The New York Times‘ Jeffrey Gettleman is at it again, this time in the pages of Foreign Policy. In an article called “Africa’s Foreign Wars” (and subtitled “Why the continent’s conflicts never end”) we get all of the best, but mostly the worst, of Gettlman in one fell swoop. Yes, he writes clearly and well, and he always takes a seemingly reasonable tack to help bolster the authoritative voice with which he speaks. But let’s parse the first two paragraphs from the piece to get a sense of the problems involved:
There is a very simple reason why some of Africa’s bloodiest, most brutal wars never seem to end: They are not really wars. Not in the traditional sense, at least. The combatants don’t have much of an ideology; they don’t have clear goals. They couldn’t care less about taking over capitals or major cities — in fact, they prefer the deep bush, where it is far easier to commit crimes. Today’s rebels seem especially uninterested in winning converts, content instead to steal other people’s children, stick Kalashnikovs or axes in their hands, and make them do the killing. Look closely at some of the continent’s most intractable conflicts, from the rebel-laden creeks of the Niger Delta to the inferno in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and this is what you will find.
What we are seeing is the decline of the classic African liberation movement and the proliferation of something else — something wilder, messier, more violent, and harder to wrap our heads around. If you’d like to call this war, fine. But what is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry. My job as the New York Times‘ East Africa bureau chief is to cover news and feature stories in 12 countries. But most of my time is spent immersed in these un-wars.
Note the condescension (“if you’d like to call this war, fine”) and notice the grand historical assertions (“What we are seeing is the decline of the classic African liberation movement.”) But here is the thing: If you’re going to be condescending and if you are going to make grand historical pronouncements, shouldn’t you be, you know, right? Notice the slipperiness inherent in the opening sentence of the piece, that huge qualifying word “seems”. For Gettleman is relying on your (mis)perceptions of Africa here as with all of his writing. He assumes you don’t know much about Africa, and that what you do know can be captured in images and stereotypes that will allow him to get away with these sort of grand pronouncements. “Why, he’s right, African wars never do seem to end!” Never mind that these little games rely on an expected inability of the reader to actually name any African wars.
But whether we are dealing with South Africa’s 1999 invasion of Lesotho (Gettleman didn’t tell you about that one, did he?) or the end of the Sudanese civil war some five years ago, the fact is that conflicts in Africa do end, just as conflicts elsewhere (Hello Iraq and Afghanistan!) can drag on seemingly interminably. Furthermore, by most estimates, African conflicts have declined over the last decade or so. Even some of the most intractable ones, such as the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, no longer can be characterized as “Africa’s World War.”And yet when they were raging, most of these conflicts sure looked like war to the participants and to the outside world. I am not certain of Gettleman believes that all conflicts should look like World War II, but the reality is that war in the period since 1945 has more often resembled what he is calling “not really wars” than have resembled whatever cartoon version of conflict he has in mind.
Look, I don’t want to oversell things. Many African conflicts do fit Gettleman’s definitions, but his conclusions come from a selective reading of crises that fit his definitions to begin with. Reductionist, essentialist, determinist piffle is no way to try to understand a continent, and yet it seems to be Gettleman’s stock in trade.