A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

French, Howard W.
New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2005, ISBN: 1 4000 3027 7, 250pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Glenn Brigaldino
Associate of www.epo.de (the German portal to Development Information and News), Ottawa

Africa is a dark and dangerous place, plagued by poverty, disease, and war. That's about as much the average US citizen could say about life in Africa. But ignorance of history and unawareness of Africa's cultural, social, and political conditions is not even a poor excuse for ignoring the neo-imperial meddling in African affairs by US governments, past and present. In A Continent for the Taking, US journalist Howard W. French offers an explanation of why ‘America remains dumb to the suffering [of people living in Africa], and indeed often makes things worse’. In this surprisingly critical and well-researched reportage, French raises the bar for current-affairs writing on Africa.

Since the mid-1970s, French has witnessed and reported on political events in Africa. In this book, he describes the unfolding crises in Liberia, Nigeria, and Zaïre/Congo from the 1990s onwards. With impressive insight, the author recognises and exposes external political influences. Although French focuses on local facets of African tragedies, he also succeeds in locating these events within broader international contexts. This analytical approach is most powerfully employed in the case of the former Zaïre. Diplomatic failures, corporate lust for African natural resources, and a general indifference towards African lives in Europe and the USA are identified as the central factors in bringing about the collapse of an entire region. As a result, some 2.5 million Africans, probably many more, have died since the fall of Mobuto. It will take decades for the country to recover and rehabilitate; it will never be possible to make up for the massive scale of human suffering.

To be sure, French is not trying to assign blame: those responsible for the Zaïre/Congo tragedy, either directly or indirectly, need no reminder. The importance of the book lies in the author's skill in demonstrating how external economic and political interests have colluded with local criminals and thus debilitated vast parts of an entire continent and the livelihoods of its peoples, and continue to do so. By taking sides in African conflicts, Western governments have frequently perpetuated and prolonged civil strife. Too often political choices are made not to act, when human tragedies are clearly in the making. Across Africa, external political influences have been catalysts for turmoil, collapse, and genocide.

Writing with compassion and a genuine commitment to draw attention to the plight of all too many Africans, French makes a strong case for supporting Africa when tragedies are looming. Regrettably, the hope for the continent that is referred to in the book's subtitle is not really explored or elaborated in any detail. But then, just by getting enough people to take greater notice of Africa and to acknowledge that the continent's development and democratisation should be of concern to all global citizens is in itself a sign of encouragement.