The African Paradox

PARIS – Earlier this month, the trial of Pascal Simbikangwa, accused of complicity in the genocide in Rwanda, in which 800,000 people were killed between April and July 1994, began in Paris. Unfortunately, mass killings in Africa continue. In South Sudan, Africa’s newest state, massacres of civilians are still taking place, particularly around the city of Bor. And French military intervention in the Central African Republic has not put an end to severe inter-communal violence there.

Yet, paradoxically, even as such episodes continue to occur in Africa, perhaps on a larger scale than anywhere else in the world, the continent has also become a beacon of hope. Indeed, the perpetuation of extreme violence contrasts starkly with Africa’s favorable demographic profile, and its economic – and even political and social – progress in recent years.

One way to think about this paradox is in terms of the closing of a four-century-long parenthesis. Since the seventeenth-century, Africa has been mainly an object of history. Its people were first treated by the slave trade as mere commodities, necessary for economic growth elsewhere. Then colonial powers carved up the continent artificially and arbitrarily, masking their greed behind noble-sounding goals: theirs was a “civilizing” mission.

Later, during the first half of the twentieth century, Africa offered the blood of its inhabitants, and then recourse to its territories, to a European continent in the throes of two world wars. And, in the second half of the twentieth century, after a brutal anti-colonial struggle, Africa’s newly independent countries became proxy battlegrounds in the Cold War.