San Francisco Chronicle -- With precious few exceptions, postcolonial African countries tanked: sometimes politically, sometimes economically, sometimes socially, sometimes - - horribly and spectacularly -- all three at once. Not only did the center fail to hold, but the windows blew out, the walls caved in, and the roof collapsed.
If promise went begging, what promise was there to begin with, asks Martin Meredith in this thoroughgoing yet easy-to-imbibe (if not easy-to- stomach) history of the continent since the end of World War II.
Well, there were natural resources to be thankful for: gold and diamonds and oil, plus an entire alphabet of minerals and agricultural goods that were in world demand. Many countries had decent reserves of foreign capital. The political atmosphere was vibrant with all manner of ideological debate. Art, music and literature were experiencing a strong revival.
And, never to be sniffed at, the weather was friendly for a couple of decades. The rains came when the rains were supposed to come. A few regions went luckless, it is true, but nature is not expected to deal an equal hand.
But wait, writes Meredith; as a garden of possibilities, Africa was not the healthiest. Its ground had not been nourished but mauled by the colonial powers that staked their claim to the continent at the end of the 19th century. Areas of interest were demarcated without regard to the diverse and independent groups of Africans living there. People with no common history, customs, language or religion were forced into colonial units. Antagonisms and latent hostilities between groups were ignored.
Thus the modern states of Africa, a geopolitics of ignorance and presumption, with 10,000 African polities amalgamated into 40 European colonies and protectorates. It was a firestorm just waiting for a match.
The period of decolonization was far from clean. Meredith describes how European powers sought at the very least to keep a foot in the door to maintain vested interests, like Britain, or left only after being pushed out, screaming and kicking, like Portugal. Whichever, the imprint they left behind was of authoritarian regimes that came on the heels of the feudal power exercised by earlier, local chiefs. "Traditions of autocratic governance, paternalism and dirigism were embedded in the institutions the new leaders inherited."
The result was the emergence of one-party states, and even more to the point, of Big Men. The Big Man will be the bugbear Meredith finds squatting upon every rotting African country, and he has plenty of material to back his assertion that "Africa has suffered grievously at the hands of its big men and its ruling elites. Their preoccupation, above all, has been to hold power for the purpose of self-enrichment."
Big Men come in a wide array, from Gamal Nasser and Julius Nyerere, more interested in destiny and power politics than in getting rich quick; to mercurial tin-pot tyrants such as Francisco Nguema of Equatorial Guinea; to brand names like Idi Amin and Joseph Mobutu, a far larger group of repressive, violent, stratospherically greedy despots (so rapacious they sometimes can't pay their army, let alone repair roads or build schools, which is a sure way to cook their own goose).
Certainly, they were aided and abetted by Cold War machinations, yet the Big Men would persist after the Soviet Union fell apart and the United States lost any rationale for supporting someone like Mobutu. The few instances of effective government, such as South Africa's emergence as a democratic state with a modern constitution, or Botswana's enduring multiparty government and sound economic management, make the continuing preponderance of demagogic Big Men particularly galling. The faces can change with alarming celerity (or last grotesquely for decades), but not the behavior.
Meredith doesn't lay every African ill at the Big Man's door. Foreign intervention, from Che Guevara in the Congo to the French in Bokassa's Central African Republic and the Soviets in Ethiopia, to the United States in Somalia, has been unproductive when not catastrophic. Well-intended avenues of economic development -- industrialization, import substitution -- proved ill fitting. The dream of African socialism "was little more than a potpourri of vague and romantic ideas lacking all coherence and subject to varying interpretations." States that accepted IMF/World Bank support staggered under debt service. Nor did the Big Man unleash AIDS (though he turns a blind eye) or have much say about the weather; drought has been one of Africa's grimmest reapers.
Though today an independent scholar, Meredith was one of those now-too- rare journalists who knew his beat intimately, having lived on and off (mostly on) in Africa for 40 years, informing a keen and humane mind with all things African. It shows here in the depth and fluid familiarity of his narrative, light on its feet for so wildly complex a picture. Meredith isn't afraid of venturing an opinion, but what he dines on are basic realities: who did what when, and the consequences. These he spreads before his readers, for them to draw their own, now also informed, conclusions.
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