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Africa: A Modern History Paperback – 10 Aug 2006
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It is difficult to imagine a better source for reading up on Africa's history. -- Gordon Brewer * Scotland on Sunday * Vast and brilliant... orderly but still managing to nip down a fascinating byway when necessary... a groundbreaking book. -- Giles Foden * Guardian *
A magisterial and sweeping history of modern Africa.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
Mr. Arnold has skilfully structured his tome in a manner that facilitates the reader's understanding. The overall plan of the book is chronological, with each of the last four decades of the twentieth century being treated separately. Within each of these decennial sections, there are thematic chapters, (dealing with key issues facing the entire continent in that period) followed by geographic chapters, (which concern developments in specific parts of the continent), with an overview of the decade at the end. This format permits easy reference to the different topics covered in this book.
The basic method of analysis applied throughout this volume, is a calm correlation of cause and effect, event and explanation. Through this approach, Mr. Arnold leaves the reader in no doubt as to why various developments transpired as they did, be it the crisis in the Congo, the revolution in Ethiopia, the collapse of Apartheid, or the civil war in Algeria. Furthermore, he provides detailed accounts of many of the political and economic features of Africa - such as the one-party state, the persistence of underdevelopment, and the pervasiveness of violent conflict. By analyzing these matters in depth, he dispels many of the myths surrounding the continent, and replaces them with a clear view of the extent of Africa's problems - as well as of the errors and misfortunes that its governments and societies experienced in tackling them.
Yet, Africa: A Modern History is far from a dry textbook account of continental calamities; it contains a number of powerful and moving passages which enable the reader to obtain a genuine sense of the storm and stress of African history. The chapter on the Nigerian Civil War, the pages on the Soweto Uprising, the subsection on the Rawlings Revolution in Ghana, all carry the reader beyond the academic level of rational analysis to the profound plane of spiritual insight, where one beholds the defining struggles of entire peoples. Also poignant is the recurring tragedy of an African country that appears to be developing successfully in one decade, collapsing into chaos in the next - perhaps a metaphor for the Sisyphean struggle that this continent - indeed, the entire Third World - faces.
The author is highly sceptical of occidental interference in Africa, and he places particular emphasis on the role of the colonial legacy in creating many of the continent's current difficulties. He is even more critical of the West's interference in Africa after decolonization - be it in the form of providing aid, (which is far less innocent than it seems), financial investment, or neo-imperialism. Such suspicion is, for the most part, warranted: the Western world's role in fuelling corruption, debt and discord is frequently ignored in media accounts of Africa's woes. Certain Western politicians and activists who wish to go on moral crusades to 'save Africa', should have the decency to read this book first.
In the final analysis, Mr. Arnold is not optimistic about an African renaissance, but he makes the important point that such a rebirth, if it were to take place, would require African solutions to African problems, and not the unthinking application of formulae imported from overseas. Perhaps a glimpse of hope can be seen in the creation of the African Union, for an Africa that speaks with one voice, is a continent that will be heard.
Its constant theme is that the woes of Africa stem from the imperialism and neo-imperialism of the European colonial powers, the cold war poltics of the USSR and USA, and the current exploitation under the label of globalisation. "The manipulation of Third World states - especially in Africa - has been part of a relentless policy pursued by the United States and the old metropolitan powers Britain and France, ever since decolonisation took place. It has been evolved as a form of indirect rule" (p 961) encapsulates the message. There are astute analyses of how democracy works, or doesn't (pp 799ff) and of how corruption works (pp 921ff).
In a work that offers a dense, blow-by-blow and country-by-country survey of both sub-Saharan and north Africa, there are bound to be errors and omissions, despite the length. For example, the transition in Angola from Neto to dos Santos is unremarked, and the index lists all references to Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola under Marcelino dos Santos of Mozambique.
A tome probably best dipped into for salient facts and details, though cover-to-cover reading will reward those with the interest and the stamina!
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
For anyone interested in modern African history this is a great book. The only shortcoming is that it does not give much background to the nations it is writing about, it also does not deal as much as it couold have with the importance of tribe in African politics and history, even one map showing the numerous tribes would have been helpful. Nevertheless this is a tour de force, a must read, sure to be the standard account of Africa since independence for some time.
Seth J. Frantzman
I have one or two minor criticisms. One is that Arnold relies rather often on the citation of reporters and journalists in his text, for instance: a Daily Telegraph article on South Africa. This would be excellent in citations, but in text it seems to fill up unnecessary space. However, it's usually legitimately useful information and it rarely impedes the flow.
Also, I feel--as somebody who has tried to specialize on such areas as Algeria--that SOME of his remarks are off-the-mark. For instance, Arnold refers to the "secular FLN regime" which portrayed itself as the guardian of the 1954-62 war of independence and exploited that status. It is true that the FLN was socialist, but it had an active Islamic wing and especially under Houari Boumedienne it portrayed itself as in line with Islamic society (often to the chagrin of Islamic scholars who disliked Boumedienne's socialism). By adopting certain aspects of Islamic politics within an essentially statist, socialist state, Boumedienne managed to undercut their support which only reemerged in full force after he passed away (see the excellent works by Martin Stone & George Willis on the subject). It is especially strange to refer to Boumedienne's state as secular state when Siad Barre, the Somali dictator whose rule included a brutal crackdown on Islamic scholars, is referred to as a practicing Muslim man who often referred to God.
It is also somewhat misleading to portray the 1954-62 revolution as one dominated by secular socialists--it included many strands of thought, which included significantly socialism and Islam, but also Muslim nationalism (that is, self-rule of Muslims but not necessarily on Islamic law) and also Arab nationalism, Berber nationalism. Indeed most of the old guard Islamists that emerged in Algeria had fought against French colonialism in the 1950s. And the secular regime of the 1990s that crushed the Islamists was dominated by former French army officers who retained a strongly Francophile policy only partially covered up by their appropriation of Algerian nationalism. It had very little in common with the 1954-62 independence veterans, of whom it contained some members but was largely distinct from. (On a side note, I must also entirely disagree w/ Ron's comment below, which paints Islam of the last 40 years as a threat to Africa, a spectacularly ignorant remark. Arnold rightly distances such conflicts as Sudan from the often woefully misinformed "Muslim v Christian/animist" dichotomy.)
I would differ with a couple of Arnold's assessments of African rulers--Gamal Nasser is let off too easily perhaps because of his overt nationalism,
especially when it is considered that his overall aims, which he often employed brutal oppression towards, ended in dismal failure. Idi Amin and Jean-Bedel Bokassa, while brutal and barbaric, receive equivalent criticism to the pharaonic, arguably far more systemically repressive Macias Nguema. I think that Francois Tombalbaye, the murderous Chadian despot, and Milton Obote's abuses also deserve more critique than they receive in the overall analysis. I would have perhaps liked to see a more in-depth analysis of West Africa & East Africa--both are solidly covered, but not to the same degree as Southern Africa.
However, these are minor quibbles. By and large Arnold does an excellent job, and in particular during his study of Southern Africa--Zimbabwe, Angola, Zambia & South Africa--which comes across as his specialty and which receives generous space. Arnold manages to criticize the flaws of Africa's rulers and systems without losing sight of the bigger picture. The emergent picture is one of flawed, ambitious leaders & flawed, ambitious foreigners trying to grapple with an enormously potent region. Together with criticisms of abuses--such as economic exploitation, one-party dictatorship, army coups, mass murders & apartheid--Arnold provides a background and offers a sympathetic ear for Africa's people and those who wish to help them. Arnold's enormous camaraderie and sympathy for Africa constantly shows. The result is an excellent book that should be the standard text on the topic in recent times