Over the course of history the continent of Africa and its inhabitants have taken on numerous images and meanings in the eyes of the Western world. It has been the “Dark Continent” a rugged land of exoticism and savagery, which caused a mass of European explorers and expeditions, adventurers and thrill seekers to migrate to the mysterious continent, who then wrote books and letters home which fueled the African trope of barbarism and primitiveness amongst the ‘civilized’ citizens of Europe. It has been a helpless continent, ravaged by war, raped by poverty, and pillaged by disease and hunger, undeveloped and salvageable only by the advanced wealthy civilizations who are capable of fixing and rescuing it, which inspired a call to aid and assistance, propagandized by the media and popularized by celebrities such as Bono and Angelina Jolie. But in more recent years Africa has taken on yet another image, a new meaning, particularly in the eyes of the United States, it has become a national security risk.
“Africa Emerges as a Strategic Battleground” is the headline of the article by Wall Street Journalist Frederick Kempe, who suggests that the true motivation behind the US administration’s recent significant increase of aid to Africa is to combat the spread of terrorism by eliminating potential regions or environments out of which terrorism tends to emerge and take root. This notion of an increasingly volatile national threat emerging in Africa stems from the characterization that “great swaths of Africa are lawless, corrupt and bitterly poor”, a characterization which produces the conclusion that Africa is, therefore, “an ideal breeding ground for extremists.” But the domino reaction does not stop there since this very conclusion inspires a solution offered by the US in the form of engagement and intervention. Thus aid and assistance by organizations such as the U.N., IMF, and World Bank are increased and the U.S. now has a comforting justification for meddling in the affairs of African politics, economics, and society (and the beat goes on).
In his article Kempe provides an acute quote, which sums up the new role Africa plays in US foreign policy, when he quotes U.S. Gen. James Jones saying “Africa plays an increased strategic role militarily, economically and politically…We have to become more agile in terms of being able to compete in this environment.” This mindset is clearly a binary, black and white one, since it implies that a failure to be ‘king of the mountain’ in Africa politically, economically, and militarily, would be a national security disaster for the U.S.—whose safety is now directly linked to Africa’s stability. And as US involvement in Africa increases, so, too, do its interests. “In the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa -- through which 15% of U.S. oil imports flow, a figure expected to rise to some 25% in the next decade -- Gen. Jones sees a more lasting maritime presence to protect against piracy and bunkering, or the widespread siphoning of oil from pipelines.”
In order to maintain its pursuit and protection of its regional interests the US must emphasize the popular characterization or meme of Africa being a victim of underdevelopment, a place that is ridden by poverty, lawlessness, disease and starvation, in order to justify its involvement within the continent. This is comparable to the priest who teaches his parish that they are all abhorrent sinners destined for eternal punishment, unless they accept God and Jesus as their saviors—only then are they saved. Or better yet, a person who walks around cutting people with a razor blade in order to sell them a bandage. The point is that the US offers a solution to a problem of its own-making!
Journalists such as Kempe and many others (if you don’t believe me just scan the news coming out of Africa and see if you notice a theme) assist and even promulgate this sentiment of the need to assist Africa, making it our obligation, because we are wealthy and advanced and they are poor and primitive. I will agree that equality is something to be strived for and we, members raised in Western culture, are obviously indoctrinated with these Lockean values, and as a result have a missionary zeal and sense of duty to go out and eradicate inequality and injustice in other countries, but we must be careful that these enthusiasms and zestful aspirations are not solely serving the interests of our state. For it seems true that in the 20th century the inherent values of individual equal rights, political representation, and social justice have all been merely side affects of the United States protecting and increasing its material interests.
If we continue to view Africa through the popularized view in the media and amongst the general public as being our sickly patient, who is helpless without us, then we will continue to feel justified in the political prescriptions we give and the economic remedies we offer. Africa will continue to be dependent on our aid and assistance and it will most likely never develop into a healthy, stable, and sustainable independent continent—it will, to carry the metaphor further, never get better. But if we change the way we see Africa, denude ourselves of the mischaracterizations and misconceptions that have plagued our policy decisions and attitude towards Africa, then perhaps, just maybe, we will start seeing Africa get its color back, its elan vital, and it will finally become the healthy, sustainable, and stable continent—which we so often forget—that it wants to be and not the Africa—supported by the mass media, journalists like Kempe, and the US administration, whose importance is solely constituted by its strategic significance--that we want it to be.
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