The politics of freedom in Africa

Stories of a continent's struggles from a Western reporter

The New Africa: Dispatches from a Changing Continent By Robert M. Press University Press of Florida

The New Africa" begins with a brief history of a region of the world in which turmoil has long been and remains more common than stability. Key words and phrases serve as motifs, telegraphing the root causes of some of the problems: slavery, colonial rule, progress, stagnation, reform, protest, famine, war, struggles for independence, internal strife, and ethnic conflict. The last is a common theme in much writing about Africa and one that is most significant in the politics of many African states.

And yet Robert Press is to be commended for not falling into the trap of blaming everything on tribalism. He quotes Clestin Monga, author of "The Anthropology of Anger" and an advocate of reconciling cultural diversity through constitutional means, who notes that "in addition to being Yorubas, Bamilekes, Kikuyus, or Zulus, African voters are taxpayers, employed or unemployed, Catholics or animists, inhabitants of large cities or small towns." Individuals everywhere in Africa have multiple and often competing identities.

Press, who was the Monitor's Africa correspondent based in Nairobi from 1987 to 1995, doesn't deal with all or even most African states. Instead, he zeroes in on what he knows best: politics in Mali, in Kenya and in Somalia, where, he says, "things fell apart." He notes that intervention, especially by the Americans, was flawed by the behavior of those who came to set things right - "bullies," he calls them at one point- and then cut and ran lest they get trapped in what some officials saw as a quagmire.

The author's most detailed reportage and harshest criticism comes in two chapters in which he discusses what happened in Rwanda. He writes, "Genocide [was] ignored" by the major powers, not least the United States, which stood by saying the right things and doing little to stop the bloodletting.

Clearly taking sides in an ongoing debate, the author suggests that the failure was related to the Clinton administration's decision, after the debacle in Somalia, to no longer "send its troops on peacekeeping missions that did not directly affect [US] national security - regardless of the humanitarian need."

Press's book, complemented by Betty Press's powerful photographs, is about the fervor of freedom in a world of inequity and the frustrating obstacles to those seeking to achieve it. It is about rivalry, personal and tribal and international. It is about the struggle for respect - and respectability - and for outside support in an area still in desperate need but no longer wooed by nuclear rivals vying for control.

It is a commentary on leadership in a part of the world where, too often, one party states and the dominating demagogues too often have replaced colonial rulers only to reimpose their own form of imperious rule.

All of these subjects are examined in chapters that are really case studies - although that expression may conjure a dryness and an aloofness that is far from evident here because, at bottom, Press is a storyteller. He talks to his readers.

As I "listened," I kept wanting to hear more about his friend Ngugi, "the living bridge between the cultures of the US and Kenyan"; the Kenya activist Monica Wamwere; the informant Manuel, one of the near-victims of the genocide in Rwanda; the Kamba farmer Alphones Muange and his wife, Angela; the young Kenyan entrepreneur Peter Chege, and many others Press met along the way. Press's accounts of their lives, around which he fashioned his political analyses and personal critiques, serves, like his wife's zoom lens, to focus our attention.

Reading "The New Africa," I was repeatedly struck by the fact that the couplet "concerned journalism" is not an oxymoron.

*Peter I. Rose is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. His most recent book is 'Tempest-Tost' (Oxford University Press).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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