The Fate of Africa
Martin Meredith, 2005, 2011
I seem to have fallen into a bit of a pattern here while I very slowly work on finishing the next Franklin Roosevelt article: novels I read on my Kindle, history I listen to via audiobooks. The novels come mostly from my visitor recommendations; the history audiobooks are pretty much random, whatever happens to catch my eye. This one jumped out at me because one of my long‑term projects has been to learn a little bit about the history of every region of the world, yet the big lecture courses at Berkeley that I’ve been able to audit have pretty much been limited to the U.S. and Europe. Youtube has allowed me to supplement this thanks to professors from Yale, Columbia, and UCLA posting videos of their courses on other parts of the world, but I hadn’t been able to find anything on Africa. Then I happened across this audiobook, subtitled “A History of the Continent Since Independence”. I knew nothing about the author—apparently he’s a journalist turned independent historian, not an academic—but after a glance at the reviews I figured I’d give this book a shot. And I have to give it high marks both for execution and for degree of difficulty. After all, how do you organize information about what happened in 50+ countries over the course of 50+ years into a coherent narrative? Neither a strictly chronological structure nor a country‐by‐country approach seems ideal: you don’t want to do a roll call of each nation in 1960, then of each nation in 1961, etc., nor do you want to track Algeria from World War II to the present, then Angola from World War II to the present, then Benin, etc. Meredith does an impressive job of moving the chronology forward while giving nearly every country a turn in the spotlight—even Equatorial Guinea!—yet making sure that the spotlight shines on each country when most appropriate. Ghana gets a lot of attention early on, when it was considered the model for the newly independent nations of Africa, but only gets occasional mentions later, after it had become just one of many failed states suffering an endless series of coups d’état. Rwanda goes nearly unmentioned until the book reaches the 1990s, at which point it takes center stage: the narrative jumps back to fill in the backstory from Rwanda’s pre‑colonial days up to the lead‑up to the genocide, then slows down to give that horror the space it requires. Ultimately, The Fate of Africa takes the major landmarks and ongoing stories of modern African history (e.g., the Mau Mau uprising, the Suez crisis, the Algerian war of independence, Biafra, Idi Amin and the raid on Entebbe, the Ethiopian famine of the mid‑1980s, the rise of HIV/AIDS in southern Africa, the American misadventure in Somalia, the Rwandan genocide, the fall of apartheid, the blood diamond wars, Darfur, the Arab Spring), plus a bunch of names of people and organizations I recognized from Balance of Power but knew little about (e.g., Félix Houphouët‑Boigny, Daniel arap Moi, the Anya‑Nya, UNITA, ZANU‑PF), plus quite a few important figures and events I was totally unfamiliar with (e.g., Kwame Nkrumah, Léopold Senghor, the Arusha Declaration, the UDI), and weaves them all together into a coherent and compelling narrative. That’s something!
One reason this works is that Meredith begins by positing that the histories of the 50+ countries of Africa generally follow the same template, allowing him to focus on particularly telling exemplifications of the template and on interesting exceptions to it. For instance, only Liberia and Ethiopia escaped being colonized during the Scramble for Africa, when European powers divided up the continent among them seeking geopolitical advantage and seeking to lighan ses lion, or diamonds, or rubber, or cocoa, or what have you. These divisions were often just arbitrary straight lines across the map; sometimes they were geographic; never were they demographic, meaning that in some cases you’d have one African people divided among several colonies (e.g., the Hausa in Nigeria, Niger, Gold Coast, Kamerun, Chad, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, and Togo), and in many more cases you’d have several African peoples, often mutually inimical ones, grouped together within the same colony (e.g., the hundreds in Nigeria, with the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo the most dominant). Yet the lines the Europeans had drawn stayed in place after independence, making the new African countries states but not natural nations. All were autocratic, but different countries found themselves at different points on the autocratic spectrum. At the far end you had people like Francisco Macías Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s answer to Pol Pot, ordering the murder of anyone who wore glasses; in fact, he killed about one‑sixth of Equatorial Guinea’s citizens, while three‑fifths of the survivors fled the country, an impressive feat given that Macías Nguema had sunk all the boats and mined all the roads. He dubbed himself “The Only Miracle” and required all churches to preach that “There is no god other than Macías”. Joseph Mobutu, who seized power in Congo‑Léopoldville, changed “Léopoldville” to “Kinshasa”, changed “Congo” to “Zaire”, and changed his own name to “Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga”—and then required all Zaireans to drop their European names as well. (He also required all Zairean men to stop wearing Western clothing and instead wear a garment he called an “abacost”.) He billed himself “Savior of the People” and was called the Messiah by his cabinet. Jean‑Bédel Bokassa, less ambitious, satisfied himself with recreating Napoleon’s coronation ceremony for himself and gleefully boasted of serving human flesh to the visiting dignitaries. Hastings Banda of Malawi was content to be not a god, a messiah, or an emperor, but merely president‐for‐life, provided that “Anything I say is law. Literally law.” Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea reorganized the education system to center the curriculum and the examinations around the collected works of Ahmed Sékou Touré. Then at the other end of the spectrum you had people like Léopold Senghor of Senegal, who in autocratic fashion claimed to “personify the Nation” and to be viewed as “the elected of God through the people”—but who retired after twenty years as president. He considered himself more of a poet and intellectual than a politician, and after stepping down achieved his true lifelong dream: election to the Académie française. Senghor thus became the first African head of state to voluntarily give up power—which is to say, this did not happen until the 1980s! More importantly, he phased in a multi‑party democracy during his last years in office, and Senegal stands out from the rest of Africa in having an uninterrupted record of peaceful transfer of power.
