Life and death — lots of death — in Africa

News out of the Ivory Coast is that death and chaos are rising quickly.  The Obama Administration is, as always, “deeply concerned.”  (Has it occurred to anybody that the administration’s real strength might be writing sentiments for condolence cards?  They’re very good at empathetic, and occasionally bathetic, pabulum.)

Every time I read a story such as this out of Africa — whether about the Ivory Coast, or Rwanda, or Liberia, or the Republic of Congo, or any other African nation riven by violence — I ask the trite and logical question “why?”  What is it about Africa that makes significant segments of that continent prone to violence?

And what violence it is.  There’s a barbarity to the African violence that makes Westerners quail.  Africa seems to lead the world in child soldiers.  Worse (if such a thing can be worse), these soldiers don’t get indoctrinated in their youth and naturally drift into warfare (which is the Islamist way doing things).  Instead, they’re created when other soldiers slaughter the adults in the village and kidnap the children.  The girls are raped and killed, or kept as whores, and the boys, no matter how young, are put on the front lines.

The African killing gangs display unusual imagination and innovation when it comes to devising horrible ways to kill their enemies.  Squeezing tires around them and setting the tires alight, chopping off limbs, savage machete attacks, literally raping women and girls to death — Africa has seen it all.  These dreadful deaths are not confined to one geographic area.  They span the continent from the southern-most tip, to the central areas, to the furthest northeastern or southeastern coasts.

In the African way of warfare, civilians aren’t just fair game, they’re preferred game.  While Western nations discovered that some wars couldn’t be won if the civilian population didn’t feel pain (so that Sherman marched through Georgia, the Allies carpet-bombed Germany, and the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Japan), the West resorted to those tactics only when all other conventional military tactics failed.  In Africa, however, it’s the women, children and old people who are the first line of attack.  Counter-intuitively, this bass ackwards approach to warfare doesn’t end war before it starts, which one might think would be the case given how efficient it’s proven in the past at ending a conventional war.  Instead, it makes for years or decades of guerrilla warfare, with a constant backdrop of starved, brutalized, and slaughtered civilians.

I’ve heard lots of theories about Africa’s frequent forays into the worst type of savagery.  The number one charge is that Western colonialism destroyed its traditional tribal infrastructure and left it with nothing but chaos.  Certainly in the case of the Republic of Congo, which was the former Belgian Congo, one can draw a straight line from the Belgian habit of punishing recalcitrant blacks by cutting off arms and legs, to the military’s and guerrilla’s current habit of doing precisely the same thing.

Other parts of the world, though — indeed all other parts of the world but for Europe itself — experienced European imperialism without the consistency of societal decay and violence that characterizes Africa.  Sometimes, in fact, colonialism was a good thing.  As Niall Ferguson argues in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, British colonialism, although morally bad, ended up leaving successful nations in its wake.  That is, it did so everywhere except in Africa.

While the British colonies in Africa may have been somewhat better off than former German or Dutch or French or Belgian colonies, they still weren’t healthy.  What’s even more amazing is that even those colonies that seemed exceptionally stable could so quickly get sucked into the African morass.  The perfect example is Zimbabwe, which was for decades the poster child for a healthy post-colonial nation.  Then, Mugabe got infected with “insane African dictator” syndrome, destroyed the colonial infrastructure and, in about five years, reduced Zimbabwe from a bread basket to a basket case.  Derapage in Africa happens quickly.

Colonialism, then, doesn’t seem as if it’s a complete explanation for the myriad problems in Africa.  Another explanation is “slavery” (always with a finger pointed to the West, and especially against America).  It’s true that both Western and Arab nations have seen Africa as fertile slave territory since at least Roman times.  What people forget, though, is that part of why Africa was such an attractive place for gathering slaves was because of the same problem that plagues Africa today:  Tribalism.

Contrary to popular mythology, whites didn’t normally trek into the interior to kidnap whole villages for the slave trade (too dangerous, not cost effective).  Instead, Tribe A raided its enemy, Tribe B, and brought the captives to the coastal areas, where Tribe A sold Tribe B to the slavers.  African slavery might not have survived if the Africans had risen up en masse against the slave trade.  The problem was that, in order to achieve short term tribal goals, the Africans were complicit in the slave trade, making sure there were always plenty of bodies heading off on the slave ships.  In other words, slavery was a by-product, not a cause, of the perpetual civilian warfare that keeps parts of Africa dysfunctional today.

Another theory I’ve heard advanced is Africa’s natural situation.  None of its native animals can be domesticated, its climate is hostile (huge droughts, followed by devastating deluges), and its diseases are ferocious, demoralizing and devastating.  Certainly that would depress development, but it doesn’t explain the violence, especially in those parts of Africa such as Zimbabwe or Uganda that don’t suffer so badly from Africa’s homegrown plagues and deficiencies.

One of the things that’s definitely plagued northern Africa in modern times is Islam.  In the Sudan, while the world wrung its hands (and Samantha Power kept strangely silent), the white Islamic rulers killed off all the Christians in the usual brutal African fashion.  Then, the Sudanese killed off all the black Muslims.  I assume that, after a few years of gathering its strength, the Sudanese government will turn its attention to surrounding nations.  Somalia is no better.  Nor, judging by the news headlines, is Egypt (which, although considered part of the Middle East, is geographically African).

Keith Richburg, in Out Of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, places part of the blame for modern African’s myriad failings on enablers in the West.  Although its been several years since I read his wonderful book, I distinctly remember one, maybe two, chapters devoted to the way in which American black leaders (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc.) have pandered to and protected the worst dictators in Africa.  Just as bad, whites in America, fearful of being called racist, have kept quiet in the face of this disgusting behavior.

My mother, who has a lot of native common sense, thinks one of Africa’s problems is that it never developed a written history.  This kept culture oral and local.  It prevented a coherent national culture that would have depressed a lot of the worst tribal instincts.  It also prevented an overarching morality from developing, something that bound together the Jews, despite the diaspora, and Europe, despite its frequent nationalist warfare.

I’m not sure there’s a unified theory that will explain Africa’s deep and long-lasting problems.  It’s a huge continent that seems to be a magnet for all bad things, whether disease, colonialism, slavery, Islamist conquest, tribal violence, freak weather, etc.  All I know is that, when I read a story such as today’s about the Ivory Coast, all I can do is think, sadly, “Not again.”