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West Africa’s Troubles

Sun, 24 Aug 2003 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

The ceremony in Monrovia at which President Charles Taylor stepped down as part of moves to end more than a decade of civil war and regional instability gives a glimpse of the troubles of West Africa, a region that for the past 500 years has generally become home to most troubles in Africa. From the short-lived coup detats in Sao Tomei and Principei and Mauritania to the rumour of coup detat in Ghana and the on-going bloodbath in Liberia, for the past 20 years, West Africa has been no ordinary news maker.

Liberia, the oldest republic in Africa, started the current troubles, spilling over to Sierra Leone, then Guinea. Guinea-Bissau has tasted it own violent tantrum and it is now learning that democracy is better than one-party/military politics. Cote d'Ivoire, for long a showcase of order, just past through a bloody civil war. Senegal's backyard, Cassamance, is still sucked in its breakaway activities. But for the 17,000 UN peacekeepers, the largest in the world, Sierra Leone would have been no more less than what we are witnessing in Liberia.

As West Africa braces for an impending oil boom, the latest UNDP Human Development Index Report is disturbing. The report shows that though Sierra Leone, once again, is the poorest country in the world. Almost all the countries in West Africa are at the bottom of the table. In fact if data was supplied Liberia would have replaced Sierra Leone this time as the poorest country in the world. Despite three years of rigorous effort, most West African countries are getting poorer. On these trends, some West African countries will not vanquish poverty until 2165, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) believes.

In a commentary in its last week’s issue concerning the impending oil boom in West Africa, the London, U.K-based West Africa magazine urged West Africa to prove the skeptics wrong by planning ahead. In a region prone to instability, the believe is that West African countries expected to become oil producers would not be able to cope with wealth that oil would bring in, triggering instability. The coup detat last month in Sao Tome and Principe, believed to be oil induced, is case in point. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian-born chief scribe of the UN, has said that Africa, more appropriately West Africa, is so dependent on international aid that the region will never know peace and prosperity until it takes responsibility for solving its problems.

But the troubles with West Africa, where most of slave trade took place 500 years ago, as one can see from the number of forts and castles dotting its coastline, goes deeper: juju/witchcraft is more prominent in West Africa than any other part of Africa, which new studies reveal that if attempts are not made to eradicate it will stifle development. Coups started there. West Africa houses more ethnic groups than any part in Africa, a situation that is making democratic growth difficult. It is the most corrupt area in Africa. It is in West Africa that an African president was beheaded (Liberia’s President William Tolbert); another stripped naked and his ears cut off before being murdered (Liberia’s Samuel Doe). Is West Africa cursed as the region become increasingly troubled? The threat of regional conflagration is real.

In Niger and Mali, the Tuaregs have for long waged campaigns for autonomy in the face of deprivation. Similar episodes have occurred in Chad. Other West African states, which have not gone the Sierra Leone and Liberian way, have the "loose molecules" shadows roaming about for such eventuality, amid warnings of such. Ghana's General (rtd) Joshua Hamidu had given similar warning in the wake of President J.J Rawlings, known for his bashful and bizarre outbursts and is on record of haven't beaten his Ministers, pronouncements of "policing Ghana" when he left power two years ago. In West Africa time appears to go backwards, as the tensions and violence show. In their confused state that resulted in death and massive loose of property, Ghana under Prime Minister Kofi Busia deported other West Africans. Nigeria under President Shehu Shagari deported other West Africans. Guinea under the late President Sekou Toure harassed the Fulas, killed some and exiled a large number.

In Africa's scheme of things, West Africa appears to come from different universe, a painfully dark spot where malevolence reins supreme, where some of the most shameful developments in Africa have taken place. While most of the major long-running civil wars are in central and northeast Africa, some of the most horrible ones have occurred, and are still smouldering, in West Africa. While Liberia's war saw President Samuel Doe gruesomely murdered, stripped naked with his ears cut off, it equally saw such acts like pregnant women's stomachs silted in order to know the gender of the unborn baby, and other unspeakable acts against citizens, most of whom were not party to the misrule visited on the country. They were all innocent people. Before Doe's murder, the president preceding him, William Tolbert, had been toppled in a coup d’etat, beheaded and he and his cohorts buried in a mass grave, some partially alive.

