The destitution of Africa has been an all but forbidden topic in political discourse for reasons as comprehensible as they are disabling. The time has arrived, however, for honest and dispassionate discussion of this immense human tragedy, for which the Western countries bear a grave if partial responsibility and which will worsen if not addressed.


Much of Africa needs, to put it plainly, what one could call a disinterested neocolonialism. Africans acknowledge the immensity of their crisis and the need to consider hitherto unacceptable remedies. The democracy movement, which in the past few years produced a series of national conferences to end dictatorships, is foundering. Fewer than a third of sub-Saharan Africa's nations have anything resembling multiparty politics. The Congolese author Ange Séverin Malanda says, "From now on, the danger in several parts of the continent is of pure destruction or generalized destabilization. The destabilization is already evident in Somalia, Liberia, and Angola. The pure destruction began to be realized in Rwanda on the sixth of April 1994, annihilating every contemporary African standard of reference. Genocide there accomplished the unimaginable and the unlimited." A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross says of Liberia that "no moral barriers remain . . . every reference to the principles and values which found and bind a community of men have disappeared . . . virtually nothing remains except horror and cruelty." The Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, writing in anguished response to the repression of minorities in Nigeria, has questioned -- as have some Western commentators -- the postcolonial convention that frontiers must be left as they are. Any program, however, for redrafting frontiers on the principle of ethnic self-determination must explain why the equitable redivision of Africa on ethnic lines would be more feasible than it has proven in the Balkans, where the pursuit of this principle has engendered war after war, from the Serbian uprising of 1804 to the present war in the former Yugoslavia.

In Africa, any attempt to redraw borders on ethnic lines would seem certain to accelerate political disintegration and inspire new conflicts. It is now the convention in right-thinking Western circles that Africa's tribes and ethnic groups are repressive colonial inventions and that nothing significant distinguishes Zulu from Xhosa, Masai from Kikuyu, or Tutsi from Hutu, notwithstanding the reactionary Western sciences of ethnology and anthropology.

Nor does the idea of a new form of colonialism stand much chance of acceptance, but in the absence of an alternative it must be considered. It has separately been proposed by the Kenyan historian Ali A. Mazrui,[1] editor of the final volume of the UNESCO General History of Africa, and by several Western observers of Africa, including the present writer.


Most of Africa, I have argued, lacks the crucial educated middle and professional classes and the mediating private and public institutions that compose a "civil society." Civil society makes democracy possible; without it democracy has failed and will continue to fail in Africa.

The history of the continent since the great wave of decolonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s includes a shameful series of self-interested foreign interventions and ruthless exploitation of indigenous African conflicts by the Soviet Union, its proxy, Cuba, and the United States, with deliberate instigation or intensification of wars in Katanga, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Angola, and Somalia. But this history is also a chronicle of anarchic breakdown within African societies, some of which are manifestly worse off now than under colonialism, heading toward the type of social collapse and genocidal struggle that has occurred in Rwanda and Burundi.

The anarchic struggle for factional power in Somalia goes on, with both the United Nations and the United States humiliated. Before that came horrors in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as in Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, and Sudan. A part of West Africa today suffers insensate and feral struggle, devoid of political or ideological purpose, conducted by uprooted, ignorant, anomic young men serving Caligulan warlords. This is a postmodern barbarism unconnected to any African past. The Uganda of Idi Amin and the Central African "Empire" of the egregious Jean-Bédel Bokassa seem rational enterprises compared with the inadvertent and apocalyptic nihilism practiced there and in Rwanda.


The historical record is complex, but it seems fair to say that when the Europeans first came to Africa there were coherent, functioning societies of varying degrees of sophistication, some of great political subtlety and artistic accomplishment, others simple hunting and gathering communities, some extremely cruel in their practices, but all possessing their own integrity and integrated into the natural environment of the continent. This was destroyed by colonialism.

What followed was exploitation on the one hand, including the atrocious trade in slaves, and on the other hand more or less sincere attempts at Western-style education, "uplift," and religious salvation of "pagan" Africans so they could be remade culturally as European, assumed to be the most advanced form of civilization. Whatever the merits of the latter project (and it was also the project of the first generation of independent African leaders, all products of European education and politics), the colonizers did not stay in Africa long enough for it to have the faintest chance of succeeding. Colonialism lasted long enough to destroy the preexisting social and political institutions, but not long enough to put anything solid and lasting in their place. As Robert Heilbroner wrote:

Economic penetration came without any of the historic preparation that accompanied this development in Europe. Imperialism imposed on its colonies the raw economic drive of capitalism without the social and political underpinnings and protections which blunted that drive at home . . . Into [the] primitive circulation of life a powerful and dangerous virus was injected with terrible effect. It turned millions of traditionally self-sufficient peasants into rubber-tappers, coffee-growers, tin-miners, tea-pickers -- and then subjected this new agricultural and mining proletariat to the incomprehensible vagaries of world commodity fluctuations. It uprooted ancient laws and gave in exchange Western justice, whose ideas disrupted the local culture by striking at the roots of time-honored traditions and customs . . . Colonialism, even its most missionary moments, never succeeded in seeing the "natives" as equals, and it usually simply took for granted their irremediable inferiority. [2] This was a crucial moral blow, whose consequences persist.

