It is a piece of advice that French had repeatedly to fall back on in the course of his four years as the Times’ roving bureau chief based in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, his vivid, disquieting memoir of those times, conjures up a succession of failed states in which the shakedown is a way of life, destitute soldiers terrorize civilians at will, and the slightest display of weakness becomes an invitation for predation. In chapter after evocative chapter, he chronicles the murderous kleptocracy of Abacha in Nigeria, the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), the drug-and-diamond-fueled carnage in Liberia, and the epic fall of Zairian dictator Mobutu. It’s depressing, Hobbesian stuff. Yet in sharp contrast to Out of America, Keith Richburg’s bitingly pessimistic account of his years as an African- American correspondent covering the Rwandan genocide and clan warfare in Somalia, French, also an African American, sees Africa as a continent still dense with possibility. The tug of war between ordinary citizens yearning for democracy and ruthless leaders determined to squelch those aspirations is one of the driving themes behind French’s book. So, too, is the often-destructive role played by the United States, which, as he documents, propped up the worst of these dictators and demagogues, then often stood by as their nations disintegrated around them.

To illustrate his case, French zeroes in on Liberia, America’s unloved stepchild, a malarial backwater founded by freed American slaves before the Civil War. Tensions between the Americo-Liberian elite and native Liberians rose to boil just as Liberia–valued by the United States as a source of rubber and a listening post–dropped off the American radar screen at the end of the Cold War. In the aftermath of the 1990 assassination of President Samuel Doe, the semiliterate dictator propped up by the Reagan administration, U.S. Marines waited off shore while “churches full of huddling people became scenes of unimaginable [ethnic] slaughter,” French writes. Meanwhile, Charles Taylor rampaged through the countryside with his Small Boys Units–child soldiers fueled by drugs and blind loyalty to the surrogate father-figure they called “Pappy.” Unwilling to commit troops anywhere in Africa after the Somalia debacle, the Clinton administration sloughed off the peacekeeping burden on ECOMOG, the corrupt Nigerian-dominated pan-African force that eagerly joined the tribal militias in the looting of Monrovia in 1996. An all too familiar scene ensued: U.S. military helicopters rescued expatriates, leaving Liberia’s civilians at the mercy of warlords such as Gen. Butt Naked, who “doused himself in a potion made from cane juice that he swore protected him from bullets.”

French’s most enthralling chapters detail the dramatic final days of Mobutu Sese Seko, the astonishingly corrupt Zairian dictator backed for decades by the United States while he drove his country to destitution. French brilliantly captures the fin de siecle whirl of Kinshasa, the muggy Congolese capital on the Congo River, moving to the electric beat of soukous music and the entrepreneurial hustle of its desperate masses. In 1996, Rwandan troops invaded the country to empty Hutu refugee camps that had become staging grounds for a reprise of the genocide, and Mobutu’s end game began. French’s reporting is at its best here, as he chronicles the unlikely rise of Rwanda’s front man Laurent Kabila and the horrific string of revenge killings against Hutu refugees carried out by Rwandan Tutsi troops as they swept toward Kinshasa. “Those forests in the east have witnessed some real horrors,” French is told by an American diplomat in Kisangani, “but luckily for the Tutsi, trees can’t talk.” Yet as French reports, the Clinton administration–motivated in part by guilt over its failure to halt the genocide–turned a blind eye to Rwanda’s excesses. U.S. ambassador to Zaire Daniel Simpson “reduced the Hutu problem to a simple formula: ‘they are the bad guys,’” French writes. He concludes with Mobutu’s ignominious departure from Kinshasa, and the arrival of Kabila, another U.S.-backed despot who reveals himself to be as thuggish and corrupt as his predecessor.

French’s engagement with the continent goes far deeper than most Africa-based correspondents. His father was a physician who moved the family from the United States to Cote d’Ivoire, to take a job running rural clinics for the World Health Organization, and French spent four years covering Africa as a young stringer in the early 1980s. He met his first African girlfriend, an migre from Mali, on the dance floor at an Abidjan night club, and a trip to her birthplace brought him in touch with the past glories of the continent. (He would later marry a woman from the Cote d’Ivoire.) He writes with pride of a continent that produced Timbuktu, the great mosque of Djenne, and the Ashanti Kingdom–a proto-nation state with defined boundaries, a central government, a police force, an army, and a national language. And throughout the book, he ponders the reasons for the long decline into violence and destitution. Looking for answers, French offers fresh and thoughtful takes on the usual suspects: the legacy of centuries of slavery, brutal colonial exploitation, and the failure of colonial masters to leave behind any working institutions. Huge, potentially rich countries like Zaire and Nigeria were done in, he writes, by “the confusion sown by arbitrary borders, by the abrupt and haphazard imposition of alien political systems, by deliberate Western destabilization and finally by the economic turmoil that logically ensued.”

French makes a strong case for all of these factors. At the same time, however, he is too willing to let Africans themselves off the hook. The ruinous depredations of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, for example, the horrors perpetrated by Charles Taylor in Liberia and Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone can’t all be laid at the doorstep of European slave merchants and colonizers.

Africa’s ruinous civil wars and ethnic strife also reflect a total failure of the political class, of elites who view government office as an opportunity for personal gain, of rulers who owe their primary allegiance to clan or tribe.

French faults the United States for failing to impose an oil boycott on Nigeria during the brutal rule by Abacha. But the failure of African leaders to speak out boldly against the tyrants in their midst–witness the stubborn refusal of South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki to isolate Mugabe economically and politically–also helps to legitimize these thugs and demagogues.

Not all of Africa’s rulers seem determined to lead their countries to ruin. In Mali, French meets President Alpha Oumar Konare, the country’s first popularly elected leader, a noted archaeologist determined to safeguard both the country’s fragile democratic institutions and its rich cultural heritage. Yet staggering under massive international debt–the legacy of Konare’s dictatorial predecessors–the president and his allies wonder how long they can maintain popular support. “We service our country’s debt on time every month, never missing a penny, and all the time, the people are getting poorer and poorer,” says Amadou Toumani Tour, the founder of Malian democracy and a successor to Konare. French also finds fragile hope in the yearnings for democracy and entrepreneurial energy of Africa’s beleaguered citizens. “Our dreams are the dreams of people everywhere, aren’t they?” he is asked by a former copper mine manager in East Kasai who survived Mobutu-directed ethnic pogroms in Lubumbashi, Congo. Now he’s returned home to build a virtual independent entity in this neglected corner of his nation. “We want to be able to turn on the lights and read to our children at night. We want affordable cement so that we can build houses for our families … If we had our own state we could take charge of that. But who can wait?” On a misruled continent that seems to be sinking ever closer to a war of all against all, the resourcefulness of its people may offer the best hope for renewal.

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Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.