If Liberia is the epicenter of West Africa’s troubles, then in Sierra Leone, its much-touted civilization was blown open (the first university in West Africa, Fourah Bay College, was established in Freetown), and its true self known, when the Revolutionary United Front, RUF, sparked its rebel activities. Over the past 10 years the world saw terrible acts committed against citizens, who have nothing to do with the misrule that first informed the RUF campaigns. Limbs were amputated, genitals were severed, people buried alive with juju-charms, and some gruesomely sacrificed in juju rituals. The country saw the most terrible arson. It saw, and is still seeing, the looting of its key natural resource, diamond.

In Nigeria's Gen. Sani Abacha, Africa saw one of the most looting acts by a government and its cronies within a short period of time (The record time in which the Abacha government looted Nigeria makes Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, thought to be one of the corrupt leaders in the world, a child’s play). Over US$10.00 billion were stolen by Abacha and his cronies in the face of abject poverty, and committed one of the most gruesome ritual murders in the sub-region. Currently, Nigeria leads the world in corruption. The country is the home of the famous scam called '419'. The government and other non-government organizations have formed anti- ‘419’ coalitions to contain this problem. Cameroon had led the corruption table last year. Even all the rebel leaders in West Africa who preach and use anti-corruption as their trump card are extremely corrupt--look at RUF's Foday Sankoh and the diamond looting. With advise from his juju-men/marabous, whom he spent millions of dollars on, Sani Abacha kidnapped innocent Nigerians who were either buried alive with juju potions and charms or beheaded for rituals or their body parts cut off for juju/marabou rituals for his grand ambition to transform himself into civilian president. Nigeria had seen secessionist attempts via the Biafra Republic in the 60s. The country is one flash spot in Africa where religion is disturbing it, despite the huge undercurrent of traditional African religion practices.

As the most juju/marabou region in Africa, West Africa has such places like Kankan and Porto Novo (other top places are in Senegal) as the centres of marabous and juju where affairs of the region are determined to the detriment of rational choices. Most West African leaders dabble so heavily in juju/marabou that some developments experts believe it is partly responsible for some of the troubles in the region. Witchcraft practices are so prominent in West Africa that development experts are investigating, and warning of its implications in national development. Aware of this, in Ghana churches and some non-government organizations have mounted public education campaigns against the implications of witchcraft in national development. Some important part of the West African mind has gone over into a territory of massive superstition and gullibility and denial of reality. In the battle between the scientific side of the average West African mind--which demands objectivity--and the brain’s mythopoeic juju/marabou thinking side, the mythopoeic side wins. West Africa is the leading region in Africa of juju/marabous practices and has some of the most prominent juju-men/women and marabous. And can be said to the leading area of irrationality--just look at developments in the region. The region is so infested with juju/marabou culture that leaders and their opponents employ it as propaganda tool, among others, to induce fear—President Eyadema and Togo is case in point. It is common to hear the West African interpreting anything bad or good in witchcraft or juju or marabou terms, or suspecting such no matter the person's education level.

The first coup in Africa in which the President was violently murdered occurred in West Africa. It occurred in Togo in 1963 against President Sylvanus Olympio, whose face was blown into pieces at point blank. From Togo the coup disease spread like bush fire to other West African states--Ghana, Benin Republic, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, the Gambia, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. Those who haven't experienced this disease got some hiccups through mutinies and attempted coups. It is only in West Africa, in Ghana, during the Ft. Lt. J.J. Rawlings 1979 coup, for that matter, that heads of state were summarily executed, which was later found to be useless. West Africa has seen some of the youngest coup makers in Africa: Valentine Strasser, Julius Maada Bio, Yaya Jammeh, J.J. Rawlings, Samuel Kanyon Doe. Most of whom, cursed by their ancestors, blew their countries into pieces.

Much of the trans-Atlantic slave trade occurred in West Africa some 500 years ago. Despite seeing the depleting of its youthful population, the region still has the largest population in Africa--over 300 million with Nigeria having the largest, 120 million. West Africa, too, has the largest number of ethnic groups, tribes and clans in Africa compared with southern Africa, where because of the Bantu expansion some 1,000 years ago, the region has almost a homogeneous population, helping foster democracy. This means democracy and multiparty system in West Africa has a difficult terrain to walk, as many an ethnic group sees multi-party democracy in ethnic terms. Hence, West Africa is behind in Africa's nascent democratic growth, with southern Africa leading.

Perhaps there is at work in West Africa some law of compensation enforcing the principle that the peoples dealings in the slave trade and other cultural decay, including many a juju man's influence of the affairs of the region, bring on commensurate miseries (coups, corruption, civil wars, diseases, heartlessness, general distress, spiritual decay, hatred, mistrust, chronic lies and excuses, stupidity, and general confusion). Is the West African allergic to reality? Is the West African prone to crisis? Is the West African prone to dark practices? A perverse spell appears to have taken residence in the West African mind, a sort of Sani Abacha circling in the West African mind, directionless, confused, heedless, rudderless.

