Today's date:
Summer 2000

A Fate Worse Than Imperialism in Africa

Wole Soyinka is the Nigerian playwright who won the Nobel Prize for
Literature in 1986. He spoke with NPQ in Brussels in May about the
situation in Africa.

NPQ | Land seizures in Zimbabwe. UN hostages and amputations in Sierra
Leone. Senseless war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Congo on the brink.
And this on top of Somalia and Rwanda before, and the AIDS pandemic.
How has Africa gone from talking not long ago about a "renaissance" to
suffering a fate worse than imperialism?

WOLE SOYINKA | A wave of anomie, even a breakdown of humanity, is
sweeping across the continent that must be particularly galling to those
who so confidently trumpeted an "African renaissance." What we see today
is the opposite: a reversal of the progress that seemed to have been
signaled by the end of apartheid.

At the heart of this reversal is the power syndrome. And it is
destroying Africa, country by country.

Certainly, in Africa today the terrible suffering is not caused by
external enemies, but from within. African leaders have created one
another as their own worst enemies. And they are dragging their
populations down into the abyss as they seek to establish their own
individual domination.

Look at the crude and vicious way that Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is
fomenting racial division to stay in power, manipulating genuine racial
grievances for political ends. For 20 years he has been in power, all
the while doing nothing about land injustice. For that alone, he ought
to resign as an incompetent leader. But suddenly, when his power is
threatened, his lagging sense of justice awakes!

It is political opportunism of the most despicable kind, a total slap
in the face to the South African spirit of reconciliation that was going
to raise the continent.

Rather than choosing men like Nelson Mandela as an example, leaders
like Mugabe would rather see their countries on fire than give up power.

I have spoken extensively to both the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Privately, they tell me this war is not necessary. What, then, pushes
them? Why don’t they call off this war, even with the United Nations
threatening sanctions against them? How can one explain this madness? I

I further cannot explain the steep descent into barbarism of Africans
against themselves. It was the Belgian King Leopold who started the
tactic of amputating the hands of the children of his enemies when he
ruled the Congo Free State at the turn of the century. This brutal
method now seems to have spread like some psycho virus to warlords,
including Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader in Sierra Leone. These men have
indoctrinated their followers into the total abandonment of any
traditional notion of man’s humanity to man. What new kind of monsters
has been born in Africa?

Despite what Africans are doing to themselves, the international
community, particularly Europe, does bear some responsibility for the
destruction of our societies wrought by colonialism and by power plays
during the Cold War. From that historical perspective, the abandonment
of Africa today is not at all justified.

Further, what is at stake now in Sierra Leone is the rescue of the
United Nations itself. Can we allow the United Nations do be abandoned,
discredited and divested of moral influence? If so, the world will see
only a cruel panoply of violently contesting forces, and not only in
Africa. I do not envy the task of Kofi Annan in this rescue operation
because it is against all odds.

Of course, this means that when the United Nations goes anywhere, it
does not fool around with incompetent, lightly armed or underfunded
troops. There is little point to future UN operations unless they will
have what it takes to match the fighting forces on the ground and
dominate the situation.

If Sierra Leone or the other UN peacekeeping failures point to any
lesson, it is that it is foolish to rely on the goodwill of the warring
parties, even if they have signed peace agreements. Not only is the
United Nations the only entity concerned enough to try to do anything in
Africa, it also should be that entity.

The idea of regional African peacekeeping forces won’t work.

When the Nigerian army routed the rebels in Sierra Leone a few years
back, the Organization of African Unity was euphoric at this specific
success of regional peacekeeping. But the excitement was premature
because it laid the seeds of the current strife.

Whenever a country goes it alone against another country, it becomes an
emotive point. Indeed, the rhetoric of the rebels in Sierra Leone was
exactly this: "Look, we are being colonized by Nigeria." So there was
great pressure for Nigeria to leave. When I discussed this at the time
with Boutros Boutros-Ghali (the former UN Secretary General), who in
turn discussed it with Nelson Mandela, we agreed that the departure of
Nigerian troops could not leave a vacuum but must be filled immediately
by a multinational force. Otherwise—and this is what happened—the rebels
would use the anti-Nigerian sentiment to exploit any vacuum and try to
seize power.

The point is that warring parties in Africa will see any regional
African force with a big power like Nigeria involved as bent on pressing
its own interests against theirs. Everyone in Africa knows which states
are supporting which rebels in the neighboring areas. Any such force,
assembled by the OAU or otherwise, will be riddled with suspicions about
the motives of the participants, thus only further muddying the already
filthy waters.

If peacekeeping or peacemaking is going to work in Africa it must be
done by an impartial organization with no stake in the local fight, that
is committed to a global view of resolving crises, no matter where. It
is not a matter of using any force, but of legitimate force. Only the
United Nations can fill this role.

Back to Index