BECAUSE OF AND in spite of Hollywood films like The African Queen and television shows like Tarzan, tropical Africa south of the Sahara and north of the Zambezi is terra incognita for most Americans. Some cling to fragments of the "noble savage" myth advanced by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued that in an idyllic "state of nature" uncorrupted by civilization, people are innocent, happy, and brave.
Others accept the opposing myth promulgated by Thomas Hobbs that in a "State of Nature," there are "no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worse of all, persistent fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Neither myth reflects the real tropical Africa that I saw in the 1960s while there researching three books on U.S. policy. Almost everywhere I saw poverty, corruption, and a retreat from the rudimentary rule of law established by the British and French colonial powers.
As Kempton Makamure, a political opponent of President Mugabe, wrote recently in Zimbabwe's Financial Gazette, "It is entirely possible that conflicts within independent states in Africa have caused more privation, deaths and stalled development than the colonial rule they have replaced."
President Kennedy and some of his Africa hands were more optimistic. Naive might be a better word. They saw themselves as heralds of freedom. Unduly critical of the European colonists, they seemed unaware that the British, for example, had ended slavery 79 years before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps the greatest flaw in the official U.S. perception was the failure to recognize that long before the Europeans had arrived, Africa had seethed with tribal wars and indigenous slavery. The Western traffic in human beings would not have been possible without the active participation of African slavers eager to sell Africans of other tribes to their Western counterparts. As a poignant African proverb put it, "The tears of a stranger are only water."
Back to Hobbs. If it took a thousand years for the barbarian tribes of Europe to become democratic and prosperous states, how long will it take African tribes that missed the Renaissance, Reformation, Magna Carta, and Industrial Revolution?
The British, French, and Portuguese colonialists--and Christian missionaries--introduced Western medicine, schools, and rudimentary institutions for governing by the rule of law. Despite these benefits and postcolonial aid efforts, economic development and democracy faced formidable obstacles.
When the colonial powers withdrew, tribal conflict again erupted and in some places indigenous slavery reappeared. Since 1955, bloody wars in Nigeria, Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and elsewhere killed as many as five million people and produced more than six million refugees. Indigenous slavery, stamped out by the colonial powers, had returned in some places, notably in Sudan.
And brutal demagogues like Mobutu in the Congo, Adi Amin in Uganda, and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe have ravaged their countries to enjoy the fruits of unbridled power.
From the onset of postcolonial Africa, Rhodesia showed greater promise than any other country. An exquisitely beautiful landlocked territory slightly larger than Montana, it was conquered by explorer-entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes in 1897 and eventually established as a self-governing British colony. Determined to make the country safe and prosperous, Rhoades established the world's first national park there, insisting that it be open to all races.
Few Americans are aware that during the Second World War, Rhodesia, like other African colonies, provided troops to the Allied effort. Rhodesian units served in Europe, North Africa, and Burma.
Rhodesia was also misunderstood in the 1960s because Western perceptions were filtered through a prism of false comparisons with the American racial experience. Seen as a state struggling for independence, or as another stage for the conflict between white and black, it was neither.
On one of several visits to Rhodesia in the mid-1960s, I met with Prime Minister Ian Smith, a statesmen and a farmer, who argued that his country was already independent. He had a point, but with the Cold War raging, both Moscow and Washington pushed for "self-government," though they differed on how to achieve it. Smith felt that Washington wanted him "to concede to the men with guns rather than negotiate with the men with votes," as CBS reporter Morley Safer put it at the time.
After seven years of turbulence, Soviet-backed Mugabe emerged as president of a prosperous country, rich in arable land and other natural resources and with 85 percent of its adult population literate in English, far higher than in any other tropical African country.
Vowing to forge a one-party Marxist-Leninist state, in 2001 Mugabe finally became a virtual dictator. Citing nonexistent threats of neocolonialism, he rammed his Land Redistribution Act through a reluctant parliament, promising millions of acres of white-owned farms to poor blacks. Within a year, his party thugs had seized 2,900 out of 4,500 prosperous white-operated farms, killing at least ten white farmers and a hundred black workers. Among the recipients of the richest farms were his wife, two sisters, and his ambassador to Washington.
In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder wrote, "There is always something new out of Africa." Indeed there is, but it is not always good.
Ernest Lefever, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is author of Spear and Scepter: Army, Police, and Politics in Tropical Africa (1970).