Friday, March 6, 2015

One Man Is As Good As Another: Prelude

General Introduction to Africa

Prior to addressing the situation in the Central African Republic in particular, it is worth offering a few words about Africa in general. Unlike the rest of this series, this introduction will not be sourced; if you have any questions about the information presented in this first part, you will simply have to research particular facts yourself. The rest of the document connects information from numerous sources, and the sources are cited and linked for easy reference.

Africa is a land of ancient civilizations, though these civilizations did not advance technologically as far as Europe did. Also, as with civilizations in other parts of the world, many of them collapsed long before Europeans ever arrived to explore the continent. Consequently, when Europeans began to explore Africa, they came way with an impression of a continent that was very remote, backwards and uncivilized.

For example, the city of Timbuktu became in English synonymous with a place that is so hard to get to, it is essentially at the end of the world. From a European perspective, this was accurate: centuries ago, to get there, one had to journey by sea in a ship powered by sail from Europe to the coast of Africa; then, one had to go upstream along the Niger River, through jungles and across desert and arid lands, to arrive there. For a European, Timbuktu was one of the most remote cities known.

However, from an African perspective, Timbuktu was a crossroads. Caravans of camels came across the Sahara Desert from the Mediterranean coast of Africa, from Egypt and the Nile River Valley, and from as far away as Arabia and Southwest Asia. Meanwhile, goods came up from the jungles along the West African coast to the south and west. In the market places of Timbuktu, one could buy precious metals, dates from the Middle East, tropical fruits from Africa's coast, livestock and slaves. In fact, while many know of the slave trade moving black Africans to the Americas, few realize that Arab slave traders over the centuries took, by some estimates, as many as 18 million black Africans as slaves, both by caravan and by sea from ports on Africa's east coast; even fewer realize that, to a significant extent, this slave trade continues to this day.

Just as the people of the British Isles used the seas for trade, so did the people of Africa use the Sahara Desert and the region bordering the Sahara, called the Sahel - a region so named because it looks like a beach or seashore, with sparse grass in an arid, sandy land along the "coast" of Africa's great sea of trade, the Sahara.

Many Americans may think of the Sahara and the Sahel as barriers to the movement of merchandise and of people, but modern transportation, with light duty trucks now widely used, have caused the region to continue as a sea of trade for Africa. Now, though, illicit trade is widespread, with an international black market in heroin from South Asia, cocaine from South America, arms from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, and even slaves from Europe and black Africa supplanting in importance the age-old commodities.

Many Americans have an image of Africa as a land of famines, desertification, countries run by corrupt regimes headed by "strong men", and civil wars and unrest. The news stories that come out of Africa seldom feature the success stories, about stable countries with peaceful transitions in power after fair elections, about development of licit economies and the growth of cities. For example, did you know that Nigeria has a film industry known as "Nollywood", now the second largest producer of movies in the world?

To be sure, though, Africa has had its share of instability, including famines, wars, coups and outright genocides.

Most of Africa had been under colonial domination from the late 1800's until after World War II. In fact, at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Africa was divided up by the European powers. The divisions were made without respect to local ethnic boundaries, and were based on relatively rough reports about significant geographic features. One key aspect to the division of Africa was that it occurred peacefully in Berlin, not militarily in Africa, and this was deliberate: the white Europeans did not want to be seen by the black Africans to be fighting among themselves. It was feared that if Africans saw that Europeans were vulnerable to each other, Africans might get the idea that Europeans could be vulnerable to black Africans, and this could result in uprisings, making life difficult for the colonial masters. In the event, African armies were raised to fight Europe's wars in both world wars.

European powers generally abandoned their African colonies in a rather hurried manner after World War II. The French and to a larger extent the Portuguese got chased out after wars of national liberation. France, exhausted after World War II and years of Nazi occupation, then by a long war in Indochina, saw the writing on the wall after a colonial war in Algeria. Portugal fought quite hard to maintain its position in what is now Angola and Mozambique. The British Empire, however, essentially turned its colonies over and left.

