatedly reneged upon.   Thus feeling betrayed, Seleka  recruited, mobilized and marched to Bangui where it took power in March 2013.  Rebel chief Michel Djotodia, a Moslem from the northeast, became chief of state. 

Historically African leaders have adopted hands-off policies towards their neighbors, but a regional consortium of states, led by Gabon, has maintained a small military force in CAR for years.  Authorized by the OAU/AU and recognized by the UN, it was particularly helpful in quelling violence during the early 2000s in Bangui, nonetheless,  the force never had the heft  - politically or militarily - to legitimize government or referee squabbles, so essentially it just extended the crises.   Just as conflict and fighters spilled over from the Congo, troubles in Sudan and Chad (not to mention the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda) also impacted upon the CAR.  A portion of Seleka combatants are former Darfurian or Chadian militiamen, now mercenaries. They are Moslem and foreign and as such have little sympathy or empathy for Christian villagers.

The Central African Republic, formerly the territory of Ubangi-Chari, was a French colony. Over the years France assumed responsibilities for the land, including peace and security.  French soldiers were based in the CAR and French advisors patronizingly financed and oversaw government operations.  The French/Central African relationship began to fray, however, when Ange Patasse was elected president in 1993.  Central Africans wanted to stand on their own and France was reconsidering and reducing its responsibilities throughout Africa.  Thus during the turbulent last twenty years in the CAR, France - while always present in some form or other - exerted much less influence and exercised little control.  Other powers, especially the United States, essentially pursued policies of neglect.  They trusted neighboring governments and the United Nations to handle problems.   However, the problems were too big for the resources and the commitments available, so the CAR stagnated and slipped inevitably into the vortex of violence where it now resides.

 So what happens next?  Chief of State, Michel Djotodia is not recognized as “president” by his neighbors, but only as a caretaker pending a 2015 election (never count an incumbent out, but Djotodia, a Moslem from a minority eastern tribe could never win a free and fair election).  Meanwhile he says he has disbanded Seleka, therefore diffusing even further what control he might have over its combatants and leaving unchecked the reign of terror in the northwest.  His government, although headed by reputable lawyer Nicolas Tiangaye, is constrained by lack of resources. Its writ rarely writes.

Pursuant to United nations Security Council discussions in late November,  a bigger more powerful Peace Keeping force will be assembled for the CAR. Meanwhile France has increased its troop presence to 1200 in the capital, one hopes in anticipation of participation in the UN force. But if nothing else the increase sends a message to Djotodia, Seleka and the nation that the international community will again engage.  It is encouraging to see French leadership again regarding the CAR.  As for the U.S., its policy of minimal involvement continues apace.  Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa, Ambassador Robert Jackson told the Congress on November 19 that the U.S. would provide assistance to the African Union force, would maintain humanitarian operations and would continue to cooperate with France, the UN and the African Union in pushing for reduction in violence and re-establishment of security.   That is diplomatic speak for not much.   Even though the U.S. has interests in protecting Americans, re-establishing regional stability and security, promoting democracy and human rights and capturing Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony,  the U.S. embassy in Bangui is closed and not expected to re-open.

The best possible outcome in the next few months would be insertion of a French supported Chapter VII UN Peace Keeping operation with a mandate to pacify the nation.  Should security be achieved, the next step would be to revive competent government from Bangui outwards and thus begin the agonizing process of reconstruction and advancement.  Accomplishment of these objectives has to be a partnership among all the parties - domestic and international alike.  Sierra Leone and Liberia provide examples of how failed states can be resurrected.  The Central African Republic now needs that opportunity.   

Despair, Hope, Perseverance - AIDS in Uganda

Following is a piece I wrote about the impact of AIDS in Uganda during the late 1980s when I was posted there.  A version of this article appears in the December 2013 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.

AIDS cut a wide swath through Uganda in the late 1980s.  Newspapers were replete with notices advising  death  “after a short illness,” but everyone knew the code.   The disease struck down those in the prime of life, many from the burgeoning middle class. Despite the presence of dozens of medical researchers from around the globe focusing on the malady, no cure was available and there was little knowledge on how to retard the inevitably lethal progress of the disease.  There was, however, knowledge about how AIDS was hetro-sexually transmitted and a growing conviction that if peoples’ sexual practices changed then the rate of infection in society at large could be diminished. To that end President Yoweri  Museveni and his government team undertook to campaign publically about the ravages of AIDS.  They promoted condom use - there was a television clip of the minister of health in the city market demonstrating condom use by putting one on a banana.  The slogan “zero grazing” resonated with the populace who understood the metaphor of a cow tied to a post who could then only eat in a circle, a zero. The cow-to-post linkage symbolized connection to a single partner while the zero reienforced the idea of not straying into other pastures.  There were many other efforts to deal honestly and effectively with the scourge and a growing network of counseling centers for those infected and their families.  Indeed, part of Uganda’s successful endeavor to curtail the spread of AIDS was to diminish the shame attached to its sexually transmitted origins.

Still against this backdrop AIDS continued to take a toll.  Local employees of the U.S. government convinced the embassy administrative officer to rework their benefits package so that upon the death of an employee his male relatives (in accordance with tribal custom) could not seize remittances to the detriment of his spouse and children.  This change was unfortunately necessary as during the last three years of the 1980s, at least seven FSNs died along with a dozen local guards. All organizations were hard hit.  The colonel in charge of training for the army confided to me that he had to have ten soldiers tested for AIDS in order to find two non-infected and thus eligible for US  training.  While he was on leave, however, a subordinate falsified records and subsequently two Ugandan soldiers died of the disease while in the states.  Along with several embassy personnel I joined the Mountain Club of Uganda that grouped rock climbing and hiking enthusiasts.  We mounted expeditions to nearby rock faces and to the Mountains of the Moon. Over half of the members were twenty-something Makerere University graduate students.  Sadly, over the next decade virtually all of them died from AIDS.

Yet hope always flourished.  East African newspapers made much of the discovery of an AIDS cure dubbed Kenron by a Kenyan scientist and took the opportunity to proudly proclaim that Africa too was in the forefront of science.  Because further trials proved the remedy marginally useful, the story faded away.  Similarly one day Kampala’s New Vision newspaper headlined that a woman in Masaka - about sixty miles south of Kampala - had found that eating the clay from her backyard had cured her daughter of “slims.”  Thus began a rush to the site, hundreds of persons converged and shortly turned her yard into a deep pit.  I asked several well placed, well educated contacts about the allegation and expected to find them skeptical, but they too were believers.  “Eating it might work and if not, it’s just dirt. I am going this afternoon.”   Of course, it did not work and that story soon faded away as well.

What did work, however, was the effort to teach about AIDS, removal of the sexual stigma, the use of condoms and changed sexual behavior.  Combined, these approaches reduced the infection rate and held the line until anti-retroviral medicines were available.   Today Uganda remains afflicted by AIDS, but in the context of thirty years experience is coping with the scourge.  Now Ugandan society is thriving and its economy prospering.  Thinking back makes you wonder what might have been if those tens of thousands of citizens had not been struck down early in life?