Continent of Hope: Respect, Democracy, and Diplomacy Should Guide U.S. Engagement with Africa

By Prendergast, John | Sojourners Magazine, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Continent of Hope: Respect, Democracy, and Diplomacy Should Guide U.S. Engagement with Africa


Prendergast, John, Sojourners Magazine


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FORGIVE A TYPICAL AMERICAN if she were to pay a visit to the West African nation of Sierra Leone and be confused by her surroundings. If she had ever heard of Sierra Leone before, it might have been while watching the movie Blood Diamond, which graphically depicted some of the worst depredations of the conflict there, such as the rebel group RUF's amputation of limbs, the drug-crazed child soldiers, and the links between criminal diamond-dealing mafias and the war economy.

If this visitor to Sierra Leone had been reading occasional international news missives over the years, she might have remembered something about a rebel group that hacked the limbs off civilians to punish them for voting, or perhaps might have remembered that al Qaeda laundered money in the Sierra Leone diamond market before and after 9/11 to hide its assets.

Given that context, she certainly would have been quite astounded to have joined me on my visit to Tongo Fields in eastern Sierra Leone, the heart of the diamond-producing area and the site of some of the most intense fighting and horrific atrocities in the last century in Africa. What she would have seen in fact defied all expectations--the kind of low expectations that have come to mark international attitudes toward Africa in general.

Tongo Fields is a place crawling with former child soldiers, heavily contested by three political parties in last year's election, and placed at further risk by a winner-take-all electoral process that dictates access to diamond profits as a result of victory at the polls.

Before Sierra Leone's historic 2007 election, every conflict indicator was flashing a red alert. Africa "experts" around the world were predicting that Sierra Leone, only half a decade after the end of its brutal civil war, was perhaps heading back down an inevitable road toward a return to war.

So in the context of all that Afro-pessimism--the legacy of war thick as the rainy season clouds lacing the Sierra Leonean skies--what happened?

I'VE OBSERVED elections in a number of African countries over the past 25 years, and this election in Sierra Leone may have been the most efficient, transparent and peaceful procedure I have ever witnessed, run by some of the most conscientious and earnest polling officials I have ever met. The army stayed in the barracks and didn't improperly intervene, while the police contributed to the security of elections throughout the country on election day. The runoff among the two highest vote-getters led to a victory by the opposition party, and the ruling party gracefully and peacefully turned over the reins of power. In a grand affirmation of their country's future, the people of Sierra Leone are defying both historical legacies and pundits' low expectations.

An appropriately named former child soldier, Elijah, told me, "It's a brand-new day for Sierra Leone." Every one of the ex-combatants that I met in Tongo Fields and Freetown said in no uncertain terms that they would never again be lured back to a life of war in the bush. "We fought for nothing," another former child soldier told me. "We are so tired of war. We don't want to be used for fighting and end up with nothing." A third former combatant, who divulged that he had committed "terrible atrocities" while he was in the bush, concluded, "This vote signals the end of jungle justice."

The similarities are striking to another African country that also was written off by Africa "experts": Liberia. Much like Blood Diamond, movies such as Lord of War with Nicolas Cage leave a hopeless impression of Liberia, referred to in the film as "that country which God seemed to have forsaken," with Cage's character describing the outskirts of Monrovia as "the edge of hell." Yet in late 2005, Liberians marched to the polls and elected the first female head of state in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and more than 100,000 soldiers have demobilized as the country works diligently to erase the legacies of war. …

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