Of these countries, the French have arguably the worst reputation for continuing to meddle in African affairs. For example, there is the situation in Côte d’Ivoire, about which I have written extensively at my blog, wherein then-President Sarkozy used French military power to install his friend and IMF frontman Alassane Outtara as president, in violation of Ivoirian law. Deposed Ivoirian president Laurent Gbagbo, accused of various crimes, was declared to be a "strong man" and handed over to the International Criminal Court under indictment; however, evidence that was at least as credible regarding comparable atrocities committed by Outtara's supporters was ignored. Of significance to the topic at hand, however, is persistent French meddling in the Central African Republic, which is to a significant extent a giant multi-player chessboard, especially for France and neighboring Chad and Sudan, as well as a spillover battleground for hostilities from Sudan and the Congo.

Consequently, most African nations were essentially born in a hurry during the Cold War.

It is dangerous to overgeneralize about any topic, but especially so when dealing with Africa.

That notwithstanding, it is fair to say that most transitions of power in African nations occur as a result of a coup or of a civil war. Ancient customs that were widespread in Africa of deciding things through discussion to build consensus have given way to winner-take-all politics, wherein might makes right, and where an electoral majority, however narrow or dubious, provides an excuse for exercise of power, typically in favor of those who have it and at the expense of those who don't. Use of the word corruption would imply that there is some kind of system that has been corrupted; generally, in Africa, corruption is (or at least has been) the system.

In Africa, generally, people have identity based on their families, which are extended far, far beyond an American "nuclear" family, and families care for their members; this has lent itself to African leaders calling upon wealthy countries, mainly America and European nations, to send aid to Africa, with comparisons of the Americans and Europeans being like the parents, and Africans being like the children. However, since so many African governments have run their countries as a means of generating personal wealth for the rulers, their families, clans and ethnic groups, the result is that it is probably fair to say that for every dollar in aid sent to Africa, at least one dollar was misappropriated into the personal bank accounts of African leaders held outside of Africa.

Africa is rich in natural resources, including diamonds and precious metals, and now including oil. Also, Africa is a rich continent agriculturally, well able to produce food for its people. However, the prevalence of government corruption and oppression, armed groups seeking to depose governments, bandits, smugglers, and now terrorists, has resulted in wars, civil wars, coups, and instability. Because of this, many Africans are refugees, having left their own countries to cross a border into another, or are classified as "internally displaced persons" (IDP's), people who are refugees but who remain within the borders of their own nation. It is common, especially in the Central African Republic today, for people to have left the villages and towns to live in the forests and jungles; by hiding out here, they avoid being victimized by armed men who seek to conscript young men into armed groups or for forced labor, and who seek to rape women and girls. This has an impact on agricultural production, and the decreased agricultural output in turn results in famine. Wars have often brought epidemics of disease with them, and Africa is no exception, being unable to effectively deal with malaria and AIDS; the infrastructure was never as strong as it could have been, has been devastated by extensive armed violence and corruption, and is now deprived of resources which are devoted to war.

In recent decades, organizations seeking to provide aid to the people of Africa have found themselves in a dilemma. The aid they send often gets taken by the armed group which controls the area where the aid is delivered. Thus, international medical personnel often become the medical corps, and international food aid agencies the quartermaster, for a warring faction. This causes some agencies to suspend aid, while others are willing to continue the aid, believing that the help that does get through to the people in need justifies what could be construed as a deal with the devil. However, it is often acknowledged that, without all this international aid and humanitarian assistance, Africa would be unable to sustain the many ongoing armed conflicts that it has at any given time. For their part, the aid agencies are able to capitalize on the unrest for fundraising: a celebrity touring an area subjected to armed violence and meeting with victims gets free coverage by news services, and this results in free advertising and an increased flow of money to the aid agencies working that area.

It is in this context that we examine instability in the Central African Republic, a country located in a part of Africa that had been dominated by the French during the colonial era.

Note that throughout this series, numbers in superscripts within quoted passages refer to footnotes in the original; refer to the original document, which is linked, to see the footnote.

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