During the Cold War, authoritarian rulers flourished because they were adopted by one superpower or the other—for instance, Mobutu managed to secure a personal aircraft with a U.S. Air Force crew to fly it for him. African countries that declared themselves one‑party socialist or communist states tended to be headed by not particularly ideological strongmen, hoping that their declared affiliation would win them backing from Moscow. An interesting exception was Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, a political theorist who wrote eloquently and seemingly sincerely on behalf of the virtues of his particular stripe of authoritarianism. He wrote that in Western democracies, the different parties tend to represent different socioeconomic classes; since Nyerere was an egalitarian and aimed to make Tanzania a classless society, a one‑party state was therefore more appropriate. (Nyerere rejected racial appeals even during his days as an independence activist, and was rare for his time and place in advocating the full equality of the sexes; he also barred the capitalist elite from holding positions in his government.) He instituted, first voluntarily and then by mandate, a system called ujamaa, sometimes translated as “cooperative economics”, which held that Tanzanians were to work not on behalf of themselves or their individual tribes, but for the whole of the Tanzanian people. Under Nyerere, infant mortality plunged, life expectancy soared, education and literacy absolutely skyrocketed (particularly for females)… and the economy fell apart. Tanzania was not unique in this regard. The Fate of Africa builds its story of the 1960s around nation‐building and its story of the 1970s around dictatorship; its story of the 1980s is one of economic collapse. Not that Africa was an economic powerhouse in the ’60s, but at least it was just one of many developing regions of the world. But as Latin America and South Asia made progress, Africa went backwards. The regimes of its constituent nations, even when they weren’t headed by cartoon monsters, tended to be kleptocratic. While the overwhelming majority of the population scraped by on literally a few cents a day, a small coterie lived what some called the “platinum life”: fleets of expensive cars; luxury accommodations in the capital, in the countryside, and abroad; enough premium liquor to constitute a significant percentage of imports (in some countries more than, say, farming supplies). This coterie usually consisted of the president’s relatives, or when he chose to spread the wealth more broadly, his tribe. Every ministry of the government ran on bribes. I’m using the past tense here because this type of corruption, while a running theme throughout the book, takes the spotlight at this midway point in the narrative. Obviously Africa is still replete with kleptocratic regimes, just as it still boasts any number of autocrats. (Some of them are the same autocrats! Paul Biya has run Cameroon since 1975; Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has run Equatorial Guinea since ousting his uncle Macías in 1979; other countries whose rulers have held power since before the turn of the century include Congo‑Brazzaville, Uganda, Sudan, Chad, Eritrea, Rwanda, Algeria, and Djibouti.) But then the book reaches the end of the Cold War, and African history enters a new stage: democratization. Dictators and military juntas, without superpower patrons, began to discover that they could no longer hold out against broad swaths of the citizenry demanding multi‐party democracy. In 1991, Benin, of all places, became the first African state where a popular uprising pressured a military regime into holding fair elections, and the first where an incumbent ruler (Mathieu Kékérou, who seized power in 1972) stepped down after losing at the polls. Of course, multi‑party democracy alone is no panacea, and in many countries it just allows the different peoples within these artificial nation‑states to alternate whose corrupt representatives will pocket the bribes. Benin is an example: 94% of northerners voted Kékérou, 80% of southerners voted for his opponent Nicéphore Soglo, and five years later, with southerners grumbling that crooks were still in charge, Kékérou was elected to his old post. The one African nation for which Meredith has nothing but praise is Botswana, as he lauds its lack of corruption, well‐functioning democracy, and far‐sighted investment of the proceeds of its mineral wealth into infrastructure and public services. He also gives Senegal a lukewarm thumbs‑up. But these are rare exceptions, as Meredith concludes, “After decades of mismanagement and corruption, most African states have become hollowed out. They are no longer instruments capable of serving the public good. Indeed, far from being able to provide aid and protection to their citizens, African governments and the vampire‐like politicians who run them are regarded by the populations they rule as yet another burden they have to bear in the struggle for survival.” indeed.