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ANITIBES, France — We lurched to a halt in pitch-dark Sahel desert. No one had mentioned that rains washed out 50 miles of track weeks earlier. Passengers crammed onto a rickety bus, armed only with mosquito spray in case of trouble down the line.
As dawn broke, we bounced down a rutted road laughing, sharing our last food and singing along with Bob Marley to the driver’s boombox: “I shot the sheriff.” That was 1986. The train is fancier now, but I don’t advise taking it — especially if you’re a sheriff.
Upheaval in the Sahel and civil war in Sudan are as significant to the wider world as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the long term, likely more. Why that sounds surprising is the root of the problem. News coverage is largely scattershot and at a distance.
Africa’s population of 1.2 billion, close to China and India, will likely double by 2050 on a continent where many women now walk hours each day to fetch polluted water. When families can’t survive, they migrate. Kids with no options are easily radicalized.
Bright spots light up many of its 54 disparate states, but much of it is a darkening continent of brutality, poverty and famine, a few missteps away from mayhem. Now Western armed forces and statecraft may no longer be able to keep the lid on.
“When elephants fight,” an African proverb goes, “the grass gets trampled.” Food is running low. Hospitals are closed. Crucial foreign aid is on hold. Yet few reporters get close enough to reflect reality. The outside world seems largely uninterested.
Europeans and Americans once dragged Africans away from their homes. Now unless they are helped to remain peaceably in their own cultures, Africans will come on their own in overwhelming numbers, one way or another.
Ukraine is an urgent imperative: Vladimir Putin must be stopped in Europe. But a nuclear blast is unlikely, and Africa’s human time bomb is for certain. Meantime, China is buying up its strategic resources, and Russian mercenaries are stealing them.
In the Sahel, unholy Middle Eastern warriors who distort their prophet’s teachings, embittered by America’s Iraq war, link up with other groups and nomadic tribes. They are stamping out a vibrant mix of African spirit and modern ways.
After coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, crowds waved Russian flags. Placards reviled France. Public order was entrusted to Wagner mercenaries. Now another coup has France on the run in Niger, its last Sahel redoubt. Its remaining 1,500 men in an 11-year fight against jihadists hunker down in their bases. Europeans have been flown to Paris.
America’s tenuous foothold is at risk. Its 1,100-man force in Niger has suspended drone strikes against jihadists. Neighboring Africans states, along with European and U.S. governments, struggle to avert a standoff.
Yevgeny Prigozhin moved Wagner goons swiftly into Mali and made inroads in Burkina Faso. His next target is Niger, where French-controlled mines produce 5 percent of the world’s uranium.
A regional coalition, including muscular Nigeria, threatens to invade unless coup leaders reinstate the elected president. Other neighboring states side with the insurrection. An armed showdown could be calamitous beyond description.
As the Sahel plays out, Sudan is barely mentioned. No end is in sight as janjaweed rebels who for decades bedeviled Darfur battle a ruthless undisciplined national army across a country nearly three times the size of Texas. On the Nile, fighting has reduced Khartoum from a gleaming high-rise capital to rubble-strewn misery.
Nearly half of Sudan, a potential breadbasket for Africa, goes hungry.
U.N. agencies estimate up to 10,000 people have been killed in Sudan, combatants and civilians caught in the middle. Three million people are displaced internally; a million have fled the country. Severe hunger stalks 20 million, nearly half the population. UNICEF says 14 million children are in “dire need” of humanitarian aid.
But no one really knows. One British aid worker, who asked anonymity, said neglected dead bodies litter Khartoum’s streets. She said Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — the janjaweed — systematically burn foreign families’ papers, photos and books to stamp out a privileged upper class.
Beyond death and suffering, both sides destroy irreplaceable African heritage: ancient artworks, medieval manuscripts, religions icons. Some is looted. Much of it vanishes in torched libraries, museums and old family homes. At the state broadcasting center, RSF troops vandalized a rich film trove and old archives.
“These two fighting forces could destroy 4,000 years of culture,” Marilyn Deegan told me at her little operations center in Antibes. A professor emeritus at Kings College, London, she has spent nearly a decade in Sudan cataloguing its heritage.
Conflict today reflects sharp shifts in the winds of change that brought hopeful promise in the 1960s when France and Britain freed most of their colonies. Six decades is a lot to synthesize. But some background helps sketch a big picture.
