In the scandal-steeped spring of 1998, President Bill Clinton left behind Washington, Kenneth Starr and the Lewinsky-obsessed press and traveled to Africa. He spent twelve days there, tripling the collective amount of time all his predecessors had spent south of the Sahara and throwing himself into a tour of the continent with the same barnstorming, flesh-pressing, emotive spirit that animated his political campaigns. Stepping off Air Force One in Ghana, where he was greeted by a raucous crowd of an estimated half-million, Clinton declared that it was “time for Americans to put a new Africa on our map.” At every whistle-stop, from Senegal to South Africa to Uganda, Clinton extolled an “African renaissance,” outlining his vision of a continent that was self-reliant and self-possessed, that took responsibility for its failings and demanded free trade with the West, not foreign aid from it.
When asked to identify the exemplars of this renaissance, Clinton’s aides pointed to four young, dynamic leaders: Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea. These four had much in common. They were all vigorous leaders, relatively untainted by corruption. They said the right things about democracy. Most important, the members of the quartet had all once been rebel leaders, and had shot their way to power–which was deemed acceptable because the governments they replaced were so uniformly abysmal. Clinton’s blessing confirmed their status as “Africa’s new soldier princes,” as the New York Times reporter Howard French calls them in his recent book A Continent for the Taking, enlightened authoritarians who would guide their countries to peace and prosperity.
There is a long tradition of white men coming to Africa and hailing new leaders–Guinea’s Sekou Touré in the 1960s, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in the 1980s–as avatars of the future, only to discover, a few disappeared dissidents later, that their heroes were just old palm wine in new calabashes. Clinton’s flight of optimistic fancy unraveled in less than a year. Just a few months after the President’s Africa visit, Museveni and Kagame, then close friends, teamed up to invade their mineral-rich mutual neighbor, Congo. By 1999, like the gold-crazed prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, they had turned on each other. As Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers battled over Congolese booty, the conflict degenerated into a bloody morass.
Ethiopia and Eritrea, meanwhile, went to war that very spring, fighting what journalist Michela Wrong calls “the worst conflict ever staged between two armies in Africa.” This is a somewhat misleading designation, since most African conflicts have been civil wars. Still, it was nasty. In battles that employed cold war weaponry and Great War tactics–the Eritreans dug trenches, and Ethiopian generals launched human-wave assaults–an estimated 80,000 people were killed. At least superficially, the war was utterly pointless: It concerned conflicting claims to a strategically insignificant border town called Badme, a place Wrong describes as “the kind of one-hotel, two-bar village in which yellow-eyed goats wandered through front rooms.” Even more perverse, the war, like the Congolese conflict, pitted erstwhile allies against each other. Meles and Isaias had fought side by side to liberate Ethiopia from the brutal Stalinist regime that ruled it in the 1980s. After victory, Isaias had been rewarded with independence for Eritrea, formerly an Ethiopian province.
In her new book, I Didn’t Do It for You, Wrong tells the story of how independent Eritrea came to be, and how it then came to disappoint. A British writer who has logged extensive time in Africa for the Financial Times and other publications, Wrong writes that she first gravitated to the country in 1996. Independence was new and spirits were running high. “Having gorged on gloomy headlines,” she writes, “I was hungry for what seemed increasingly impossible: an African good news story.” It was an admirable appetite, akin to the one that led Clinton to Africa in search of renaissance men. But in the end, as so often in Africa, Wrong’s good news story proved too good to last.