The Skull Beneath the Skin: Africa After the Cold War Hardcover – 13 Nov 2001
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About the Author
Mark Huband is an award-winning journalist and former correspondent for The Guardian, The Observer, and The Times. He is currently Security Correspondent for the Financial Times. He lives in London. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The chapters are arranged in a way which cannot fail but to reveal to the reader how Africa, as an idea, is really more a series of loosely connected "sub-regions" - North Africa, the Great Lakes, Southern Africa.
I found that reading Mahmood Mamdani's enlightening, though slightly repetitive When Victims Become Killers (Princeton UP) before tackling Huband's book was quite helpful, as it, too, addresses the concepts of "race," "ethnicity," and lack of democracy (with the attendant corruption within state institutions). Reading both around the same time is sure to provide the reader a nuanced and in my opinion honest perspective on Africa.
What I find utterly annoying in Huband's book, however, are the numerous quotes in French, most of which are plagued with misspelled words, over capitalization, and bad syntax. These quotes are superficial (the translations, which always follow within parentheses, would have sufficed) and give the reader the impression that the author is attempting to impress us with his (amputated) command of the French language. A consequence of this is that the errors they contain are downright distracting to those who, like myself, know French.
There are better, more complete, books in which to learn the histories of the various conflicts that have plagued the African continent since the Cold War. But as an analysis of the political ramifications of the great power chess game upon the African people, Huband's book is worthy of our undivided attention. Moreover, his emphasis on corrupt, undemocratic governments in Africa is a powerful corrective (though he doesn't address this issue directly) to those in favor of debt forgiveness for highly indebted poor countries (HIPC).
Huband shows that, during the Cold War, the superpowers knew little or nothing about the conflicts in Africa and supported whoever would adopt an anti-US or anti-USSR attitude. The leaders of various African movements, on the other hand, had opportunistically adopted language and policies that assured the continuation of superpower patronage for their local ambitions. Yet, as soon as the USSR ceased to exist, for instance, the MPLA never missed a beat and began to adopt "liberalizing" economic policies that would attract funding from the IMF. The Angolan conflict had never been about allegiances to the US and USSR for the MPLA and UNITA: it had been about who would rule in Angola, and it took the death of Jonas Savimbi in 2001 to end the conflict in Angola, not the end of the Cold War. The internationalization of the conflicts had just made them bloodier and longer-lasting without resolving their root causes.
Huband's book is very useful because it makes clear both the Cold War opportunism of African leaders and the ignorance of their superpower patrons concerning Africa and its needs and problems. When Huband says that Africans need to solve their own problems based on their own needs and interests, not the interests of international patrons, this is the context for that statement.
The book was published just prior to 9/11, when it was fashionable to criticize the U.S. for being overly obsessed with international terrorists (which Huband actually does). Other mistakes abound, such as claiming that the killing of Pakistani troops proved a non-Islamic motive for Somali opposition to the UN, which would have come as a surprise to the thousands of Muslim soldiers and policemen who lose their lives to such fundamentalists every year in a broad range of countries, including Pakistan.
The U.S., which has never colonized a square inch of Africa, is nevertheless criticized for every ill affecting the continent. As Huband tells it, there is not a single American endeavor that was neither negligent nor malicious. Even obviously well intentioned efforts, such as the Somali relief operation are deemed misguided, though not because of the corruption and religious bigotry that obviously fueled the resistance, but rather due to the fact that Americans are too arrogant to listen to people like Mark Huband, who would evidently provide splendid leadership if they so deigned.
Other than an interesting chapter on French intervention, tacked on as kind of an afterthought, there is nothing that would inspire me to recommend this book. It comes off as neither current events nor history, but rather just another young and egotistical journalist taking easy potshots at those who had the courage to act without his benefit of hindsight.
1. I love modern Sub-Saharan African history.
2. I hate it when journalists write history books.
The problem is that the only people really willing to write about modern African history are European journalists, who I have discovered have a not-too-veiled goal of bashing the Post-Cold War American government. The Skull Beneath the Skin was a disappointment for me primarily because Huband (a Brit) tirelessly over-criticized American policy in Africa during and after the Cold War, without taking into account that Great Britain colonized and raped more of Africa in the 1800's (Sudan, South Africa) than the US. Another distractor for me was that the chapters in the book weren't very coherent. For example, Huband started with Mobutu's kleptocracy in Zaire, and then moved to other areas like Liberia and Angola; then he returned to Mobutu's Zaire a few chapters later. Also, Huband's English teacher would be quite miffed: On more than one occasion, Huband constructed an entire paragraph out of one sentence. Look, even if it was gramatically correct, it still doesn't mean you should do it - have some consideration for your reader...I also noted that some of his sources that he qoutes have no names (hum...).
One good quality was the account of Rwanda. Not only is it a harrowing account of the blood-drenched countryside, but he also deals the UN a stinging blow right across the face for its inaction during the 1994 genocide.
Overall, the book is a nice, dry bore. Berkely's "The Graves Are Not Yet Full" or Gourevitch's "We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" are MUCH better. The Skull Beneath the Skin is a book that you begin to read at night in bed and you can't finish the chapter...Zzzzzz
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