The Common Good
December 2008

Continent of Hope

by John Prendergast | December 2008

Why Africa is a land of endless possibilitiy -- and how that should guide U.S. relations with the continent.

Forgive a typical American if she were to pay a visit to the West African nation of Sierra Leone and be confused by her surroundings. If she had ever heard of Sierra Leone before, it might have been while watching the movie Blood Diamond, which graphically depicted some of the worst depredations of the conflict there, such as the rebel group RUF’s amputation of limbs, the drug-crazed child soldiers, and the links between criminal diamond-dealing mafias and the war economy.

If this visitor to Sierra Leone had been reading occasional international news missives over the years, she might have remembered something about a rebel group that hacked the limbs off civilians to punish them for voting, or perhaps might have remembered that al Qaeda laundered money in the Sierra Leone diamond market before and after 9/11 to hide its assets.

Given that context, she certainly would have been quite astounded to have joined me on my visit to Tongo Fields in eastern Sierra Leone, the heart of the diamond-producing area and the site of some of the most intense fighting and horrific atrocities in the last century in Africa. What she would have seen in fact defied all expectations—the kind of low expectations that have come to mark international attitudes toward Africa in general.

Tongo Fields is a place crawling with former child soldiers, heavily contested by three political parties in last year’s election, and placed at further risk by a winner-take-all electoral process that dictates access to diamond profits as a result of victory at the polls.

Before Sierra Leone’s historic 2007 election, every conflict indicator was flashing a red alert. Africa “experts” around the world were predicting that Sierra Leone, only half a decade after the end of its brutal civil war, was perhaps heading back down an inevitable road toward a return to war.

So in the context of all that Afro-pessimism—the legacy of war thick as the rainy season clouds lacing the Sierra Leonean skies—what happened?

I’VE OBSERVED elections in a number of African countries over the past 25 years, and this election in Sierra Leone may have been the most efficient, transparent and peaceful procedure I have ever witnessed, run by some of the most conscientious and earnest polling officials I have ever met. The army stayed in the barracks and didn’t improperly intervene, while the police contributed to the security of elections throughout the country on election day. The runoff among the two highest vote-getters led to a victory by the opposition party, and the ruling party gracefully and peacefully turned over the reins of power. In a grand affirmation of their country’s future, the people of Sierra Leone are defying both historical legacies and pundits’ low expectations.

An appropriately named former child soldier, Elijah, told me, “It’s a brand-new day for Sierra Leone.” Every one of the ex-combatants that I met in Tongo Fields and Freetown said in no uncertain terms that they would never again be lured back to a life of war in the bush. “We fought for nothing,” another former child soldier told me. “We are so tired of war. We don’t want to be used for fighting and end up with nothing.” A third former combatant, who divulged that he had committed “terrible atrocities” while he was in the bush, concluded, “This vote signals the end of jungle justice.”

The similarities are striking to another African country that also was written off by Africa “experts”: Liberia. Much like Blood Diamond, movies such as Lord of War with Nicolas Cage leave a hopeless impression of Liberia, referred to in the film as “that country which God seemed to have forsaken,” with Cage’s character describing the outskirts of Monrovia as “the edge of hell.” Yet in late 2005, Liberians marched to the polls and elected the first female head of state in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and more than 100,000 soldiers have demobilized as the country works diligently to erase the legacies of war. President Johnson-Sirleaf’s policies in a number of sectors have become models for other countries, and she is regularly invited to Europe and America to share her lessons learned and insights into how to heal societies and countries believed to have been “broken.”

I was there for that election too. The stories of the former child soldiers in Liberia were hauntingly similar to those of Sierra Leone. A 14-year-old named David told me, “We were used, fooled, and forced” by their former warlords; now he wants to farm if he can be given a little land and some capital. Others want to go to school or get job training. The last thing they want is to be dragged back to a world where the rule of law is abandoned and the gun talks loudest of all.

MOST AMERICANS view Africa as a place ripped apart by war, famine, anarchy, and HIV/AIDS. They often view Africans as people who need to be helped and “saved.” The truth is that there are indeed a few countries that are trapped in cycles of conflict, such as Sudan, Somalia, and Congo. But they are the exceptions. Liberia and Sierra Leone tell a different story of Africa—that of a continent of hope, of transformation.

The evidence goes far beyond those two West African nations. Everyone knows the story of South Africa, which up until the early 1990s was ruled by a system that codified racial discrimination against black Africans. Today, South Africa is preparing for its fourth democratic elections since the fall of that apartheid system. At the time Nelson Mandela was being elected South Africa’s first democratic president in 1994, Africa’s fastest genocide was occurring in Rwanda, where almost one million people were eliminated from the face of the earth in 100 days. Today, Rwandans are working hard to heal the wounds of the recent past, the country has a significant economic growth rate, and the likelihood of a return to conflict diminishes with each passing year. Neighboring Burundi and southern Sudan—themselves ripped apart by genocide and conflict, killing millions—have forged peace deals laying the groundwork for future peace and security.

In all of these countries, there are political and security problems, but the grassroots demand for peace has resulted in fundamental transformations that, if they had occurred in Europe, would be hailed as nothing short of miraculous.

What I have found in my travels in each of these success stories is an unparalleled assertion of rights and responsibilities by people from all walks of life throughout Africa, and especially by young people. There is a demand that their voices be heard, through the ballot box, through civil society organizations, through news media, through new and renewed political parties, and through burgeoning cultures of accountability. Part of what had fueled recruitment of young people during these various wars was disempowerment and victimization. Electoral processes, education, and development initiatives allow for a revaluation of the importance of the individual within the community, thus beginning a process of vesting citizens in the governance of their own countries.

ALL THIS IS just intellectual fodder unless it provides lessons for what we can do now for the biggest crises on the African continent: Darfur and Congo (see sidebar). The difference between Darfur and other cases such as Sierra Leone is that this time Americans are not looking away, and are asserting that our government has an important role to play in ending the crisis. With the exception of the smaller but effective anti-apartheid movement for South Africa in the 1980s, the outpouring of American activism in support of a more robust U.S. response to Darfur has been unparalleled. It is the first time there has been a mass-based political movement created to confront genocide or civil war in Africa. We need to raise our voices even louder for Darfur and find room in our advocacy for the people of Congo as well.

Failure in Darfur would likely mean that hundreds of thousands of Americans would once again turn away from the hard issues still confronting Africa as it tries to shake off its legacies of slavery, colonialism, and conflict to create a new future. Success in Darfur, however, will ensure that a whole generation of newly politically active Americans will redouble their efforts to ensure that a permanent constituency is created that will not stand idly by in the face of future war or genocide in Africa.

John Prendergast is co-chair of the Enough Project, which aims to build citizen pressure to confront genocide and crimes against humanity (enoughproject. org). He is also the co-author with Don Cheadle of Not on Our Watch, a New York Times best-seller.

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