It was in 1994 that Kaplan created a sensation in the ranks of Africa- watchers and beyond by arguing that Sierra Leone (then as now in turmoil) was the unhappy but inescapable model for the future of not only West Africa, but most of the Third World - doomed to repeat the disorganisation and lawlessness of mediaeval Europe. Kaplan predicted a general "withering away of central government, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease and the growing pervasiveness of war" - a style of war, moreover, increasingly indistinguishable from violent common crime.
And since the end of the colonial era, the headline history of sub-Saharan Africa has borne him out: from the Somalia of the warlords to constant conflict in the Sudan, from protracted civil wars in Angola and Mozambique to savageries in Liberia and genocide in Rwanda, and now the collapse of Zaire; to the casual eye a jumble of interchangeable pieces in a mosaic of poverty, coups, famine and anarchy. Nor do the most recent events in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo inspire total confidence.
Hailed as a liberator when his troops marched into Kinshasa on May 17, Laurent Kabila finds himself a fortnight later branded a dictator by a re-emerging opposition; while many of his Western patrons - disappointed in their naive and premature calls for speedy "democratic" elections in a country bankrupted and in a terminal state of collapse - wonder if one tyrant has not simply been replaced by another. And now, once again, Sierra Leone.
Scratch a little deeper, though, and Kaplan's apocalyptic vision starts to look less convincing. First, method may be detected in even the most horrific madness. The atrocities which have marked most African crises seem to defy all reason; yet when the political contestants reach agreement, the mayhem stops as suddenly as it began. Conflicts in other words have a clear and recognisable logic - in Africa's case driven less by disputes over the randomly drawn colonial borders to which all its ills were once attributed, but by struggles to control natural resources - often fuelled by outside political and business interests.
Obviously, unless governments secure uncontested charge of their entire territory, such contests will continue - but according to a changing and more promising set of ground rules. With the Cold War long over, the continent is no longer a proxy battlefield for competing superpowers. Meanwhile, Africa's own resident "Euro-power", France, after its humiliation in Zaire, is re-examining its entire approach to its Francophone client countries. Until the end Paris sought to keep General Mobutu , among the last and the worst of the African rulers who were viewed as bulwarks of anti-Communism, in power. Its failure could produce a welcome reduction of French involvement.
In the uncertain years immediately after their independence, France's close ties with its former colonies were a beneficial force for stability. More recently, though, they have mainly served to stifle needed reforms. For now, almost four decades after Harold Macmillan spoke of a political wind of change, an irresistible gale of economic change threatens to sweep across the continent.
Long years of low or negative growth have conclusively disproved the old semi-socialist notions of regulation and subsidies favoured by a first generation of leaders, in Anglophone Africa especially. No longer is there talk of an "African way;" only - as everywhere in the industrialised world - an acceptance, however reluctant, that privatisation, a reduced role for the state and market solutions are the only avenues ahead. Where these measures have taken root, new pockets of growth have sprung up across the continent.
French-speaking Africa's successes include the Ivory Coast and Gabon, the latter largely thanks to oil. Far more striking though is a new group of countries growing at "Asian Tiger" rates of 6 per cent or more, thanks to a very Asian combination of open markets, health care and education. Among them are Angola, Ghana, Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho, and everyone's favourite African role-model, Uganda. But even Nigeria, in international disgrace because of its human rights record, is managing some 4 per cent. If the IMF is to be believed, developing sub-Saharan Africa achieved growth of 5 per cent in 1996, the best since the mid-Seventies.
And there may be more to come. Next month's G-7 summit in Denver is expected to approve a plan to harness the IMF, the World Bank and other world financial institutions to the cause of Africa, to help smooth a transition to a deregulated economy that is bound to be even more painful than the similar post-Cold War exercise in Eastern Europe.
What will come of the initiative cannot be said, but it will fall short of an African "Marshall Plan" - too much past Western aid is perceived as having been squandered and plundered, and not only by the likes of General Mobutu. But after a long period of international disengagement, the world's attention will briefly at least be focused upon its poorest and most blighted continent.
There are still other grounds for hope. If in many countries democracy is still a threadbare concept, oppositions elsewhere are becoming more outspoken. And now there is the example of Zaire to illustrate what happens to dictators who outstay their welcome.
Not least, despite what has happened in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Africa is starting to believe that it can handle its own affairs. The main reason of course is the emergence of post-apartheid South Africa, by far the wealthiest and most developed country south of the Sahara, as a force for stability and self-respect throughout the continent.
In Nelson Mandela, for the first time Africa possesses perhaps the most admired human being on the planet. His intervention and moral authority did not bring about Mobutu's removal, but almost certainly helped reduce the bloodshed afterwards.
From such seeds may, one day, blossom a genuine pan-African peacekeeping force to deal with the crises that will inevitably occur. Thus far of course the West has had to stomach the spectacle of a West African peacekeeping force led by the reviled Nigeria enjoying some success in Liberia, and poised perhaps to stamp out the universally condemned insurrection in Sierra Leone. The irony is a measure of Africa's complexities.
Its prospects are still precarious, and the road forward will be riddled with potholes, but the grounds for hope outweigh Robert Kaplan's nightmare. After all, the Irish problem must be at least as old as any ethnic feud in Africa. But where are the parties this weekend seeking to learn a formula for peace? Out in the African bush, in the land of Nelson Mandela.Reuse content