A Review of “Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa” by Keith Richburg

I just finished Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa by Keith Richburg. Richburg spent three years in Africa while working for the Washington Post, and his tenure overlapped with the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, among other atrocities and outrages.

Richburg is not a particularly good wordsmith, but he is unflinching and that makes this book transcend. He tells it like he sees it, and varnishes nothing. Well, almost nothing. His fellow expat journalists do receive favorable treatment. But everyone else – Black Africans, White Africans, Black foreigners and White foreigners alike get it in the proverbial jugular. The book has the feel of truth.

If there is any criticism I have, it is that the book was written in the late 1990s and events have since moved on, usually in unfortunate directions. One of the few parts of Africa that Richburg identified as having the potential to be a success story, Zimbabwe, has since become, well, Zimbabwe. And that more or less confirms Richburg’s pessimistic view of Africa.

As I write this review, I realize I haven’t yet mentioned that Richburg is an African-American.  It’s in the title of the book, and the fact that he is Black does figure into the book – unlike most foreigners in Africa, he often gets treated like a local by the locals.  However, the main relevance of Richburg’s skin-tone, by my reading, is that it makes his “there but for the grace of God go I” moments more poignant.  It also confers on him an implied permission to write frankly about topics that would be off-limits to other reporters.

At this point in a book review, it is standard to pepper in some quotes from the book. Honestly, the book is so raw and covers so much ground from Detroit to South Africa that it is difficult to find the right piece of it to illustrate what the book is about. I settled on few. The first quote and a half lays out the problem of Africa in a way that has been bothering me for a while:

Why has East Asia emerged as the model for economic success, while Africa has seen mostly poverty, hunger, and economies propped up by foreign aid? Why are East Asians now expanding their telecommunications capabilities when in most of Africa it’s still hard to make a phone call next door? Why are East Asians now wrestling with ways to control access to the Internet, while African students still must use cardboard drawings of computer keyboards because they don’t have real computers in their classrooms? Why are East Asian airlines upgrading their long-haul fleets, while bankrupt African carriers let planes rust on weed-strewn runways because they can’t afford fuel and repair costs? Why are the leaders of Southeast Asia negotiating ways to ease trade barriers and create a free-trade zone, while Africans still levy some of the most prohibitive tariffs on earth, even for interregional trade?

There was nothing inevitable abut Asia’s success and Africa’s despair. Both regions emerged from colonialism at about the same time and faced many of the same obstacles. In 1957, when Ghana gained its independence from Britain, it was one of the brightest hopes of black Africa, with a higher gross national product than South Korea, which was itself still recovering from a destructive war, and before that, from thirty-five years as a Japanese colony. Today South Korea is recognized as one of Asia’s “dragons,” an economic powerhouse expanding into new markets throughout the region and the world. Ghana, meanwhile, has slid backward. Its gross national product today is lower than it was at independence. World Bank economists like to point to Ghana as an example of an African country that is “recovering” under a strict fiscal discipline program; what they don’t tell you is that the economy today is propped up by foreign aid.

A couple of paragraphs later, he continues:

Talk to me about Africa’s legacy of European colonialism, and I’ll give you Malaysia and Singapore, ruled by the British and occupied by Japan during World War II. Or Indonesia, exploited by the Dutch for over three hundred years. And let’s toss in Vietnam, a French colony later divided between North and South, with famously tragic consequences. Like Africa, most Asian countries only achieved true independence in the postwar years; unlike the Africans, the Asians knew what to do with it.

Talk to me about the problem of tribalism in Africa, about different ethnic and linguistic groups having been lumped together by Europeans inside artificial national borders. Then I’ll throw back at you Indonesia, some 13,700 scattered islands comprising more than 360 distinct tribes and ethnic groups and a mix of languages and religions; Indonesia has had its own turbulent past, including a bloody 1965 army-led massacre that left as many as a million people dead. But it has also had thirty years since of relative stability and prosperity.

