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The coming anarchy

Sunday October 10 1999


By Dauti Kahura

On the threshold of the millennium, the greatest danger of the Africa continent might not be the millennium bug, after all, but the question of survival itself. The fundamental question of whether the continent will hold as one entity, has been posed by African scholars, journalists, policy makers and interested watchers and observers.

As far back as in 1983, Africa's spiral of disaster and "rrelevance," had already attracted prophesies of doom and failure in the likes of Paul Kennedy, a futurist who had the guts to proclaim Africa's future was "extraordinarily gloomy." Foreign joumalists working in Africa and serving as correspondents for their papers and magazines wrote back home, painting bleak pictures of the state of affairs in the countries they reported from.

Foreign journalists like David Lamb, the author of The Africans and Peter Marnham, Dispatches From Africa (Marnham had way back in 1981 already dispatched his notes even before Blaine Harden came into the scene), were pointing emerging cracks of severe underdevelopment and general desolation in the sub-Saharan Africa. Blaine Harden, a Washington Post correspondent for the sub-Saharan region, between 1985-89, who was considered to have gone beyond postcard portrayal of Africa, still could not resist the urge to refer to sub-Saharan Africa as sliding down to some unknown Nth world. His book, Africa - Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, though ended on a hopeful and optimistic note, one could not fail to read between the line: Sub-Saharan Africa was on the verge of monumental collapse unless it was resuscitated under a special programme, possibly greater than that of any Marshall Plan.

With the collapse of Socialism, and the disintegration of the Soviet Republics, Francis Fukuyama a neo-capitalist celebrated the triumph of capitalism and proclaimed the death of history by writing the now infamous treatise: The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama went even as far as saying that the New World (read the leading Westem capitalists nations and their partners, the leading multi-lateral organisations) was interested in, was not what was happening in Burkina Faso (taken to symbolise Africa) or some remote nondescript subSaharan African state, but whether those countries would fit in within the matrix of market economy and consumerism, failure to which the countries would be declared irrelevant and redundant.

It was not until February 1994, that Robert D. Kaplan, an American travelogue joumalist, the subject of this review, that came up with the most polemical write-up on sub-Saharan Africa, with his infamous article, The Coming Anarchy. The article, which appeared in The Atlantk Monthly magazine, became arguably the most discussed press report by development policy makers and governments of the leading Western capitals, from Washington to London, from Paris to Rome and Brussels. So controversial was the article, that it later led to a publication of a book, that also included equally controversial essays from other devastated parts of the world.

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The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21St Century, is a prophecy of doom and failure of countries that Kaplan considers to be frontiers' nations of the world. The book covers the areas of sub-Sahara Africa, Turkey, China, the Indian sub-continent, Central Asia and Iran. In all these areas, Kaplan visited the remotest parts of these regions, found himself in the congested sinking slums of overcrowded cities, interviewed govemment bureaucrats and taxi drivers alike, slept in noisy back-street hotels, spoke to peasant farmers and using statistics and data generated back at home, Kaplan spelt but one thing: Doom.

Thus, it is to the sub-Saharan Africa, that we must turn to, a sub-continent Kaplan and co. have decreed is "at the edge of the abyss." As lucky would have it, The Coming Anarchy was published just seven weeks ahead of the Rwandan genocide, which shook the world and numbed humanity's nerves as it sought to understand what exactly had hit that part of Africa.

Nothing could have been so prophetic.

Using "Western Africa prism," Kaplan painted a mosaic picture of overpopulation, resource scarcity, drug infested slums, rampant crime, thug-like leaders and the collapsing of the West Africa littoral. Kaplan further predicted an increasing demographic, environmental and social stress" and the emergence of the criminal anarchy. Invoking, neo-Malthusian predictions of Thomas Homer-Dixon, a peace and conflict expert, Kaplan says sub-Saharan lacks the capacity to manage its natural resource because of burgeoning population which will ostensibly lead to ethnic flare-ups and cross-border warfare.

Kaplan is a product of a society that believes that Africa is a "gigantic basket case" and "the measure of backwardness." Over the recent years, there has been a stubborn conventional wisdom in the West, that preaches Afro-pessimism and is convinced that nothing good will ever come out of Africa.

In June 16, 1997, The New Republic devoted the issue to the theme, "Africa is Dying" with an editorial arguing that, "what is happening now is nothing less than Africa's exist from international society."

Africanist scholars such as Jean-Francois Bayart and Patrick Chabal in their recent works have also alluded to the dysfunctional nature of the Africa state and society. Their recent works attest to this: Criminalisation of the State in Africa and Africa Works: Disorders as Politician Instrument by Bayart and Chabal respectively. The upshot of these Afro-pessimism arguments, is that the collapse of institutions and environmental disaster in Africa must be checked before they become a danger to global politics, environment and security. Though Manuel Castell, cannot be considered an Africanist scholar, he earned the fury of Africans by his now famous remark that said Africa was "structurally irrelevant" insofar as the information age was concerned in what he refers to as the "Network Society."

Writing recently, Prof. Michael Chege, a Kenyan based at the Centre for African Studies, University of Florida, commented that "sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where poverty and political violence are likely to increase in the opening years of the next century." Prof. Chege was discussing what he called the "paradigm of doom." Though Prof. Chege acknowledges the failures of sub-Saharan Africa, to the extent that most of the problems facing Africa have been locally generated, he like his counterpart here in Kenya, Prof. Njuguna Ng'ethe, says there is nothing uniquely peculiar about Africa developmental problems.

"The problems of Africa, shall not be solved by nostalgically returning to the traditional social systems formulae, nor by engaging in incessant afro-pessimism, which is propounded by people who have not fully grasped the fundamental factors that have continued to shape the continent argues Prof. Ng'ethe. Accordingly, observes Prof. Nge'the, a political scientist and a development consultant, "the two extreme arguments - the pro-traditionalists and the afropessimists are not mutually exclusive."

Reading through Kaplan's manual of the Third World's failure and prophecy of doom in sub-Saharan Africa, there is no doubt Kaplan's writing appeals to the "irrational mind" of the White supremacist of the Western world, which has never stopped to view Africa in the Hobbesian framework: Man in the state of nature, where "life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." To the West, apparently, the phenomenon of the Dark Continent has never left their minds.

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