Just before Christmas, within hours of Jacob Zuma being elected to lead the African National Congress, defeating his bitter rival Thabo Mbeki, I got a text message from a friend in South Africa. “Oh shit!” it read, “there goes Africa . . .” Only three weeks later, as violence swept Kenya after the disputed elections, most of the British press expressed the same thought: how could this happen in peaceful Kenya? And if such chaos could happen there, what did it say about the rest of the continent?
In truth, Kenya’s stability and prosperity have always been a facade. Its political system has set a benchmark not only for financial corruption in Africa, but also for the manipulation of tribal loyalties for political and economic ends. Whether for reasons of gerrymandering, for the advancement of allies or for economic benefit, political tribalism has been and is used as a kind of modern-day “rotten boroughs” system.
Similarly, in South Africa, Zuma has aggressively played on his Zulu identity and sense of Zulu marginalisation at the hands of a Xhosa-dominated ANC leadership to deflect criticism of himself, most shamefully as part of his defence in his trial on charges of raping the daughter of a family friend. His argument in court, that he was fulfilling the obligations of a Zulu man and patriarch by having sex with the young woman, was hugely damaging to South Africa.
As many experienced writers on Africa, both on the continent and in the west, have rightly argued, tribalism is by no means a uniquely African trait. Patronage within groups based on language, culture or geography exists, and is similarly used and abused all over the world for political and economic ends: it just isn’t described as tribalism. The difference is that tribalism is an issue on which African countries and their leaders are judged, and, as we have seen in Zimbabwe, Somalia, Sudan and Congo, it can be used to shockingly violent effect.
Yet while South Africa and Kenya have grabbed the headlines in the past four weeks, one other important African story has gone largely unnoticed. It matters because it shows, yet again, that Africa is just too large, too diverse and multifaceted, for the political narrative to be defined by one issue. What makes the story even more fascinating is that it took place thousands of miles from the continent, in a quiet and orderly courtroom in The Hague.
I began my career in journalism at the Africa Service of the BBC. Just before Christmas 1989, Charles Taylor called the Focus on Africa programme from a satellite phone and declared to the world that he and his small band of fighters had just invaded Liberia from Côte d’Ivoire. What followed over the next decade was the most vicious and costly war, which not only ruined Liberia, but literally bled into neighbouring Sierra Leone. Taylor was at the heart of the conscious, bloody fragmentation of these two countries.
Despite trying for years to avoid being taken to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, that is where he is this week. After a long delay, Taylor’s trial has begun.
One of the first testimonies in the case against him was his plundering and use of so-called “conflict diamonds” as well as other natural resources, which fuelled the wars in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. This is a profoundly important issue for Africa: the lesson that leaders who use tribalism, violence and the economic rape of their country will see justice and be punished.
The west may see only the one step back that Africa has taken in Kenya and South Africa, but, in Liberia, it has taken a step forward.