Celebrities, Coltan, and the Trial of Charles Taylor

It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that the stupid cult of the celebrity has overtaken a war crimes trial of former professional corpse-maker and Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor. Nor do I need to explain to you either the nature of the misfortune or, especially, of the predictability. Femi Fani-Kayode decries the unfairness of the trial (Taylor had an AU-backed safe-haven agreement) and American hypocrisy (the U.S. is not a member of the International Court of Criminal Justice, and has forever shielded itself from such prosecutions). I would take issue with the first point, and with the second I would agree and would suggest its inaugural application to Henry Kissinger. Confronted by this trial however I see filth of another kind. One can never look deeply into the familiar business of the African tribal massacre without feeling that we are all, you and I, dirtied.

If we weren’t too engrossed in the nonentity Naomi Campbell, we might notice the discomforting Judeo-Christian dimension of Taylor’s criminal undertakings. Among his charges of American hypocrisy, Femi Fani-Kayode bitterly cites the failure to indite war crimes related to Iraq and to the killings of “the defenceless Arab women and children of Sabra and Chatilla in Southern Lebanon just a couple of decades ago.” These giveaway indictments serve to situate Africa’s divisions within their proper, religious context. It is a context manifested in Liberia’s 19th-century proxy colonization, or “re-patriation” if you prefer, by Christianized former American slaves. (The early domination of local, non-Christian Africans by this Americanized elite and proxy-colonizer mirrors the contemporary rivalries of Liberia’s many ethnic groups.) Next, recall some years ago when it was disclosed that Pat Robertson was profiting from the blood diamond business, that furthermore he was financing the business with 700 Club money, and that Taylor was on the take. Taylor, who has been known to compare himself to Jesus, has had other gross associates of the Christian sort. Kilari Anand Paul, for example. Argue, for whatever good it will do you, that these people don’t represent the faith. The points to be taken away are that our world is today poisoned by this sort of rubbish, that it is getting worse — particularly in Africa, from whence the next wave of international terrorism is already arriving — and that we are likely to be living with the consequences for generations to come.

But hold on, it gets worse. Cecil Rhodes’s De Beers company has been for years an Economics 101 textbook case of marketing genius, as well as the cartel knack at price-fixing. If you are a married woman, chances are quite good you can glance down right now at the diamond on your left hand. For years the only kind of diamond was the blood variety, and even now it’s near impossible to guarantee otherwise. Add to this the unpleasant fact that commerce in critical and ubiquitous materials like rubber and coltan (used in computer chips and cell phones) finances the purchases of weapons throughout Africa, has for many years, and will for many more to come. It would be easier to hedge the complicity if it weren’t the case that North Americans only care about Africa when it’s presented through celebrity proxies — Bob Geldof, Bono, Brad Pitt, Madonna, or Naomi Campbell.

In a better world the West would not undermine every attempt by Africans to improve their lot (and only Africans can improve their own lot). North Americans would stop seeing Africa, to the miniscule degree which they see that continent at all, as a backwards place of starvation and war. The many and diverse nations of Africa are so much more than these, and in many cases not even these. Unfortunately this better world is a good way off.

In the meantime the warlord, weapons, cell phone, and celebrity industries thrive.

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