Sunday, August 24, 2008

On Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa: A meandering review-essay

A significant caveat: I have never traveled to Africa, and therefore this is only armchair analysis. But one has to begin somewhere when one wants to engage with a topic or a region; and I do hope that whatever I read on Africa will be followed in the future with actual travel. Once I get to visit, my accounts will probably be more specific; I’ll probably be writing about a particular city or theme, rather than something as grand as the whole continent.


Could a book have a bleaker title, a more damning indictment? The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Depths of Despair – what does it convey but gloominess, that Africa has hit rock bottom in all respects. There is good reason, one might say, for such pessimism: all the afflictions the world has seen in its entire history –starvation, totalitarianism, disease, genocide – have played themselves out in crippling fashion in Africa since Ghana’s landmark independence in 1957.

Why did things turn out this way? The answers, as always, are too complex to summarize in a few lines or even a book. European colonialism clearly played a major role, apportioning the continent according to its own whims and needs in the 19th century, creating arbitrary boundaries and forcing ethnic groups together that were not natural nations. Africa’s lack of large empires– if one ignores ancient Egypt, whose affiliations were as much Mediterranean as Nubian – meant there were no surviving institutions or an administrative framework (as existed in China and the Indian subcontinent) to mediate its encounter with Europe. And what did exist in some places broke under the weight of that infamous institution, slavery.

Consider one of the early interactions between Europe and Africa. When the Portuguese reached the mouth of the Congo as early as the 15th century, they found the sophisticated Kingdom of the Kongo, which encompassed a large area, and had an elaborate administrative system. Yet, within a hundred years, slave driving had devastated the kingdom. Slavery had existed in Congo earlier – as it had in virtually all regions of the world – but it worsened acutely as the Portuguese expanded in the New World.

(Depiction of the Kongo royalty encountering the Portuguese, from here.)

From those early times in the 15th century to the 19th, European physical presence in Africa was a faint imprint, but the demand for slaves had profound implications. The interior was largely unexplored, but played the relay role in the slave trade: supply and demand balancing out neatly, Africans as complicit in it as the Europeans.

It was only in the 19th century – with the help of so-called "journalist-explorers" like Henry Stanley, Africa’s most famous conquistador – that the interior of continent was mapped and opened for greater European control. About eight decades of colonialism later, as independence and sovereignty became the rage the world over, African nations awoke to their possibilities. But to join the modern world, one has to have the apparatus and institutions of modernity, and African nations were found lacking. Further, their leaders were faced with a most difficult task: “to weld into nations a variety of different peoples”, as Meredith puts it. The Cold War and the business of taking sides – a deadly one, whichever way you swung – wreaked havoc on many countries, Angola being a prime example. Caught in the crossfire, and betrayed by their own political elite who in rapaciousness sometimes surpassed their colonial predecessors, nations lurched from crisis to crisis. To compound the issue, Africa was saddled with one of the deadliest diseases in modern history. Even in Botswana, a successful country with little corruption and good infrastructure, approximately one in six Botswanans carries HIV.


This, then, is the setting and context of Martin Meredith’s book, an encyclopedic digest of the politics and tragedies of Africa since 1957. From Ghana to Rwanda, from Algeria to South Africa, there is little that Meredith leaves untouched. The book inevitably chronicles a numbing sequence of mismanagements, civil wars, and cruelties. “Some 150,000 died,” he says while describing one crisis – I forget which – and moves on. Casually put, but apt: since so much has happened, numbers do not have the same impact or significance. One country blends into another; brutalities are eerily similar. As Meredith says at the beginning of the book, “Africa is a continent of great diversity but African states have much in common, especially misfortunes.”

Nevertheless, the book avoids generalities, and proceeds case by case. Beginning with Ghana in 1957, and moving chronologically on to other powerhouses – Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe – as well as covering a host of other smaller nations, Meredith reconstructs their post-independence histories. His account is strangely mixed: it sometimes reads like a dull newspaper article full of facts and figures; at other times it is insightful, expertly deconstructing famous African leaders – Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Mobutu, Thabo Mbeki – and their blunders.

Along with these piecewise narratives about nations and their trajectories, something of the larger geopolitics of Africa emerges too. When Angola slid into war, how did other countries align themselves? What were the dynamics during the Cold War? What were the consequences of America supporting Mobutu? What happened after the Rwandan genocide ended? If one is willing to patiently make the broader connections – which can get lost in a book of this size – the book is rewarding. For instance, the conflict in Rwanda did not end with the end of the genocide; it spilled over into the Congo, and continues to cause problems today. The resources of the Congo, in turn, acted like a vortex, enticing leaders of several neighboring countries – Yoweri Musevini of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda among others made untold riches even as war devastated the region in the late 90s.

