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Stephen W. Smith

Stephen W. Smith teaches African Studies at Duke.

Diary: Sankarism

Stephen W. Smith, 30 August 2018

Thomas Sankara​, the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, was shot dead in the presidential buildings in Ouagadougou on 15 October 1987. I was the West Africa correspondent at the time for Radio France International and Libération, based in neighbouring Ivory Coast. The day before the assassination I got a call from Sankara. This was a first. We knew each other well but, until then,...

Short Cuts: The ICC

Stephen W. Smith, 15 December 2016

The​ South African president, Jacob Zuma, has notified the United Nations of his country’s decision to leave the International Criminal Court in The Hague and is encouraging other African countries to follow suit. No one should be surprised. African doubts about the ICC have been growing ever since a sitting president, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, was indicted by the court for war...

China in Africa

Stephen W. Smith, 19 March 2015

In​ 1969, three years into the Cultural Revolution, China was not only poorer than most African countries but suffering from a massive famine. Mao Zedong and his colleagues decided to import vast quantities of wheat as a way to address the food crisis and, more radically, to change the staple of their 800 million countrymen: wheat has a higher nutritional value than rice. That year, a...

Diary: In Chad

Stephen W. Smith, 2 July 2014

Thirty​ years ago, disembarking at the airport in N’Djamena, I knew within moments that the calcination of desert sand produces a dust of such pungency that it wipes all previous data from the olfactory memory. Two other startling realisations in Chad: first, that a state capital of about 200,000 inhabitants could have only two paved streets and no street lights at all; second, that...

Mandela, the Politician

Stephen W. Smith, 9 January 2014

In the early 1990s, after more than four decades of stringent enforcement, South Africa ceased to be a country where races were segregated by law. Yet no one in a position of power was called to account for the relegation of millions of South Africans to derelict Bantustans, the forcible removal of hundreds of thousands of non-white urban dwellers to shanty towns and rural areas, the coercive...

What are they doing in Mali?

Stephen W. Smith, 7 February 2013

On 11 January, seemingly out of the blue, François Hollande announced that France would ‘respond to the request of the Malian president’ and send forces to its former colony to fight ‘terrorist elements coming from the north’. ‘Today, the very existence of this friendly nation is at stake,’ he declared. ‘Military operations will last for as long as required … Terrorists must know that France will always be there when it’s a matter not of its fundamental interests but the right of a population … to live in freedom and democracy.’

Gbagbo

Stephen W. Smith, 19 May 2011

On 11 April, four and a half months after he had been defeated in a UN-supervised election, Laurent Gbagbo, the former leader of Ivory Coast, was forced out of his presidential bunker by a motley and, some would say, unholy alliance of rebels turned Forces républicaines, UN blue helmets and French soldiers. What does this mean? That Gbagbo is somewhere between Mugabe to the south and Gaddafi to the north, in the eyes of the international community? Or that the international community’s latter-day mission to civilise Africa has led to its fighting a war in Libya and a successful battle in Ivory Coast, with a little help from France, the former colonial master of Ivory Coast?

Fables of Rwanda

Stephen W. Smith, 17 March 2011

A number of memories connected with Rwanda play in my mind like scenes from a movie, although I don’t pretend they add up to a film. In 1994 a genocide was committed against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. All else about this small East African country, ‘the land of a thousand hills’, is open to question and, indeed, bears re-examination. ‘Freedom of opinion is a farce,’ Hannah Arendt wrote in 1966 in ‘Truth and Politics’, ‘unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.’ The problem with Rwanda is not only that opinions and facts have parted company but that opinion takes precedence.

Françafrique

Stephen W. Smith, 11 February 2010

‘Sorry, but it’s no longer the way it used to be. There’s nothing more I can do for you. Under Bongo Senior, this would have been unthinkable. But Bongo Junior doesn’t have the same grip on the situation – and nor do I, nor does France. We go through the motions but we’re no longer in control.’ I received this text message on 9 August 2009 from Robert Bourgi, known in Paris as ‘the attorney of la Françafrique’. It’s probably not the last word on France’s incestuous relationship with her former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, but it put an end to my four-day wait at a rat-infested border post, where I’d hoped to be allowed into Gabon.

From The Blog
10 April 2018

In apartheid South Africa, ‘the enemy’ was ever present, day and night, from the public toilets you couldn’t use to the neighbourhood you couldn’t live in, by way of police raids at first light to check on your bedfellows, or simply to keep you terrified. When Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – who died on 2 April at the age of 81 – spoke of ‘the enemy’, the words had an intimate ring.

From The Blog
5 December 2013

Nelson Mandela’s death, at the age of 95, comes as a relief. He should have been allowed the dignity of only dying once. In the past two years, in and out of hospital, he seldom recognised his wife Graça Machel, his former wife Winnie, his children or his old comrades from the ANC. What is more, since the end of his presidency in 1999, the 'rainbow nation' had been dying with him.

From The Blog
11 December 2012

The Rwanda-backed M23 rebels – M23 for 23 March 2009, when a peace deal was signed with Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila – attacked the city of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), on 17 November, trouncing the Congolese army in less than three days. Twelve days later they withdrew. But they have not melted back into the hills of Northern Kivu from where they launched the assault. They have put a ring around Goma and are staying put until the power-sharing agreement for which they’re named is renegotiated in their favour. Meanwhile, Goma, a border town of one million people, resembles Berlin in the Cold War, an island linked to the west by an air bridge.

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