Orientalism in sub-Saharan Africa

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One of our regular targets here at the site is Orientalism — the misguided and dangerous outlook that the great Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said dissected so persuasively during his distinguished career.  Said concentrated on exposing Orientalism in the Middle East.  He made remarkable progress, but every time a Western politician or analyst tries to use “Islam” or “the Koran” to, say, explain the rise of Hamas, we are reminded that Said’s great lifework is far from finished.

Orientalism takes a different form in sub-Saharan Africa.  There, Orientalists do not emphasize the “Islamic” angle quite as much, although they do sometimes suggest that a “fault line” running across the Sahel, with an expansive “Islam” to the north and “Christianity” to the south, is a reliable guide to conflict in many countries.

But in Africa, the Orientalists are more likely to emphasize that “ancient tribal enmities” explain contemporary conflict, without necessarily adding the religious dimension. 

I recently returned from the West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire, in which fighting with a strong ethnic base is still simmering. Several thousand people are already dead, and up to 1 million are refugees.  I produced this fairly lengthy report for The Nation. 

The mainstream Western press cites ethnic differences to explain the violence there.  I found that citing ethnicity is not “wrong,” but woefully incomplete. 

In short, Cote d’Ivoire is dominated by millions of small cocoa planters, who grow the raw material from which our chocolate is made.  Big Western multinational corporations, like the U.S. agribusinesses Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, shamelessly underpay the small Ivorian farmers for their cocoa beans.  I met with these hard-working, likeable people, and I listened to their bitter complaints.

Without a reasonable income from cocoa exports, the Ivorian economy stagnates, promoting frustration, particularly among young men.  Unscrupulous local politicians use ethnicity to mobilize support. Violence grows, and then explodes.

One key fact here is that these ethnic differences are not “ancient tribal hatreds.”  Until the world cocoa market weakened a couple of decades ago, the various ethnicities in Cote d’Ivoire got along well.  The economic crisis raised the tensions.

The average well-meaning American sees a brief, confusing report on his television news, in which wild-looking young African men are riding around brandishing weapons in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire’s commercial capital.  Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland are never mentioned.

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