“Africa” is as useless a five-letter word as “media.” No sweeping observations apply, and in each separate country things change fast. Across much of East and Southern Africa schoolkids learn Chinese rather than English.
It is El Dorado to a high-tech world in need of cobalt, copper, uranium and bauxite. Big operators want its oil. India, like China, palms off coal power plants on poor countries with plenty of sun, wind and waterfalls. Gulf states buy up arable land. Russians use Wagner mercenaries to barter gold and minerals for security services.
China’s two-way African trade reached $250 billion by 2021, four times the U.S.-Africa level. Beijing seeks vassal states in hock. Its investments and loans, often negotiated in private with bags of cash, have no caveats about transparency or human rights.
Foreign fleets from China, Russia and Europe plunder African fisheries. Deprived of livelihoods, fishermen turn to smuggling hungry people northward in fragile boats. In Somalia, they tried piracy until warships cracked down. Then many joined terrorists.
This new scramble for Africa exacerbates hostility that stems from arbitrary lines on an 1885 map. Europeans in Berlin divvied up Africa with no regard for tribal territory. Loyalties are still often more to chiefs and elders than to national governments.
King Leopold of Belgium’s ruthless rule of his personal Congo fiefdom was an anomaly. France and Britain built colonies by educating sedentary tribes to be civil servants. Pastoralists tended herds; nomadic clans roamed free.
Britain left Ghana in 1957 with a Westminster-style parliament, a fat treasury, well-trained police and administrators, thriving cocoa plantations, food crops, small industries, health services and good roads. Then it stayed out of internal affairs.
Ghana was soon deep in hock to Moscow. Kwame Nkrumah, a pan-African firebrand, bartered its exports for a needless navy and grandiose white elephants. After a coup dumped Nkrumah, Ghana’s fortunes waxed and waned.
When the British left, Nigeria fought a devastating civil war along ethnic lines. Then military governments plundered its wealth. Billions of dollars were lost to corruption. Competition for rich oil fields was murderous. Sierra Leone, the diamond-rich ex-British colony down the coast, also sank quickly into violence.
France did it differently. All freed colonies but Guinea stayed linked to Paris with a convertible currency, French advisers in their cabinets and a slush fund to cover budget deficits. Coups needed Elysée approval to succeed. Intelligence services and military bases kept the Soviet Union from muscling in.
The French knew the territory. Elite troops, engineers and the Foreign Legion were based strategically for rapid response. They helped in natural disasters, but otherwise kept a low profile. Their approach was underwhelming force.
When young hotheads rebelled in the Ivory Coast in 2003, I went to the border, a river crossing to Liberia. A few commandos in berets and no body armor casually smoked Gauloises in range of insurgents on a nearby ridge. “What are you guys, nuts?” I asked. One laughed. “They know what we can call in from over the hills,” he said.
Driving back in a pitch-dark forest, I slammed on the brakes only after I realized I was speeding through a French checkpoint. A guy ambled up to see who I was. “If you were Americans, I’d be gruyere,” I said. “Ah, oui,” he replied.
Back then, Timbuktu was a tourist mecca. I prowled ancient libraries and mosques, then cooled off poolside at a French hotel with a well-stocked bar and delicacies flown from Paris. Tuaregs in indigo robes took me into the desert on camelback.
In 2012, Tuaregs began traveling in SUVs bristling with gun barrels. Jihadists swept through northern Mali and up the river to Gao on the Niger border. The embattled Malian government called in the French.
They recaptured Timbuktu. Over the next decade, more than 5,000 French troops in Operation Barkhane kept insurgents at bay at remote camps in the rolling dunes.
But French body bags added up to 59 by 2021 when Malian coup leaders reviled their colonial roots and turned toward Russia. France had had enough. President Emmanuel Macron began a pullback to Niger.
By then, the French were seen as an occupation force as much as welcome saviors. They had shifted to U.S. tactics and strategy. The cliché says armies should win hearts and minds. Vietnam gave that a twist: “Grab ‘em by the balls and hearts and minds follow.”
Americans dug into Niger with drones for over-the-horizon war. They targeted terrorists, a term I avoid. That caravan has passed. Terrorism was used to provoke massive response. Inevitable civilian “collational damage” shifted sympathy to the jihadists, who plan to stay put.
