There is little to cheer about in Martin Meredith’s “The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence”, in his introduction of contemporary Africa. The book is largely chronological, but segments of narratives are grouped thematically, supported further by useful empirical analysis as well as the clever use of anecdotes – mostly of the African leaders and their idiosyncrasies – between the main historical accounts. Brief post-independence optimism, in the first part, is contextualised to anglophone and francophone Africa, where transitions were generally peaceful. In contrast, in the Belgian Congo and in the southern countries of Rhodesia and South Africa with their white rulers, conflicts and resistance were instead the norms.
Yet in the tumultuous years and decades which followed, the optimism – as independence initially came in the midst of an economic boom – quickly gave way to a sense of pessimism: “By the 1980s a mood of despair about Africa had taken hold … In relentless succession, African states had succumbed to military coups and brutal dictatorships, to periods of great violence and to economic decline and decay”. Coups, the role of the military, and Cold War tensions, prompting “African politicians [to become] adept at playing off one side against the other”, were problematic, though the central problem mooted by Meredith appears to be “predatory politics of ruling elites seeking personal gain, often precipitating violence for their own ends”. Self-enrichment and the obsession with holding onto power have been destructive.
This hypothesis of poor leadership by the political elites is complementary to the one advanced in “Why Nations Fail“, in that African leaders have taken advantage of extractive economic and political institutions, through the banning of opposition parties, the rigging of elections, and mobilisation of the military. Following the lost decade of the 1980s – in which “Big Men” dominated, with “not a single African head of state in three decades [who] had allowed himself to be voted out of office” – populations began to revolt against these predators.
Beyond poor leadership and institutions, other factors were considered too. The Scramble for Africa, when “European negotiators frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map, taking little or no account of the myriad of traditional monarchies, chiefdoms, and other African societies that existed on the ground”, which meant that leaders often inherited “not nations but states”. The economic limitations of import-substitution industrialisation and political limitations of African socialism, and despite some progress African countries performed poorly vis-à-vis countries in Latin America and East Asia. And the poor outcomes in agriculture, as a result of penalising farmers and prioritising civil servants, industrial workers, and students. In his substantiation of these factors, Meredith cited figures and ethnographic research to build strong arguments.
412 pages in, the chapter “A Time of Triumph” – detailing the anti-apartheid movement of Nelson Mandela, who later served as the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 – finally provides something more positive. While his policies and reforms did not go as far as some would have liked, and his successors have turned out to be deeply flawed individuals, Mandela encouraged reconciliation and was an icon of democracy in a region of dictatorships and demagoguery. Even so, recent developments following his passing on December 5, 2013, of his African National Congress losing control of the largest city of Johannesburg and of current President Jacob Zuma surviving a third vote of no confidence in parliament, for instance, have not been encouraging.
“The Fate of Africa” is therefore a depressing read, and does not get much better towards the end, as the horrifying failures of the United Nations in Rwanda and Somalia, the destructive proxy war in Congo which killed three million, and the persistent civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone are recounted. “In reality, fifty years after the beginning of the independence era, Africa’s prospects are as bleak as ever. Already the world’s poorest region, it is falling further and further behind all other regions of the world”. In these factual retellings, death and destruction are constants, and are harrowing reminders not only of the challenges that Africans still face, but also of our collective impotence in the face of these abuses and atrocities.