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A nation must think before it acts.
It is no secret that signs of social, political, and economic progress in Africa have been rare indeed. What is less often discussed is the responsibility borne by African leaders for the misery of their own people. But powerful Western nations hardly deserve to escape some criticism. Nowhere is the truth of these observations more clear than in Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, two countries that until not long ago appeared to offer a glimmer of hope for a better future. Now, both have slipped to the brink of disaster.
Since independence from France in 1960, Ivory Coast has been by far the most stable and economically successful country in Francophone Africa. Under the leadership of the authoritarian but benevolent Felix Houphouet-Boigny from 1960 to 1993, the country prospered. Lacking in natural resources, Ivory Coast’s economy was driven by small-scale agriculture, and was so successful that the country had a chronic shortage of labor for decades. Stability was guaranteed in part by ensuring that the small and politically irrelevant military stayed that way. That was by no means accidental: France maintained a strong military presence, which served both as a protector of extensive French investments and as an effective deterrent against an institution that in so many other African states has been a source of instability and ruin.
All this ended in December 1999, when the military overthrew the corrupt and ineffective, but elected, government of Henri Conan Bedie as France stood by. Not long ago, this would have been inconceivable, but France’s Socialist-Communist government now ostensibly eschews “interference” in other countries’ internal affairs and therefore contented itself with impassivity in the face of the emerging crisis.
In the short time since the coup, the disastrous results have been almost mind-numbingly predictable. The economy collapsed, and as resources grew increasingly scarce, ethnic and religious cleavages surfaced and conflicts between natives and immigrants became acute. The initial coup was followed by other attempted coups. Mutinous soldiers exacted tribute from their nominal boss, General Robert Guei, and looted what had been one of Africa’s most attractive capitals. Foreign investors fled.
Ivory Coast’s crisis has also left West Africa without a political and economic counterbalance to Nigeria, which has long dreamt of regional hegemony. Charles Taylor, the bloody tyrant of Liberia, is now the unlikely successor in that role, but he (along with like-minded rulers and warlords in Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone) thirsts for diamonds, blood, and brute power far more than regional stability. Paris’s political correctness in December will prove horrendously expensive, in financial and in human terms.
At the other end of the continent, Robert Mugabe appears to be leading Zimbabwe inexorably toward economic and social destruction through a combination of socialism and racism. Mugabe, whose claim to power rests largely on the results of phony elections, has begun to destroy his country’s economy by dismantling the only sector that is productive and employs large numbers of people— agriculture. What is more, he has blatantly made race the sole determinant for land redistribution. Land owned by whites is simply being confiscated and occupied by blacks. As Mugabe put it, “As a collectivity, they (white farmers) are a natural fissure and beachhead for the retention or re-launch of British and European influence and control over our body politic.”
Even aside from the illegality and incendiary effect of the land seizures, the redistribution of farm land will lead to enormous economic hardship. The agricultural industry has until now been Zimbabwe’s major source of jobs and hard currency. Competent management is a key factor, along with economies of scale that, in a capital-intensive commercial sector, will be lost if land is given over to small-scale subsistence farming. Zimbabwe will lose not just jobs and foreign exchange reserves, but food production as well.
Family farmers will probably require subsidies from the government eventually, but the state coffers, deprived of the income formerly generated by agricultural exports, will soon empty. Food shortages— in a country that, along with South Africa, has been one of sub-Saharan Africa’s few self-sufficient food producers— are a real possibility, along with the inevitable requests for foreign aid.
It is worth noting that despite Mugabe’s obvious reliance on race to drum up support, many Zimbabweans see beyond color lines to the dangers of his policies: in marginally fair elections in June, the majority of educated blacks in every city voted against him. He nonetheless maintained a majority nationwide thanks to the support of the rural and largely illiterate population swayed by his promises of land ownership.
If Zimbabwe’s slide has been truly disheartening, South Africa’s reaction to it has been, at the least, disappointing. Rather than issuing stern criticism, President Thabo Mbeki has supported his neighbor in Harare. His message seemed to be that stealing property in order to redress racial grievances was acceptable— even at the cost of economic and social self-destruction. That hardly helps South Africa’s standing with foreign investors; nor does it inspire optimism in regard to Africa’s financial, racial, or economic future in general.
The West, largely responsible for putting Mugabe in power, has been, as so often in Africa, unwilling to do much about his racism, economic primitivism, and irresponsibility. The United Kingdom complained vocally, but stopped there; the United States did even less. No economic or trade sanctions were ever mentioned.
Nevertheless, the West’s fault, in both instances, is one of omission: ultimately, France did not overthrow the civilian government in Abidjan, nor did the British destroy Zimbabwe’s economy. On the other hand, had France intervened to stop the coup in Ivory Coast, or Britain to block Mugabe’s racism, the cries of “colonialism” would have been universal.
In Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe— both considered bright spots in a troubled continent up until recently— the future appears bleak. But as depressing as that observation is, the fault lies overwhelmingly with Africans themselves. The complaints of nongovernmental organizations about “donor fatigue” are correct— and justified. How long is a huge swath of the world going to avoid responsibility for its own mistakes, fail to correct them, and expect taxpayers abroad to subsidize them? It is time for a change.