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Customer Review

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Out Of Africa, 8 May 2010
This review is from: Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (Paperback)
This book was a pleasure to read. It's informative, personal - yet detatched - observant, critical and, above all, written by someone who understands and has a passion for Africa, its traditions, strengths and its weaknesses. Fifty years ago it was fashionable to write off the collapse of democracy in Africa as a developmental stage in the politics of nationalism. Dowden does not fall for such a naive account. What he makes clear is that "Africa's nation states were formed by foreigners, lines drawn by Europeans on maps they had often never been to." The result is that all but two of Africa's nations combine several ethnic groups and some such as "Nigeria and Congo are home to hundreds of different socities with their own laws and languages." Conflict was written into twentieth century African nation-states from the outset.

Dowden restricts his coverage to Africa south of the Sahara which in geographical terms is diverse and includes deserts, scrublands and tropical forests. Old cultures lie at the heart of African society. These cultures are not the vestige of religion or the neurosis of insecurity or poverty but a belief that the spirit world can be successfully invoked to deal with the present. This leads to "weak communal solidarity" and facilitates forays into brutality such as the genocide in Rwanda where the Tutsis and Hutus fought a civil war on ethnic lines. The Tutsi's who make up 13% of the population are in power and will do everything they can to remain there.

What is also clear is that many western states and organisations, including the IMF, propped up despotic regimes for their own policy ends with scant regard to the principles of democracy and freedom. Africa may seem chaotic but the chaos is part of a political process that thrives on the chaos created by governments to keep themselves in power. With 2000 languages and cultures chaos is endemic to African politics. Conflict is often reported in the western media in a simplistic manner showing little understanding of Africa or its peoples. As Dowden points out, "not all Africans are fighting or starving. Millions of Africans have never known hunger or war and lead ordinary peaceful lives. But that is not news."

Modern Africa was shaped by European colonialism. In bringing their "superior" values to Africa, Europeans took power by making treaties with local rulers. Portugal and France tried direct rule from Lisbon and Paris, creating African resident Portugese and Frenchmen. Change came rapidly and, in the case of the Belgian Congo, with inadequate preparation for administrative continuity. In some instances the end of colonialism came as a result of American pressure rather than African nationalism. In some cases nationalism was created by the decolonial process. "Only a handful of the new rulers came from the precolonial ruling class." which meant that those who ascended to power were unsuited to govern. "When it came to economists Africa's rulers were mostly either socialist idealists or greedy dictators."

Unfortunately, the only socialist examples available were Communist dictatorships so the merging of the two was perhaps inevitable. The tradition of the Big Man dictator has a long history in Africa and many have exploited it, Idi Amin (Uganda), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Daniel Arap Moi (Kenya) and President Mobutu (Zaire) to name but four who played the role and pocketed the cash. Pseudo-nationalism undermined democracy while neo-colonialism provided the rationale to excuse failure. In a wider context Pan Africanism failed because it too made the mistake of seeing African homogenity where none existed.

What passed for neo-colonialism was an economic system in which "the colonial legacy made African economies primary producers of raw materials". Although this provided Africa with a guaranteed income it left it susceptible to market forces. As prices fell so too did Africa's income. Many Africans are worse off now than they were thirty years ago. The continent failed to develop manufacturing industries and, after 9/11, commitment to democracy was no longer a requirement for the receipt of foreign aid. This was especially true of the United States which was conducting its war on terror, following its need for oil and demonstrating its commitment to a global free market. As Dowden observed, "When the chips are down in Africa and rulers have to choose between following Western policies or risk the loss of power, the local imperative always wins out". An ethical foreign policy is a pipe dream.

Dowden provides chapters about Uganda, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Angola, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Congo and South Africa which provide excellent background to an understanding of African development and conflict. He also deals with broad ranging subjects such as nation-states and the impact of AIDS. AIDS has provided a challenge to the cultural concept of the Real African Man and denial is still widespread. The impact of AIDS suggests that within two decades African states will collapse in anarchy because of a widespread skills shortage brought about by premature mortality. Travelling in makeshift aircraft and in some danger Dowden notes he was assaulted on just one occasion - by American marines in Somalia. Similar tales of winning hearts and minds have come from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The mark of a good book is that it educates and challenges. Dowden's book does both and is well worth the five stars awarded.
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