Things are going out of control. Governments cannot pay their bills and go on putting up the children and great-grandchildren as collateral. Most budgets are prepared with assistance of donor grants. The region is so dependent on foreign aid that it is difficult for it to know peace and prosperity, as Annan warned. There are pains and misery everywhere, though to live painlessly is to live powerlessly, the West African has not been able to transform its pains into development. Things are not getting better; life is a drag in the region, making the area the most brain drained in Africa. There is a view that the painful distress awash in West Africa is as a result of an imbalance between the physical and the metaphysical, which is as result of the spiritual decay of the region. African tradition asks for a balance between the physical and the metaphysical in order for correct development to occur. As he left office, President Taylor left behind a legacy of violence, disorder and economic collapse after almost 14 years of chaos--six years in power as an elected president, following a seven-year civil war which he launched in late 1989. Taylor has also contributed to destabilizing West Africa, fuelling wars across Liberia’s borders in at least three neighbouring countries—Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea—prompting West African leaders and Washington to put pressure on him to resign. It is in such atmosphere that Nigeria's President Obasanjo has observed that West Africa's problem is spiritual.

In his famous futuristic article entitled the Coming Anarchy ("The Atlantic Monthly," February, 1994), America's Robert Kaplan informs us why West Africa, seen more through the microcosm of the much-troubled Sierra Leone, is a brewing time-bomb, the human dam waiting to blow across the villages, towns, coastal plains, rain forest, slums and ghettoes, secondary bushes, mountains, valleys, roads, streets, and cities of West Africa. In West Africa, Kaplan had predicted that we would, and would be, seeing "the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war. West Africa is reverting to the African of the Victorian atlas."

In some sinister way, disorder and trouble is becoming a West African addiction--part of a quest for painless, shameless life. West Africans have come to shoot order and empathy like RUF killing fields. Is West Africa troubled? Being troubled is, after all, one of the most powerful anesthetics. Trouble pulses now with a willful, aggressive glow--a sort of active intolerance, a passion to escape knowing. Every society has its obsessive traits. For West Africa, to name them is to trivialize them, of course, to neutralize disorder in cliche. The death of Foday Sankoh, Sam Bockarie and Johnny Paul Koroma rubbed West Africans to know the deeper troubles stifling their progress. Perhaps Taylor, who have been indicted by the Freetown-based War Crimes Tribunal, will throw some light on West Africa’s long-running troubles.

Charles Taylor simultaneously reflects both the pains and hopes of West Africa. By reasoning to vacate his post in the face of bloodbath, unlike his predecessor Samuel Doe, Taylor, the first warlord in West Africa to be elected President and then give up his office in the name of peace, opens the possibilities of using West Africa’s past for progress. This is informed by the fact that West Africa has made Liberian problem its problem, a departure from yesteryears. In Liberia, West Africa can rejuvenate itself, informed by its tattered history and reason and not by juju/marabou. In Liberia, West Africa can transform itself into better ECOWAS for development. In Liberia, West Africa can speed up its integration for the good of its peoples. In Liberia, West Africa should go deeper into its soul for regeneration. As the oldest republic in the sub-region, a new Liberia fertilized by West Africans and the international community will be a development lightning rod. Charles Taylor reflects the contradictory nature of West Africa, a region where ECOWAS, the regional grouping, has evolved more than any other in the continent and at the same time mired in terrible troubles.

The troubles of West Africa reveal the private rot in its mind which has been flowing into the public and eating away at its responsibility. The mentality of disorderliness, of Sani Abacha, of Foday Sankoh prevails in zones of the West African life even when no disorder or slave trading is involved. West Africans addiction to disorder is a true enslavement. When diversion put on dress like this, real life vanishes. Why this West African addiction to troubles over 500 years? The idea of West Africa's manifest destiny, seen through the Liberian crisis, is of descendent virtue and inevitable failure, driven in the past by inability to learn from its own tattered history. Somewhere the spiritual part of the West African formula is lost, seeing terrible confusion, disorder, mayhem and irrationality. And making West Africa still the troubled region of Africa 500 years after the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

*Kofi Akosah-Sarpong is a contributing editor of the London, UK based West Africa magazine. I am graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.
My phone # is (613) 236-4029.
Address: 629 Maclaren Street, Ottawa, ON K1R 5L1.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.
Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi