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Fifty Years of Sovereign Mis-Rule

BY SAM SACKS
08.11.2005 | BOOKS

Africa, with its confusing jigsaw gestalt of nations, remains as much a mystery to Westerners today as it was in Joseph Conrad's time, although it may be said that the heart of this darkness is no longer in the mists of an impenetrable jungle, but in the fog of a contemporary indifference to the continent's history. Few people can name or locate most of its countries; I'm chagrined to say I didn't even know of the existence of one, Congo-Brazzaville (the francophone neighbor of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was formerly Zaire). Even fewer have any idea what goes on inside these places, except that they habitually form a kind of collective ground zero of humanitarian crises. It is even surprising to read, although the fact was nowhere hidden, that as a continent of sovereign nations, Africa is less than fifty years old.

All of which makes Martin Meredith's immense and hugely studious history, The Fate of Africa, so invaluable. This is Meredith's tenth book (the last of note was Our Votes, Our Guns, about Robert Mugabe's dictatorship in Zimbabwe) and it is probably his magnum opus, as it is not only a summation of his previous subjects, but a synthesis of the full political histories of Africa since the end of colonization. Meredith writes with poker-faced plainness, but ultimately his plain prose becomes a strength, as there is nothing in it to indicate bias. The book is a compilation of irrefutable fact after fact, establishing a solid and intimidating wall of history.

And what history we get is basically an unremitting series of travesties. Although each country has a distinct story, Meredith splices these narratives together in such a way that recognizable trends and patterns (however negative) emerge. The book does defy oversimplification, but some generalizing will be helpful here.

Africa's modern history begins with revolution. The first chapter of The Fate of Africa chronicles Ghana's independence from the British Empire in 1954, led by Kwame Nkrumah, which began a domino-like toppling of colonial rule in dozens of countries, sometimes through relatively peaceful means, as in Sierra Leone, and sometimes through long and bloodily suppressed insurgency, as in Algeria. Meredith uses Ghana as a bellwether, a country full of potential, abounding in natural resources and led by a young, progressive, smart and West-friendly nationalist.

But Nkrumah, heady from his revolutionary success, deemed himself the only man capable of leading Ghana's government. Every other nation followed suit, installing one-party systems, and what resulted, over time, were across-the-boards de facto dictatorships. Some of these dictators, assuming power through civil war or military coups, were legitimate psychopaths, like Uganda's Idi Amin and Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa, both of whom included human flesh in their banquets. Many were benign, even enlightened -- yet single-handed rule invariably brought about decay. One of the most affecting chapters concerns the gentle and learned Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere, who hoped to create a self-sufficient agrarian socialist state. But even the ideals of this benevolent ruler ended in violence and governmental abuse. It is incredible but true that no African head of state voluntarily stepped down until 1980, when Leopold Senghor of Senegal resigned after twenty years of one-man rule.

Nkrumah was deposed by his Army generals in 1966. At this point, the promise of Africa was beginning to dissolve. The very role of government was tragically altering. Years of graft, corruption, patron politics, and foolish border wars -- all of which was in part enabled by the self-interested meddling of the rest of the world -- had made leaders extremely rich and distrustful of the people they were meant to represent. Government came to stand as a means of wealth, power, and revanche; and politics, always useful for pitting human beings against one another, manifested itself through officialized racism and unconcealed violence. Civil wars and concomitant repression spawned in places that had never before known such things. The apotheoses of this wretched state were in Liberia, where Charles Taylor led a coup guided by no ideas whatsoever except the seizure of money, and in Rwanda, where a cabal of lunatic Hutus whose single stated ambition was the extirpation of minority Tutsis, not only could run the country into genocide, but could be supported by the international community (particularly France). The impoverished continent we see -- or do not see -- on the news today is the product of this governmental entropy.

With Ghana going down a steep place into chaos, Meredith shifts attention to South Africa, the present bellwether nation. Because its independence was so long withheld, and because of the remarkable mettle of Nelson Mandela, South Africa is still in the stage of its promising youth. Yet it too seems poised to follow the same decline as its neighbors. The question is whether Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's successor, will brook viable political opposition and if he will willingly part with the power of office once the vox populi of his country tell him to. Mbeki's legacy, however, has so far come from deciding on the behalf of all South Africans that AIDS does not really exist and so the people dying from it don't warrant treatment. With such an arrogation of power, even an ending meant to show hope through the defeat of Apartheid leaves the reader with real pessimism and apprehension.

The Fate of Africa is, for a primer history, a grueling, almost self-flagellatory read, like scaling a mountain, and if you're not already very familiar with the events covered, as I was not, you'll lose your wind and need to stop at times. Yet it does the essential service of exploding naive meliorism, the complacent sense that everything will come out right in the end. The truth is that without a massive tectonic shift in the way that African states are run, the same squalid cycle of internecine war and petty despotism will continue indefinitely. Somehow -- and I will now be looking for books on this subject -- government must change to be of the people, not above and against them.

About the Author
Sam Sacks is a freelance writer living in New York City.
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