The next quote shows that is going on in Africa is more than tolerated, it is supported (and more or less why that is the case):

I got to see Strasser again about a year later in Libreville, the capital of the small, oil-rich central African state of Gabon. The occasion was a summit meeting between Africans and African Americans organized by the Reverend Leon Sullivan, the veteran civil rights campaigner and anti-apartheid activist who had authored the “Sullivan Principles” outlining fair employment practices for U.S. firms doing business in apartheid-era South Africa. The summit brought together some of the most prominent luminaries from the American civil rights establishment—including Coretta Scott King, former UN ambassador Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, the comedian Dick Gregory, the Reverend Joseph Lowrey, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and Virginia governor Douglas Wilder. Hundreds of African diplomats and some twenty heads of government were also in attendance.

When Strasser entered the meeting hall, sporting his now-trademark sunglasses and his camouflage battle fatigues, the crowd of mostly middle- and upper-class black Americans went wild with cheering, swooning from the women, some hoots, and frenzied applause. Sitting in that hall, you might be forgiven for thinking Strasser was a music celebrity instead of a puny boy-dictator. These black Americans were obviously more impressed with the macho military image Strasser cut than with the fact that he represents all that is wrong with Africa—military thugs who take power and thwart the continent’s fledgling efforts to move toward democracy. The chanting and hooting was a disgusting display, and to me it highlighted the complete ignorance about Africa among America’s so-called black elite.

The reception for Strasser wasn’t the only thing sickening about that summit meeting. I sat there and listened as speaker after speaker heaped a nauseating outpouring of praise on some of Africa’s most brutal and corrupt strongmen and their repressive regimes. An uninitiated listener might not have noticed the farcical nature of Jesse Jackson’s fulsome tribute to Nigerian strongman Ibrahim Babangida. Jackson called Babangida “one of the great leader-servants of the modern world in our time,” proclaiming, “You do not stand alone as you move with a steady beat toward restoring democracy” Jackson also called on President Clinton to reward Babangida with an official visit to the White House on what would be a “triumphant tour as we herald the restoration of democracy” in Nigeria.

Along the same theme, Richburg has this a few pages later:

It’s as if repression comes only in white.

So I was disgusted and angry in Gabon. And to keep from venting my disgust, I decided to have some fun by asking the various black leaders at the summit about the lack of human rights and democracy in black Africa. I enjoyed watching them wrap themselves in their own contradictions when I pointed out their contrasting views on South Africa versus the rest of the continent. I found the whole affair in Gabon so distasteful, I actually liked watching them squirm.

I asked Doug Wilder, Virginia’s first black governor since Reconstruction, about the problem of democracy in black Africa. “We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds,” he replied. “If they are on track and on the path and giving evidence of trying to adjust, then our job is not to interfere, and to understand that there is a difference from what they are accustomed to.”

Interesting. Now imagine the conversation was about South Africa, and the year is, say, 1980, and imagine a white governor of a southern state saying of the apartheid regime, “We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds…. Our job is not to interfere.” I can imagine that white politician would immediately be branded a racist or worst, and probably by no less a personage than Doug Wilder.

And consider the comments of Leon Sullivan on the question of democracy in black Africa: “We must be on the side of human rights and democracy,” he told me. “Many African leaders recognize it must be done and are trying to find a way to bring it about.” Then he added, “I don’t like to see anything stringent from America, saying you must do this or you must do that.”

Really? I seem to remember Reverend Sullivan being made of stronger moral fiber. What were the Sullivan Principles, after all, if not a way to bring pressure on the morally bankrupt apartheid regime? And they worked. So is Reverend Sullivan now trying to tell me that it’s okay to be stringent with despots when they are white racists, but for black despots we’ll let our standards slide a bit?”

At no point in the book is there much optimism about Africa or its future. I have never been to Africa, but I have spent a fair amount of time in Latin America and I can recognize a lot of what he wrote in the parts of the “developing” world that I know. The attitudes of the populace, and how they lead invariably to poor outcomes is certainly a factor in common.  And based on what I know about Latin America, I share Richburg’s concerns about the future of Africa.

In closing, I would say I finish less than 10% of the books I start. I finished this one, and expect to re-read it within the next year or two. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand more about Africa, and the United States.