The Fate of Africa
Reviewed By Danny Yee.
The Fate of Africa is a lively and accessible history of Africa over the last fifty years. Narrative histories of individual countries with a focus on people and key events make for easy reading, though the content itself is mostly rather depressing. Meredith’s approach is broadly chronological and geographical, but not strictly so. Somalia, for example, is covered in a single chapter which focuses on the 1990s and is placed near the end of the book. Typical chapters are largely independent and cover one country or a group of related countries over a period of a few decades. Interspersed among these are occasional chapters surveying economic development across the continent.
Part one covers some of the early leaders: Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and the events leading up to independence in 1957; Gamal Abdel Nasser and the 1952 overthrow of Farouk and the 1956 Suez Crisis; Algeria down to the accession of de Gaulle and decolonisation; Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and the Mau Mau rebellion; and the Congo, through UN, Belgian, US, and communist bloc involvement to the assassination of Lumumba in 1961 and Mobutu’s seizure of power in 1965. Other countries and leaders are touched on in less detail: Houphoët-Boigny in Côte d’Ivoire and Senghor in Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Rhodesia, Angola and Mozambique, other countries in East Africa, Rhodesia, Malawi, and so forth.
Part two begins with an overview of Africa at independence, touching on a broad range of themes: economic development (where there was an emphasis on import-substitution and industrialisation), the signficance of nationalist and revolutionary ideas, education and a shortage of skilled labour, ethnicity (with a look at Rwanda foreshadowing later events), and the corruption and extravagance of new elites. It then continues some stories and commences some new ones: the further career of Nkrumah in Ghana down to his 1966 overthrow; regional conflicts in Nigeria leading up to the 1966 military coup and the Biafran war; short accounts of Idi Amin in Uganda, Bokassa in the Central African Republic, Mengistu in Ethiopia, and other tyrants; Julius Nyerere’s socialist experiment in Tanzania, which attracted foreign support but produced a crippled command economy; and the ends of Nkrumah, Nasser, Kenyatta, Senghor, and Touré; Mobutu in the Congo; the Portuguese decolonisation of Angola and Mozambique; and Mugabe’s coming to power in Rhodesia. There’s also a chapter surveying the economic development of the continent.
Part three covers Mengistu in Ethiopia and the 1984 famine; the Muslim/non-Muslim divide in Chad and Sudan; the onset and spread of AIDS; the economic decline of the “lost decade” of the 1980s; the coming of democracy, or some pretence thereof, to Kenya, Nigeria and many other states; and Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa.
The final section concentrates on the most depressing (newsworthy) countries and events of the last fifteen years: the spread of Islamism in Egypt and the brutal spiral of violence between Islamist insurgency and state in Algeria; the sorry story of UN and then US interventions in Somalia; the Rwandan genocide; its spillover into the Congo; the factions and mutilations and child soldiers and outside interference in Liberia and Sierra Leone; ethnic and regional conflicts in Nigeria; the civil war in southern Sudan and the violence in Darfur; Angola’s civil war; Mugabe’s turn to violence in Zimbabwe; and problems with the truth and reconciliation commission, AIDS, and economic growth in South Africa.
A final chapter considers the new emphasis on democracy, Mbeki’s calls for an African renaissance, and attempts to overhaul the Organisation of African Unity. Meredith is pessimistic about the future; he considers problems with trade subsidies, dependence on foreign aid, and debt, but ends with a focus on the “Big Men and ruling elites”. “African governments and the vampire-like politicians who run them are regarded by the populations they rule as yet another burden they have to bear in the struggle for survival.” If this summary seems densely packed with the names of leaders, that reflects Meredith’s biographical emphasis; the black and white photos included are almost all portraits as well. Sometimes this goes too far, with anecdotes that are entertaining but not particularly informative. Do we really need to know about the failure of a toilet cistern in the prime minister’s residence during Ghana’s independence celebrations? And two pages on Nkrumah’s final years in exile help to round off his personal story, but does not contribute much to the broader picture.
The Fate of Africa has decent coverage of macroeconomics, but almost no social or cultural history. There are other omissions: AIDS is well covered, with a dedicated six page chapter and more in the last chapter on South Africa, but malaria gets just two passing mentions and sleeping sickness one, and there’s no consideration of broader health issues. And there’s no systematic treatment of international relations and foreign affairs, making the role of outside powers sometimes seem mysterious.
Meredith’s approach may lack the breadth someone like Hobsbawm might have managed, but what he does is done excellently: many of his chapters could stand alone as mini-biographies or set piece essays. In addition to the bibliography there are brief chapter notes with reading suggestions. The Fate of Africa leaves some aspects of Africa’s modern history untouched, but it provides an accessible introduction to the subject and a solid framework from which further explorations can be carried out.