What can be done? Mazrui wants the old League of Nations trusteeship system reestablished, with African and Asian nations among those appointed by the United Nations to govern certain countries, under the guidance of a council of major African states, which would possess a peacekeeping army. (France proposed the creation of such an inter-African force at the French-African summit in Biarritz in November 1994 and offered logistical support, but this evoked little response from the African participants.)

The feasibility of one-nation trusteeships seems slight, and the probability that any nation would take on such a thankless responsibility seems near zero. An internationalist U.N. trusteeship, as Mazrui wants, seems equally unlikely. The United Nations, even now, is overburdened. It has great difficulty finding peacekeeping troops. It is all but bankrupt, with the United States the principal defaulter on pledged payments. It has no apparatus for actually governing a country, and the politicking of its membership makes it all but impossible to acquire one. It is the agent of the Security Council, and the policies it would follow in any nation-building enterprise would be dictated by the Security Council majority. Neither the Somalian nor the Bosnian experience encourages confidence in such an undertaking.


What is left? The answer seems to lie in the responses to three questions. Who is principally responsible for this catastrophe? Answer: the European powers who colonized Africa, out of a complex mixture of good and bad motives, destroying Africa's existing social and political systems and its customary institutions and law.

Who outside of Africa has the most urgent material interest in its condition? Clearly, the former European colonial powers. Africa's continued foundering means the exodus of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of desperate people headed to the closest place where they can find order, jobs, security, a future. Their scarcely controllable migration to Europe has already created immense social problems and serious political tensions there. Europe is also the principal consumer of African mineral and agricultural exports.

Who is competent to supply not only peacekeeping and peacemaking in Africa but serious support for building administrations, economies, and infrastructure? Neither the United Nations nor the United States, as we have seen. Both Italian and French peacekeepers in Somalia vainly warned the United States and United Nations against their ill-conceived attempt to impose American-style solutions there. As its former colonial ruler, the Italians know Somalia, just as the French know West and Central Africa, the British, East Africa, and the Portuguese, Angola and Mozambique. They know the languages. They still have among them not only former colonial administrators but specialists and scholars concerned with these regions. If anybody is competent to deal sympathetically with these countries, the Europeans are.

It is true that in some respects Europe has never left Africa. France's persisting presence in Western and Central Africa still evokes hostility from American and British commentators and many non-Francophone Africans, and there undoubtedly is much to criticize in a policy whose ruling principle has been stability above all else. However, the overall judgment must also be that French Africa for more than three decades has been the Africa that worked, the place where life for ordinary Africans has been markedly better than where the old colonial powers, as one commentator put it, "absconded with no forwarding address."

France today is probably the only European country that might, if invited, consider a major commitment to the rehabilitation of a former colony. It would be better if the European Union as an institution, which insists it wants an international role for "Europe," would collectively assume such responsibilities in cooperation with Africans in an effort to arrest the continent's decline and put it on a progressive course.

The components of such a program are easier to imagine than how European opinion could be mustered to support it or African authorities persuaded to accept it. There would have to be a cooperative Euro-African trust organization to which the majority of African governments would assign a defined (and irrevocable) authority to keep or restore order in troubled societies, establish regimes of political and social rights, rebuild health and educational institutions, develop national economic infrastructures, and develop and support competent government administrations.


This would be the project of a half-century, perhaps a century. But it could mean a great deal for Africa and be a deeply constructive accomplishment for Europe. It would eventually end, and that would have to be understood from the start. The European pledge to the Africans would be: We imposed this ordeal of modernization on you, which you are determined to complete. We are prepared to rejoin you and support you in that enterprise.

There need be no moralization or condescension. Europeans can also say to Africans: You are divided by hysterical tribalisms and suffer anarchical social upheavals? Some among you have committed genocide? You have practiced ethnic murder? We know all about that. Look at our history in this same century. There are no invidious moral distinctions to be drawn between us. Let us now work together to find a way out of this, toward higher ground.

[1] Ali A. Mazrui, "Decaying Parts of Africa Need Benign Colonization," International Herald Tribune, August 4, 1994.

[2] Robert Heilbroner, The Future as History: The Historic Currents of Our Time and the Direction in Which They Are Taking America, New York: Harper, 1960.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • William Pfaff writes a syndicated column for the International Herald Tribune. His latest book, on nationalism, its origins, and its consequences, is The Wrath of Nations (Touchstone).
  • More By William Pfaff