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A recent appeal on the online blogging forum African Arguments (a site I greatly enjoy) from the former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Hank Cohen, for UN trusteeship of South Sudan has really set me off.  The piece epitomizes the narrative of Africa as a dangerous locale for exciting adventures in which the white man can nobly shoulder the weight of his burden, rather than illustrating the more hopeful economic narratives of Africa that are becoming more predominant in many corners (although those could also have the potential to set me off).

Cohen (who remains active in DC through affiliations with SAIS and his lobbying/consulting firm), draws on what he sees as favorable UN tutelage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Namibia as reasons South Sudan should be placed under UN oversight.  Cohen provides scant rationale for his comparisons to these two countries in his brief essay, but the references are atrocious, particularly when considered in historical perspective.

The DRC continues to be an extremely weak country, home to a UN military mission and has escaped few of the problems that it was bequeathed by Belgium at independence in 1960.  Cohen’s own racial chauvinism appears to be reflected in his comment that the Congo achieved independence with much greater infrastructure than South Sudan.  This infrastructure was primarily established for the benefit of the 100,000 Europeans living in the Belgian Congo and was likely not intended to remain in place once they no longer ruled the roost, even if there had never been a civil war.

Cohen attributes a state of ‘near anarchy’ in post-colonial Congo to the failure of Belgians to prepare the ‘human capital’ of their colony.  The machinations of Belgian mining interests, and South African and Rhodesian mercenaries are conveniently ignored.  Sustained US support for the three decade reign of Mobutu Sese Seko probably didn’t do much for the condition of the DRC’s human capital either.

The reference to Namibia is not as blatantly offensive, but that does not mean it is any more sensible.  The relatively high level of development in the country is again praised; in the case of Namibia it is even more obvious that the country’s infrastructure was developed for the benefit of whites and through the exploitation of blacks.

Cohen confines his analysis of Namibia’s UN tutelage to a 15 month transitional period immediately before the country’s independence in 1990 (in which he played a prominent role as he was leading the Bureau of African Affairs in the US State Department at this time).  This is highly ironic as even Cohen himself notes that South Africa was granted the authority to administer what is now Namibia by the League of Nations following World War I when it was wrested away from German control.  The League of Nations and the United Nations as its successor failed Namibia for the seven decades they allowed South Africa to implement discriminatory and racist practices while it was under their trust.  As late as 1966 (seven years after the Old Location Massacre where nearly a dozen Africans were executed during a protest), the International Court of Justice dismissed a case filed by Liberia and Ethiopia challenging South Africa’s control of the territory.

Cohen’s decision to separate the UN’s long historical failure with Namibia from a brief period immediately prior to independence seems rather short sighted.  Irony rises to a peak of extremely high proportions here as the basis of Cohen’s critique is to call for a shift away from the ‘romantic delusion’ that South Sudanese independence would inherently lead to better conditions when the country had the ‘least amount of preparation’ out ‘of all the African countries that came to independence since 1950.’

South Sudan has received a great deal of Western aid in the short time since independence.  I see no compelling reason from Cohen to suggest that its sovereignty should be suspended for this assistance to be more effective.  What the example of the DRC does clearly show is that there are no shortcuts to sustained, inclusive development.  Placing South Sudan under UN trusteeship may appeal to a Eurocentric old guard that thrives upon African problems, but Cohen certainly doesn’t make the case that just because its intellectuals don’t complain (as he indicates was the case in Congo in 1960) the South Sudanese masses will reap dividends.

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