While Meredith’s writing is lucid, it is devoid of the spark that the drama of personal discovery can add to such a narrative. But he probably wanted the most objective evaluation of Africa’s plight. His style is clearly that of a reporter's – Meredith was a foreign correspondent in Africa, and wrote for London Times and the Observer. His fundamental point, though, comes through very clearly: that Africa’s failure can be attributed to its leaders and politicians. His conclusion is summarized neatly by a quote of the famous Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe. Achebe was writing about Nigeria, but his point applies broadly:
“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.”

The book’s title – a denouement of sorts – might indicate there is little chance of the continent redeeming itself. If one looks at the conflict that erupted after Kenya’s elections last December, or the never-ending authoritarianism of Mugabe, one might be tempted to agree with such a view. But history works in strange ways; no region or people can be written off. Already a broad pan-African sensibility is emerging, spurred by the common suffering of the last century and a half. The African Union, however ineffective it may seem to external observers, is an expression of that commonness. A larger sentiment was also at work when John Kufor and Kofi Annan of Ghana attempted to mediate the crises between the sparring Kenyan leaders, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga early this year.

More importantly, Africa is better connected now – in terms of trade (though much more can be done on this front) and exchange of ideas – than ever before in history. Isolation, whether geographic or self-imposed, has been the bane of many societies. The Native Americans and the Aborigines of Australia, cut off as they were from the ideas, innovations and material goods of Europe and Asia for millennia, suffered immensely because of it. The same could be said of parts of Africa. But unlike the Native Americans, who declined in large numbers owing to European diseases, colonization and settlement and were thus unable to define their own destinies, Africans have another chance.

There is an additional aspect to this story of globalization: Already China and India are heavily engaged in Africa, and have sparked off a new scramble for its resources. To some this too is exploitation, the 21st century version, in essence similar to Europe’s plunder of Africa. China’s burgeoning presence in particular is raising some questions. But in the end, such exchanges of skills, ideas and material goods, if they happen gradually and if they are managed well – and that latter if is a big if – are mutually beneficial. Even in ancient times, the most powerful and robust societies were those that were well positioned to use the innovations of other regions. Africa will have to use its opportunity, and one feels it is the heavyweights – Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa – that will have to lead the way.


Krishnan said...

Hari, that was a nice sum-up of the book. I know from your posts that you dig Africa a lot. It is indeed a sad state that Africa is mired in all sorts of woes and beset by tragedies - largely man-made. Africa, being cradle of humanity, ought to rise up and shine. Hope sanity prevails and African leaders rise above their petty squabbles and chart the path to prosperity. By the way, can you suggest some good authors and books on Africa ?

Hari said...

Thanks, Krishnan. I am myself only beginning to read some books on Africa. Much of my information comes from reading articles on current affairs from magazines such as the Economist and websites like and other blogs. Meredith's book is good, though at times it is a bit of a drag. I'd also suggest Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, if you haven't checked it already. It's the best fiction account of how a society can change in just a few years when an overpowering external influence comes upon it. Uwem Akpan's new collection of short stories, Say You're One of Them , is supposed to be very good. Akpan, too, is Nigerian - as far literary output goes, it's clear who's ahead. There are also a few development books on Africa (though other regions are covered as well) such as Paul Easterly's The White Man's Burden, and Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion . These are good to skim.

Hari said...

And, if you are interested in one of the forgotten catastrophes of colonialism, try King Leopold's Ghost: it's about the Belgian king's rule over the Congo and the brutalities that went on at the time, the same thing that Conrad was trying to show in Heart of Darkness. Millions died when Leopold had control. Mobutu, who ruled over the same region (renamed as Zaire) in the latter half of the 20th century, almost equaled Leopold in the amount of wealth he accumulated and the misery he inflicted on his citizens.

Krishnan said...

Thanks a lot Hari. I always wanted to check out King Leopold's Ghost and Chinua Achebe's books. More recently I read lots of reviews of Purple Hibiscus by Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie set during Biafran war in the late 1960s. I will try to get them soon.

Hari said...

Yes Krishnan, Adichie's books have been very popular. I've read her Half of a Yellow Sun, which follows characters in the Biafran conflict. I actually met Adichie in Minneapolis; we talked for almost a hour about many things. Another Nigerian writer who got a lot of attention was Uzodinma Iweala - for his book, Beasts of No Nation.