After dinner at Le Grenier and a night of partying at La Cave Du Roy, which was overflowing with spooks, I caught an early morning Ethiopian Airlines flight from Beirut to Addis Ababa. I settled into my seat and took out my French edition of L’Afrique Noire Est Mal Partie (False Start for Black Africa) by the eminent French agronomist, Rene Dumont. By the time we passed the Equator and flew over the Rift Valley (we were all given certificates to memorialize the event) I was immersed in an analysis of Africa that was so prescient and profound, I was filled with admiration for the author, but also with dread. If Dumont was right, Africa was finished from the start of the age of independence.
Ethiopia, my destination, had never been a colony. It had defeated a 19th century Italian attempt to colonize it. Overrun by Mussolini’s troops, which had the support of air power, it resisted the occupation until the British liberated it. Haile Sellassie, who had been living in luxury in Bath, returned to his throne as "The Lion of Judah, The Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia." He left behind a fortune in unpaid tailor bills.
Colonization of Ethiopia did not begin until the arrival of the Americans during the Cold War. Massive amounts of aid poured it to stave off a Soviet takeover, as the Lion of Judah juggled the Americans and the Russians, playing them of against each other and pocketing the money. A New Yorker cartoon of the era portrayed two tribal chiefs sitting in a hut, one saying to the other: "We tell the Americans we are going Communist and they send technicians and fortunes in aid to stop it. Then, we tell the Soviets that we are becoming a bourgeois democracy, and the Russians send more aid and technicians. Then, we tell the French and the British, we want them to run things, so they do the same. We get them all here and we eat them." There were no cannibals in Ethiopia, but they managed to dupe everyone into sending aid. The World Bank forked over a ton of money to build roads to replace the ones the Italians had built and which had gone to ruin. Never let it be said that the money was wasted. The Ethiopians promptly created a Highway Department and build a gigantic office building to house the handsomely paid bureaucrats, who arrived daily in their Mercedes Benzes. Not a single road was ever constructed.
The two leading thinkers of African development, apart from Rene Dumont, who was spectacularly ignored, were Tom Mboya of Kenya and Hubert Humphrey of the United States. Their idea was to create an African middle class by building up the government bureaucracy through foreign aid. With enough rich bureaucrats living off foreign aid, there would be a growing demand for consumer goods, which would spur economic growth.
To educate this bureaucracy in Ethiopia, the Americans sent a left-wing law professor from the University of Pennsylvania to Addis Ababa named James C.N. Paul, first to serve as dean of the law school, and then, to head up the entire Haile Sellassie I University. At a dinner party I hosted at my house, Paul acknowledged to me that he was a "Marxian." What, I asked him, was the difference between a Marxian and a Marxist? I got no reply.
A typical American academic, he was close to the Kennedys. He despised capitalism and was intent on creating an alternative form of the left that was non-Communist, a project that the CIA had long fostered at the expense of the American taxpayers. At a debate at the university, a radical student addressed the throng and exhorted, "We must nationalize our industry." I waved my hand and got up: "You have no industry to nationalize," I shot back. My remark was not appreciated by the American faculty.
Then, something quite strange happened. A team of economists from Stanford paid by USAID arrived and did a study of Ethiopia’s economic prospects. They wandered around the country for months and ultimately came up with a report. To my astonishment, they got it right. They said that the basic problem of Ethiopia was that it did not have a free market system and it needed, very badly, to get one. Between the feudal mentality of the Emperor, whose only venture into capitalism was to bilk fortunes from the St. George’s Brewery as though he were the CEO of World Com, and the lefty Americans, who called themselves liberals but who were only one small step from Lenin, there was virtually no chance of a free market ever coming into existence.
But one day, I wandered into the depths of the Mercado, the teaming marketplace in the center of Addis Ababa. Merchants of all kinds were flogging wares from all over the world. How they got them I never found out. The natural rite of commerce has a vitality of its own that simply cannot be stamped out, even by American professors. And in the midst of this capitalist feast was the piece de resistance, the Ethiopian "Butter Ladies." Injera Wot, the staple of the Ethiopian diet, which consists of a spongy bread and a fiery stew that makes Indian curry taste like Campbell’s Soup, is prepared with a rancid butter that is highly prized. The butter exchange was where magnificently dressed Ethiopian women, complete with elaborate head-dresses, competed with each other, their butter wrapped in Eucalyptus leaves. I wondered if the Stanford economists had visited the exchange and caught sight of these incredible, dynamic, independent women bargaining and raking in their profits.
There was a Communist revolution after I left and the entire market was shut down. The famine, which had begun under the Ancien Regime the Americans had supported, intensified. The Cold War ended and Ethiopia was no longer of any strategic value to America, so it forgot the world by which it was forgotten, to paraphrase Gibbon. But all of a sudden, the CIA woke up to find that Africa was becoming a hotbed of terrorists, and Ethiopia, with a huge Moslem population, although it is nominally Christian, could become one of the next training grounds. Al Queda money to a starving country is as good as any.
So, once again, the Americans have discovered Ethiopia. At a forthcoming conference on Ethiopia Studies to be held in Hamburg, none other than James C.N. Paul will be giving a major paper on the various Ethiopian legal systems under the Empire, the Dergue, and the present regime. The Emperor had hired Rene David, a renowned Swiss legal scholar to draft the civil code, but outside of Addis Ababa, the imperial capital, no one paid any attention to it. When traders had a business dispute, they went to the Kalicha, the witch doctor, who ruled according to the customs of the people, which he discerned by going into a trance, a method as likely to produce the right result as going to the courts in Brooklyn to have your case decided by some guy who paid a bundle of money to the county leader to get his judgeship.
So now, Dubya is off to the "dark continent" to bring it prosperity and light, and not a few military bases. Once again, Africa is in. And the National Defense College of the Department of Defense, has set up a new African section, advertising for "progressives" to staff it. The American Empire has found its true home. But I have news for Bush. "Mr. Kurtz, he dead."
Richard Cummings [send him mail] taught international law at the Haile Selassie I University and before that, was Attorney-Advisor with the Office of General Counsel of the Near East South Asia region of U.S.A.I.D, where he was responsible for the legal work pertaining to the aid program in Israel, Jordan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is the author of a new novel, The Immortalists, as well as The Pied Piper — Allard K. Lowenstein and the Liberal Dream, and the comedy, Soccer Moms From Hell. He holds a Ph.D. in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University and is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.