The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

By Howard W. French

Knopf. 280 pp. $25

Few words evoke mystique and misconception like the proper noun Africa, and chroniclers have tried to capture its essence ever since Henry Morton Stanley wrote his swashbuckling diary more than a century ago. Howard W. French, a New York Times correspondent on the continent during four of its particularly dark years, adds substantially to this effort.

French's forte is not the broad view suggested by his title -- "A Continent for the Taking" -- but rather his up-close encounters. Some of those he meets inspire him with that irrepressible African humanity that manages to bounce back despite all obstacles. Others depress him with their rapacity and cruelty. A few come uncomfortably close to shooting him.

This is a reporter's account, and French calls things as he sees them. He reflects the lifelong passion of an African American who reveres his roots. But he notes the irony of being a black man with skin so light that Africans call him European; blanc; or, in Liberia, "wha [white] man."

French first toured West Africa as a young man with Freud in his backpack for light reading. He picked up a taste for boogieing all night at dance clubs where, at tables awash in beer, basic truths were told. "My understanding of Africa would gradually transform the way I saw the world," he writes. "It awakened me as nothing else before to the selfishness and shortsightedness of the rich and the dignity of the poor in their suffering, and to the uses and abuses of power. . . . Africa is the stage of mankind's greatest tragedies, and yet we remain largely inured to them, all but blind to the deprivation and suffering of one ninth of humanity. We awaken to the place only in fits of coarse self-interest and outright greed."

In Liberia, he covered a war that killed 200,000 people in a nation of 2.6 million. That is as if 20 million Americans, mostly innocent bystanders, were hacked to death or sprayed with bullets. At a news conference, French railed at President Charles Taylor: "Isn't it really outrageous for someone who has drugged small boys, given them guns and trained them to kill to call this God's war?"

Much of the book details the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire in 1997, when the Clinton administration finally pulled the plug on that thieving megalomaniac, whom the CIA had put in place in 1965 and whom successive U.S. officials had supported for the sake of stability. As French notes, the roots of the conflict run deep. For the most part, the world started noticing only in the 1990s, but ethnic tensions in Central Africa go back far before Europeans. Tutsis, tall herdsmen who lorded it over the diminutive Hutus, kept their distance from Belgian colonizers. As a result, Hutus inherited political power when Belgium left. Periodically since the 1960s, tribal conflicts have erupted in massacre. Meantime, rebellion in neighboring Congo produced such disaffected exiles as Joseph Kabila.

Mobutu was dumped after Paul Kagame, the Rwandan Tutsi leader, backed Kabila in a march across Congo that captured Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire. Kagame sought revenge against Hutu tribesmen who had fled to Congo after slaughtering 800,000 Tutsis in 1994. French reveals how President Clinton's policies were implemented. Bill Richardson, the president's special envoy, briefed him on a meeting with Mobutu: "I told him you are living in a dreamland, pal. You've got a bunch of advisors who are not telling you the truth. You are out. Do you want to leave with dignity or as a carcass?"

French maintains that writings by Philip Gourevitch helped U.S. officials to brush aside complex nuances in charting post-Mobutu policy. Gourevitch saw Tutsis as the good guys, French says, simply because the Hutus were the bad guys. At the bend-in-the-river city of Kisangani, he says, "Richardson never insisted that we be allowed to travel down the dirt road that reportedly led to the killing fields. Whether it was the United States or the United Nations, no Westerner would ever push hard enough to lift the veil over this crude little Auschwitz. In fact, just a few months later, Washington would be pushing to make sure that no Western investigator ever made it down that road."

When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Congo in December 1997, French says that he was given a lecture on African realities by James Rubin, her closest aide and spokesman. French says that Rubin quoted various officials and then added, "Actually a lot of my take comes from an even better source, and it comes to me directly. Philip Gourevitch is my sister's boyfriend."

French is less convincing in using a broad brush, as when he blames Africa's plight on colonialism, which mostly ended by 1961. And he chooses for one of his epigraphs a quote from Camara Laye: "A white man can't see everything: and he has no need to see everything either, because this land is not a white man's land." That is a bit like saying Europe is not a black man's land. True enough, artificial borders and generations of plunder destroyed much that Africans had put in place. But the subject is vast, and such simplicities carry little weight.

It is French the reporter who is most persuasive. As he goes about his work, facing bribe-hungry airport officials and doped-up children with assault rifles at roadblocks, he reveals much about West Africa and Congo today. The tone is grim, but French also finds an unquenchable African spirit. In the Congolese region of Kasai, a 51-year-old former copper mine manager named Kalala Budimbwa survived ethnic strife. Now, having fled to a new home, he was working on a new life. As he explained:

"Our dreams are the dreams of people everywhere, aren't they? . . . We want to be able to turn on the lights and read to our children at night. We want affordable cement so that we can build houses for our families. We want roads so that we can truck our produce for sale in other markets, instead of seeing it spoil. We want to be able to put money in the bank and know it won't be stolen or have its value melt away."