Book Review: A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

Howard W. French, A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). $25.00


Reviewed by Scott B. MacDonald



Click here to purchase Howard W. French's book, "A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa," directly from

Veteran journalist Howard W. French has written an excellent account of the trials and tribulations of modern Africa (sub-Saharan Africa) as seen through the eyes of a sympathetic observer during the 1990s. Although he has hope in the title, the sense of tragedy is a far more overwhelming sentiment that permeates the pages. Beginning when he was a young man, making a trip with his brother through Mali, the sense of hope erodes as the reader follows French through the plagues of AIDS and Ebola, the massacres in central Africa (Rwanda) and a plethora of failed political and economic experiments in Congo (Brazzaville), the Republic of the Congo (formerly Mobuto’s Zaire), and Liberia. We are also left with a deep sense of frustration and anger at the West, which in French’s eyes, have consistently let Africa down. Indeed, he notes the lack of support from the West when the possibility of peace was melting away in Liberia during the 1990s: “Washington and its European partners were preoccupied with the crisis in Bosnia, though, and scarcely seemed concerned with what diplomats thought of as a messy, two-bit African affair.”

Three messages emerge from French’s opus. First and foremost, most of the rest of the world really does not care overly about Africa. As he notes: “Africa is the stage of mankind’s greatest tragedies, and yet we remain largely inured to them, all blind to the deprivation and suffering of one ninth of humanity.” Second, whatever interest there is in Africa from the outside is largely driven by self-interest. As he notes: “Africa interests us for its offshore oil reserves, which are seen an alternative to supplies from an explosive and difficult-to-control Middle East, or for rare minerals like coltran, which powers our cellular phones and PlayStations.” In a sense, it is the ongoing brutal nature of Africa’s encounter with the West that has caused the region’s political and economic development to be so badly off-track in the early 21st century.

The third message is that despite all of the misfortune, Africa and the Africans endure. The region has undergone horrible diseases that have decimated local populations, suffered from corrupt and brutal governments, and been a chessboard when needed for external powers, acting with little regard for Africans.
It is to the last point there are some weaknesses in French’s book. While the West decidedly has had a hand in creating Africa’s problems, local players have also had a role in the dysfunctional nature of many governments. Moreover, French chronicles some of the major disasters in Africa, but he has little to say about South Africa which witnessed a peaceful transfer of power from white rule to a more open parliamentary system, the economic success of Mauritius and Botswana -- both with functioning elective governments -- and Senegal’s peaceful development over the past several decades. Yes, much is amiss in Africa, but it is not all tragedy – there are a few spots of sunshine that indicate that Africans can manage their own affairs without a resort to force.

Howard French has written an accessible book that is must reading for anyone with an interest in Africa and current affairs.

Editor: Dr. Scott B. MacDonald, Sr. Consultant

Deputy Editors: Dr. Jonathan Lemco, Director and Sr. Consultant and Robert Windorf, Senior Consultant

Associate Editor: Darin Feldman

Publisher: Keith W. Rabin, President

Web Design: Michael Feldman, Sr. Consultant

Contributing Writers to this Edition: Scott B. MacDonald, Darrel Whitten, Sergei Blagov, Kumar Amitav Chaliha, Jonathan Hopfner, Jim Letourneau and Finn Drouet Majlergaard

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