Michela Wrong is progressively etching her name in history books as a foremost observer of Africa, not through journalism but books. Her first book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, is a horrifying reminder of Zaire’s former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s madness, theft, wastefulness and idiocy.
But it is also an ode to the survival skills of the Congolese, women and men who adapted to the absurdities of a kleptocracy that robbed and ruined one of the richest countries in the world.
I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation is a close-up shot of Eritrea. It is a moving, sympathetic but richly textured portrayal of a country that has been colonised, abused, invaded, occupied, abandoned and nowadays ridiculed by the international community.
I don’t have to tell you much about It is Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower. Here, Wrong ‘came home, here’; too close to the powers that be, painting and airbrushing the rackets that were invented to rob this country clean.
ASK KENYAN TEACHERS
Clearly she rubbed many big men and women of the day the wrong way. Today, less than 10 years on, one only needs to read the newspapers to know that those who ate then ate the future, which is today.
Ask the Kenyan teachers for the rest of the story.
Borderlines, Wrong’s latest book, continues this theme of what is so wrong with Africa but which needs pretty little effort to put right. The novel — the other three books are historiographies — revolves around a dispute between two African nations, Darrar and North Darrar.
One doesn’t need to know much of African history to understand that these two states are really Ethiopia and Eritrea. There is enough reference to wars, occupation, British and Italian colonisation, the seaport etc for one to know that this is a story built on real life events. The two states dispute their boundaries.
A shootout at a border point leads to a near full-scale war, in which North Darrar, the smaller of the two, suffers most. People are displaced, their wealth destroyed and their land occupied.
The dispute is referred to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, at The Hague, where the International Criminal Court also sits.
The case at The Hague regards disputation over the border between The State of North Darrar and the Federal Democratic Republic of Darrar.
When the case is decided, the commission, whose real legal mandate is to resolve the ‘dispute over the border’ actually pronounces itself on who was wrong. In other words, without really proper legal reasons, what is a ‘border commission’ — according to the protagonist of the story, Paula Shackleton — pronounces itself on the war.
Although it rules in favour of North Darrar, in relation to where the border should be, it pretentiously claims that North Darrar was responsible for starting the war.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE RULING
The problem with this ruling — which is seemingly made to satisfy or save the face of the ‘losing side’ (Darrar) — is that it would most likely set off another dispute or war if Darrar decides to pursue compensation for what it may (wrongly?) claim to have lost.
I would say that Borderlines is an engrossing legal tale which would make some Kenyans quite excited about international conflict resolution but also international legal institutions such as the ICC.
Don’t we have a dispute with Uganda, South Sudan or Somalia over border points? How much do Kenyans know about how such disputes are resolved? Do we have lawyers in this country, competent in international law and bureaucrats knowledgeable in the horse-trading that goes on in such instances?
Wrong is clearly suggesting many things about Africa and Africans in Borderlines, but the most significant for me is the fact that in many cases of international dispute, Africans are naïve disputants, often trapped by pasts and histories over which they had and still don’t have control.
For instance, if Darrar and North Darrar fought off colonial occupation, if both countries — as the narrator suggests — have a proud history of liberation struggle and determination for self-rule, then why would they butcher their innocent citizens — both
the enemies and the youth forcefully conscripted into the armies — over a mere cartographic line, probably drawn by a European who had never been to the place?
But I guess African readers — and many other people who love impartiality – would be keenly interested in the fact that sometimes political considerations underpin the decisions made by ‘international’ bodies.
It is not just in vain or for the sake of making noises that some Africanists strongly believe that institutions such as the ICC were set up to police Africans, and not necessarily the world.
There is a significant chance that the existence of the ICC has had a moderating influence on would-have-been-murderous rulers in many parts of the world, especially Africa.
But the fact that over 40 member states of the United Nations haven’t signed up to the ICC, for instance, says a lot about what many people in the world believe about justice.
Probably the unstated question here is: Why do Africans ever bother to commit and subject themselves to such treaties and institutions when they probably know that in the long run they will get the short end of the stick?
Yet, there is no doubt that the author is deeply concerned about what Africans — especially leaders and the educated elite — proclaim and what they do.
For instance, although North Darrar liberated itself from Darrar, it is practically one big prison with ever-increasing draconian laws. Even Paula Shackleton, who is holding brief for North Darrar for their case at The Hague, ends up being declared an unwanted person.
The country’s president remains ever idealistic about liberation although seemingly not ready to truly liberate his own citizens and move the country to a post-liberation progress.
The consequence is a country that is poor, full of fearful citizens or sycophants, with the educated elite continuously looking for ways to escape from the misery; practically a police state.
Indeed this state of affairs reminds one of Lara Pawson’s book, In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre, where the ruling party, MPLA, claims to be a liberation movement, yet the same group now runs the party and country as if they are
personal property, brooking no alternative views on governance, jailing its citizens who disagree with the policies of the rulers and effectively holding the country to ransom.
Borderlines is another book — from a writer who clearly understands, by experience, many of Africa’s tragedies — that African(ist)s should read right now or stock up for the end of the year holidays’ reading. Borderlines is available in bookshops in Nairobi.