In 2017, four U.S. soldiers on a reconnaissance mission in Niger were killed in ambush. One top official complained that “local people” had betrayed them. He assumed loyalty from a population that Americans turned hostile.
Sudan’s strife drags on toward a long haul. It harks back to the 19th century when the Mahdi, a Muslim zealot, fought off British efforts to modernize it. It was never really a colony. After Napoleon left Egypt in 1799, a vicious Turkish pasha, Muhammed Ali, took over his plan to conquer Sudan.
Alan Moorehead, an old-school British correspondent, details Ali’s campaign in his masterful book, “The Blue Nile.” Ali swept in fast against tribesmen who had never seen guns. His sole interests were slaves and slaughter, and he succeeded at both. Ali paid his mercenaries a bounty on each severed ear they produced.
Sudan is 70 percent Sudanese Arab, largely in shades of black but Arabic-speaking. And it has discovered guns. When I covered famine in 1985, Khartoum was a sizable city with the fabled Greek-run Acropole Hotel, now closed.
Food aid flooded the port, but the government blocked much of it from reaching Bantu populations in the south. In Darfur to the west, crops had failed. The Arabic-speaking bands on camels killed farmers for their stored grain.
Ali was a hard monster to match, but ethnic divides run deep, and cruelty remains near the surface. When anarchy blurs the lines, anything can happen.
In the Sahel, lasting damage has been done, and this story is just getting started. Along with cultural treasures and ancient structures, human spirit is being stamped out.
I covered West Africa for the Associated Press in the 1960s and loved it. People laughed a lot and took care of each other. Music, haunting or hot, was everywhere. Young and dumb, I found war zones exhilarating. Mostly, there was little to fear. I returned often.
Before the 1984 Ethiopian famine, diplomats warned me of severe Sahelian drought. For six weeks in Burkina Faso and Mali, I watched infants die as NGO nurses fought to save them. Enough food relief finally came, and rains followed. It was party time again on the Ouagadougou Choo-Choo.
I took a small press tour with Djibril Diallo, an old friend and source. When he was a kid in Senegal, his mother placed his feet in the tire tracks of passing French jeeps so he could absorb their knowledge. He learned more at the London School of Economics and the Sorbonne, then he rose through the ranks at the United Nations in New York.
“You won’t find this anywhere else in the world,” Djibril said as we bounced down dirt tracks to meet elders and experts. “This is a continent throbbing with life and humor and spirit.”
We stopped at the spectacular mud mosque in Djenné, in Mali, first built in the 13th century. As expected, the imam invited me, an American Jew in grubby clothes, to Friday prayers. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, teaches kindness to strangers.
Downriver, we had a feast that women had been preparing since dawn: chicken in peanut sauce, grilled capitaine caught that morning, tender roasted meat (I didn’t ask) and much else, with fiery pili-pili sauce, mounds of steamed rice and a tub of beer.
Village groups like theirs earned income from artisan cooperatives and operated small power plants to light up homes with little outside help. The trick is to keep government agents from getting in the way.
In Bamako, we danced long past midnight at one of the capital’s many nightspots, with music loud enough to blister the Day-Glo paint. Stumbling back to the hotel, no one thought about possible bombs or bandits.
Early on, Washington and Moscow duked it out to implant ideology. Aid was geared toward U.N. votes with showy projects rather than schools or infrastructure. Then the Iron Curtain fell. Democracies popped up in unlikely places. Foreign investment grew. Africans started banks and big business. Artists and authors had global followings.
But multinationals and shady loners moved in, buying off government officials. Corruption works both ways. Misguided U.S. policies in Somalia and Rwanda took a monstrous toll. Terrorism rattled East Africa and then spread.
George W. Bush enacted the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar) in 2003, $90 billion to fight HIV-AIDS and prevent major health threats. Barack Obama kept it going. Donald Trump, labeling poor countries “shit holes,” slashed aid.
Multiple factors distort African perceptions: snapshot “breaking” news; simplification in black and white; diehard tropes about colonization. Americans see roots, emotion and romanticized imagery. Reality, not so much.
African drivers paint amusing stuff on their rickety buses, mammy-wagon bush taxis and wired-together trucks. A favorite is, “Oh, Don’t Worry.” That always made me chuckle in the Ouagadougou Choo-Choo days. Now, I am worried. Very worried.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.