The Magazine

Africa Betrayed

Tyrants are the continent's principal natural resource.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By ROGER BATE
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The Fate of Africa

From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair; a History of 50 Years of Independence

by Martin Meredith

PublicAffairs, 734 pp., $35

NOT SINCE The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham has an author had the temerity to attempt to document the key moments of history of the entire African continent over half a century. But where Pakenham's book, covering the European colonization of the continent, occasionally failed to maintain interest, Martin Meredith's book consistently grabs and holds your attention.

This is, probably, a magnificent achievement. From Cairo to Cape Town, from Dakar to Djibouti, Meredith understands what is important and what the reader will want to learn. I say "probably" simply because I can only judge the writing on the countries I know something about; but where I have knowledge, he is spot on. If the rest of the book is as accurate as the chapters on Southern Africa, this is a seminal work.

I read the chapter about the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda more avidly than any part of any nonfiction book I have ever encountered. It is compellingly written and appalling to comprehend. Even Francophiles will be disillusioned by that country's politics, and disastrous and mendacious involvement in the Rwanda crisis. But no country gets a free ride. Britain's colonial legacy and contemporary policies are rightly decried in several chapters (notably on Sudan and Egypt), as is America's calamitous involvement with Mobutu Sese Seko's leadership in Zaire and the debacles in Liberia and Somalia. The Sudanese import of Osama bin Laden and Islamic influences in the region get an interesting, careful, and highly critical discussion as well.

Where Pakenham dramatized the colonization of Africa, Meredith discusses the less exciting withdrawal from the continent, and how black African rule emerged. Meredith knows the importance of colonial history, and how much of the blame for Africa's failure lies with it. He writes: "As the haggling in Europe over African territory continued, land and peoples became little more than pieces on a chess board. 'We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were,' Britain's prime minister, Lord Salisbury remarked sardonically."

Starting with a chapter on the independence of Ghana from Britain in 1957, Meredith details the always painful, and generally disastrous, experience of African self-rule. The notable exception is Botswana, a country that moved peacefully from British colony to democratic African state, with private property rights, rule of law, economic growth, and increasing standards of health care (albeit a huge AIDS problem). But while Botswana is a shining star on the continent, its luminescence is enhanced by the catastrophes around it, its achievements more moderate by Asian standards. Of 53 countries, only Botswana and post-apartheid South Africa may be considered successful.

The current trend, much favored by United Nations advisory panels, is to say that Africa has unique problems of geography and disease, which is why it is poor. Meredith blames governance. Uncaring colonial powers gave way to despotic African leaders, often pawns in the Cold War. Today, corrupt leaders must shoulder the blame. Africa is a continent where people still go into government to make money. As Meredith explains about Nigeria (although the analysis can easily be applied to other countries), during colonial times, it was seen as acceptable to rip off the government: "The same attitude prevailed with the coming of independence. The state was regarded as a foreign institution that could be used for personal and community gain without any sense of shame or need for accountability. Plunderers of the government treasury were often excused on the grounds that they had only 'taken their share.'"

The most fascinating parts are the portraits of the "big men," the leaders, most of whom were despots, ruling in the belief that they were infallible or God-like. Mengistu Haile Miriam of Ethiopia, Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu of Zaire, Sani Abacha of Nigeria, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, to name but a few. Accustomed to endless praise, it is not surprising to learn that absolute power tended to corrupt them absolutely.