Jeffrey Gettleman’s Continent

The New York Times East Africa correspondent can be summarized in three self evident points.

Kenyan security forces in Dadaab. Image credit Daniel Dickinson for EC/ECHO via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Chief among the debates (or what passes for debates on blogs, Twitter and in mainstream media) about #Kony2012, are these two questions: whether or not external observers should raise awareness or otherwise stage interventions in a conflict zone, and if so, how interventions should be carried out. While it is clear that Elliot Ross (on this blog last week) was not suggesting external observers should stand by and watch a gruesome war, his comment that effective activism is not about “Angelina Jolie or colored wristbands or me” produced the most ire among supporters of #Kony2012 in the comments section of his post. And I don’t think it is because my generation was introduced to “slactivism” through Mark Zuckerberg, as Elliot suggested. There is something much more familiar about the angry reaction of so many commentators over the last few days. “At least we’re doing something” was the rallying cry we grew up with. We came of age when US Secretary of State, General Colin Powellwas talking about “a moral imperative” (forget the facts) to invade Iraq. But what is striking, is the way the Kony campaign has been framed in near exclusive negative terms. The goal is simply to take out Kony. As many critics have pointed out, Invisible Children does not really promise to do anything beyond raising awareness that people have suffered horribly.

The campaign is galvanized by guilt and shame, and it demands displays of vulnerability. But Russell is not the only one gaining from such exposure. In the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, not a journal known for its emotionalism, Jeffrey Gettleman (The New York Times East Africa correspondent) also invites his readers to confront a failing continent. Gettleman’s article “Africa’s Dirty Wars” is supposedly a review of political scientist William Reno’s new book Warfare in Independent Africa. But there is very little discussion of Reno’s arguments, methodology, or sources.

Gettleman’s continent looks like this:

1. “Classic wars” have ended in Africa — messier, predatory forms of conflict began replacing ideological movements when colonialism “faded” in the 1960s.

2. When the Cold War ended the superpowers suddenly disengaged from the African continent. Without American or Soviet pressure on rebels to stay united, countless factions have formed and “very cunning rebel leaders” were replaced by “simple thugs” who make little effort to develop persuasive ideology or win recruits.

3. While countries like Angola (who after suffering colonial violence, had to live through a Cold War-infused civil war) are successful because of their oil reserves, “many parts of Africa are clearly sinking deeper into violence, chaos, and obscurity.”

To clarify, foreign governments did not disengage from the continent when the Cold War ended in 1992. In fact the political scientist William Reno has written extensively on the evolution of US/Angolan relations throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Reno observes that Angola remained one of the US’s largest supplier of oil throughout most of the 1990s. About 70% of Angola’s 1998 oil production of 760 000 barrels per day was exported to the United States. Oil exports from 1993 to 1998 provided about 87% of the MPLA regime’s formally recorded revenues (exclusive of loans and aid), which means that US customers provided the MPLA regime with about 60% of its total revenues (“The real (war) economy of Angola,” p. 202). Reno suggests that US based oil firms, state officials, and international financial institutions have helped create a system of “private diplomacy”– effectively undermining nation building efforts in order to secure their interests.

But in his version, America tragically abandoned Africa after defeating the Soviets. So Gettleman creates more distance between cynical American actors and repackages many of the old writing-about-Africa tropes.

He starts in “that corner of Congo so isolated,” where the Belgian cotton industry lies in ruins and branches are dripping with mangos. He also saves the worst for last, giving the reader a look at the enemy: “at the all-you-can-eat hotel buffet where turbaned figures laughed as they heaped mountains of rice and meat onto their plates…” before introducing us to a “fresh faced aid worker” who asks him if he wants to see a woman who has been tortured by the LRA.

It is possible that his closing graphic scene is meant to be taken as metaphor. Gettleman juxtaposes The Economist magazine’s December cover story “Africa Rising” with the image of a “convalescing” female victim. The metaphorical suffering of Africa is more convenient because it is always silent and always passive. It also depends on gendered forms of aggression. Gettleman ends the piece with a crude description of the woman’s mutilated mouth, which will be “forever open, like a scream.” It is not clear whether the woman who recently survived torture gave consent for Gettleman’s viewing. But the presence of her/his silent, suffering African body, it doesn’t seem to matter. This is what guilt-based aggression looks like; exposing and displaying someone else’s vulnerability becomes an easy way to reinforce your own strength.

I am not the only reaching this conclusion; Alex Thurston, better known as Sahel Blog makes basically the same observation on his blog: “Reno, as quoted and summarized by Gettleman, is keen to historicize African rebellions (particularly by assessing the impact of the end of the Cold War) and to subdivide them into different categories; Gettleman, for his part, seems keen to generalize patterns of conflict and to suggest that the nature of violence in Africa today mostly has to do with what he sees as the pettiness of the actors involved.” You can also read Zach Warner’s critique of Gettleman’s review.

Further Reading

Jeffrey Gettleman in Somalia

By Abdourahman Waberi*

Jeffrey Gettleman will not run the risk of being seen as ‘a nobody, a cockroach, a gangster,’ unlike the Somali pirates he depicted in the columns of the New York Times Magazine last …