Five stars for this plain, urgent, and very comprehensive account of Africa since the colonial powers packed up and left, or were booted out. And as far as I know, this is the only book which covers all of Africa in the last 50 years. But I think readers should be issued with a very strong warning. You have to ask yourselves if you have a strong stomach. Because make no mistake, this is a horror story, and it has left me, after all the Geldoff-inspired euphoria, after the recent debt-cancellations, after all those good words from Blair and Brown, close to despair. Let me give you some examples chosen at random. From page 173 : "President Omar Bongo of Gabon... ordered a new palace for himself with sliding walls and doors, rotating rooms and a private nightclub, costing well over $200 million". From page 273: "The disruption caused by the `villagisation' programme nearly led to catastrophe (in Tanzania). Food production fell drastically, raising the spectre of widespread famine.... Drought compounded the problem." From page 368: "By the mid-1980s most Africans were as poor or poorer than they had been at the time of independence." From page 460: "Over a ten-year period (in Algeria) more than 100,000 people died. Nor was there any end in sight. The violence seemed to suit both sides - the military and the Islamist rebels."
The story of each African country seems to be the same. There is the early promise of independence, the charismatic new leader (it could be Nkrumah or Kenyatta or even Mugabe, of whom Ian Smith, the leader of white Rhodesia, said : "He behaved like a balanced, civilised westerner, the antithesis of the communist gangster I had expected"). There follows corruption and megalomania - palaces built, roads to nowhere commissioned, Swiss bank accounts opened, the president's tribal associates given all the top jobs. The president bans all political parties except his own, because multi-party democracy is not the African way and just plays into the hands of unscrupulous tribal leaders (but of course it is the President himself - and in Africa there has never yet been a herself - who's the biggest player of tribal politics). Then comes twenty - sometimes thirty - years of tyranny, with all political opponents jailed and tortured, and the country bankrupted. Then comes the military coup with the idealistic young military leader declaring a Council of National Salvation and a raft of anti-corruption laws. A few years later, the same young military leader (could be Samuel K Doe of Liberia, could be Yoweri Museweni of Uganda) has turned into a clone of the tyrant he deposed.
Slavery in Africa was followed by colonialism, and once that was ended, by Cold War proxy wars, and once they were over, by Aids. You would think that - plus the endemic disease and drought of course - was enough. But no, Africa suffers from another disease just as debilitating - the infestation of their own "vampire-like" ruling classes. By the end of Martin Meredith's book the horrors were not diminishing. We had had the Rwandan genocide, the children's armies of Liberia (ten year old kids high on cocaine shooting each other with Armalites) and the Lord's Resistance cult in Uganda. Still it goes on. "When Abdou Diouf of Senegal accepted defeat in an election in March 2000 he was only the fourth president to do so in four decades." And again: "The World bank estimates that 40% of Africa's private wealth is held offshore.".
The author leaves no room for any false optimism. I salute every aid agency and every politician willing to even try to improve the dire situation. But if they read this book they will be wondering where to begin.