It is autumn, 1891, and Britain and Belgium are engaged in a race to establish their rule over mineral-rich Katanga, the southern province of Congo/Zaire. The Katangan king, M'Siri, is ready to sign a treaty of protection with the British, and a British agent despatches a letter to Cecil Rhodes's representative, advising him to make haste to the capital of Bunkeya to receive Katanga into the British orbit.
The letter is intercepted by Captain William Grant Stairs, a Nova Scotian leading a Belgian expedition of the Compagnie du Katanga. Stairs justifies the confidence of his Belgian employers by proceeding in forced marches to Bunkeya, where he confronts M'Siri and demands his abdication. The following day, Stairs's assistant gets into a dispute with M'Siri and guns him down. Stairs immediately enters into an alliance with M'Siri's eldest son and raises the flag of the Belgian Free State over the Katangan capital. Stricken by fever and hunger, Stairs leads his men on a terrible overland march to the coast of Mozambique, where he dies waiting for a ship.
Stairs is all but forgotten today, but he was largely responsible for the entry of the vast Congo region into the francophone sphere of influence, a phase that may be coming to an end with Laurent Kabila's overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire in May 1997. Perhaps the time is right to re-examine Canadian foreign policy in Africa in light of the dramatic and on-going re-alignment of political interests there.
The Canadian peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Rwanda were plagued by unresolved leadership questions and uncertainty over the goals and nature of such interventions. In contrast, the Canadian offer to lead a peacekeeping force in Zaire was an unexpectedly bold attempt to reassert Canadian leadership, notwithstanding the extraordinary time constraints and shortage of detailed ground intelligence. Not surprisingly, mission planners were taken off guard when the Rwandan refugees returned home, and the undertaking soon lost the support and interest of Western powers. The field was now open for Kabila's Rwandan troops to eliminate the Hutu extremists left in Zaire (together with the Hutu civilians who remained with them). Even France, which had successfully rescued the Hutu militants during the Tutsi invasion of Rwanda, was powerless to save their now discredited clients. French attempts to promote such old-school kleptocrats as Leon Kengo wa Dendo in Zaire as `democratic' alternatives to Mobutu soured, and soon nothing short of direct French military intervention would save the francophile Mobutists (if not Mobutu himself). The regime's pathetic attempts to recruit Serbian mercenaries to do its fighting only added to the international distaste for Zaire's ruling elite.
The French defence of the Hutu extremists in 1994 was the last straw for Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, the most prominent of the `New African' leaders who share a professed dislike for corruption, foreign aid, and economy-sapping instability.
These New Africans represent a confident generation of leaders (Issaias Afewerki of Eritrea, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, General Paul Kagame of Rwanda) who emerged after the cold war or who have made the successful transition from socialism to economic pragmatism (Museveni and Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola). Each came to power as a result of armed rebellion, and each is ready to challenge any attempt to impose Western models of democracy, while at the same time opening the political process in their own countries. They have given foreign investment, privatization, and the creation of regional trading blocs the highest priority while steadily de-emphasizing foreign aid with its troublesome stipulations and requirements.
The challenge issued by the loss of French influence in Central Africa was met in different ways by France and the United States. The French (convinced of American meddling in their …