Top positive review
A fine book but a sorry tale.
30 October 2016
I read this book shortly after finishing "The Scramble for Africa" by Thomas Pakenham. Together, they make for a grim telling of the history of Africa in the last 150 years.
"The State of Africa" is arranged more or less chronologically, starting with the story of how the Gold Coast broke away from British colonial control and finishing in the penultimate chapter with the transition of power from Mbeki to Zuma in South Africa before a final, brief chapter in which the serial wrongs and excesses of Africa's "Big Men", imposed on their fellow citizens, are reviewed. It is sobering, repetition of early hope followed by cruelty, greed and ultimate despair with only the slightest sign of hope in post-apartheid South Africa.
I have first-hand knowledge of South Africa and am impressed by the even-handed and acute discussion of that country's governance under the neo-conservative Nationalist governments of the 50s - 80s and the transition to power under the ANC led by Mandela. On that basis, I assume Mr. Meredith's writing on other countries and aspects of the continent's recent history are equally balanced and insightful. His description of the Rwandan genocide is particularly noteworthy for the gutless way in which the United Nations acted .... or rather didn't act ... and the equally craven behaviours of the USA, UK and Belgians.
Indeed, this is a recurring theme of the book - the indifference of Western powers, with occasional intrusions when it suited their perceived strategic needs, without any seeming regard for the rights and needs of the local populace. After all their excesses and wrongs of the Scramble for Africa, it's hard to understand that the European powers in particular still felt they had any role to play other than help rebuild and compensate for past wrongs, But this is clearly not the case.
That being said, the worst excesses were those committed by Africa's own warlords and "politicians" on their own peoples. It beggars belief reading the way in which almost every country in Africa endured the same pattern of a rise to power by some factional leader, the ruthlessness with which power was consolidated through placement of family and tribal supporters in key roles and then the economy used as a plaything for the leader and his acolytes. Along the way, torture, murders and often civil war became tools to cement power.
Grim, sobering reading and Mr Meredith is to be complimented on his ability to remain objective.
My only criticism concerns the all too brief final chapter. There appears to be one minor but telling typo: Nigeria's leaders are accused of stealing $220M over a forty-year period". Given the wealth accumulated by Nigeria's oil and minerals industries, I suspect this figure should be $220B. $5.5M per annum is almost insignificant compared to the excesses of Africa's other "Big Men".
But more important than this minor mistake (if it is that) is the lack of analysis as to how all this has happened. It is a question I have asked myself many times and I am no closer to an answer now. Perhaps this is just the way in which new nations emerge from totalitarian control but for every example of a nation which shifted from one to a different form of totalitarian control, I can think of another where the transition was much more progressive. But I cannot think of any example where every country in a continent followed the same, regressive and ultimately doomed path. If there were a second edition of this book, I believe it would be strengthened by the author's thoughts on this issue.