[This book review article was published in the Summer 2006 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 213-224.  It is also Chap. 6 of the book America Challenged.]


Book Review Article:


Seeing Africa Clearly

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired


 The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair

 Martin Meredith

 Public Affairs, 2005


            For several years, this reviewer has kept clipping files on a large number of subjects, among them “Africa.”  Without a retention of the news reports, it is almost impossible to recall the many events that have come along piecemeal.  Even with the clippings, the process of putting the events together into a coherent whole is impossible without taking on the prodigious job of compiling the information under a variety of headings.  Most often, the compilation remains unmade, since it only seems worth the effort if it fits into a larger project, such as writing an article or a book.

            These thoughts are pertinent to show the value of Martin Meredith’s work, which, in addition to its title and sub-title, bills itself as “a history of fifty years of [African] independence.”  Its virtue lies precisely in Meredith’s having put the whole history of post-World War II Africa together in one telling.  It is, accordingly, a gold mine of information that a reader can hardly have supplied for himself.  Meredith is well equipped by background to write this history.  The Fate of Africa is his tenth book about Africa.  At one time a reporter for the Times of Zambia and for fifteen years a foreign correspondent based in Africa, Meredith has most recently been a research fellow at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford.

            This review will eventually mention Meredith’s own biases and areas of shallowness, but those will be left for later because they hardly affect his primary task.  His purpose has been to render, as readable history, a chronological account of the modern history of Africa, beginning with the initial euphoria that Africans (and many outside Africa) felt about Africa’s prospects for a short time after the African nations received their independence from the European powers soon after the middle of the twentieth century, and continuing with the bloody story of the long downward spiral that followed that initial hope and that continues to this very day.  It will be helpful to give an overview of the history Meredith recounts (with the caveat, of course, that a brief overview doesn’t fit all the specifics).  To do so differs from Meredith’s own method, which is, on something of a decade-by-decade basis, to mix an overview of Africa as a whole with the specifics about 42 (we’ve counted them) separate countries. 

            Meredith focuses almost entirely on events after 1945, but it is necessary for him to explain first how it was that many of the African countries came into existence and thereby became candidates for eventual independence.  The European powers’ “scramble for Africa” in the last third of the nineteenth century established the colonies.  The colonial boundaries brought together in single entities a heterogeneous multitude of tribes, ethnicities, religions and languages.  (As a result, when the colonies were granted independence as states, they hardly constituted “nations” in the conventional sense, since their populations in no sense constituted a single “people.”)  The European presence did much to bring both Northern and sub-Saharan Africa into the modern age.  Infrastructure of many kinds was created, often where there had hardly been any before.  Relatively soon, however, the European powers came to feel that administering the colonies was more a drag than a benefit, and they began to look to the colonies to pay their own way and often relied on local chieftains for the details of governance.  This explains in part why the European powers, exhausted by World War II and feeling the pressure of a worldwide awakening of the “peoples of color,” were willing with relative haste to divest themselves of the colonies in the 1950s and 1960s.  This is not to say that the Europeans gave up their role altogether; economic spheres of influence continued, and the European powers more than once intervened out of a continuing sense of relatedness.

            The Africans were anxious to receive their independence; and as they received it, there were high expectations for the future.  Western aid flooded into the continent.  It wasn’t long, however, before two things happened.  One was the rise of charismatic strong men, often backed by a dominant tribe or elite, who established personality cults, belied the optimistic (albeit often socialistic) ideologies they at first proclaimed by establishing unthinkably bloody dictatorships and one-party systems, used the state for monumental but foolish projects, and made themselves and their cronies incredibly rich by corruption and bribery.  The other was the advent of the Cold War struggle, which was a three-sided affair in which primarily the United States sought to bolster any non-Communist regime, and the Soviet Union and Communist China competed with each other to establish their individual brands of Communism.  This struggle in some instances produced Marxist-Leninist monstrosities, such as under Mengistu in Ethiopia, but also warped the relation of the United States and the West toward the African nations, since the exigencies of the struggle prompted support for even the worst of dictators where that was necessary to prevent a void that would invite a Communist victory.   African strong men often took opportunistic advantage of this competition by playing one side against the others.

            The result was decades of repression, mass killings, long-standing dictatorships, assassinations, coups, and enveloping economic and social chaos.  Meredith tells us there had been some improvement of conditions in the 1960s (the decade in which most were given their independence) but that the 1970s brought “a series of calamities.”  By the 1980s, whatever industry there had been was largely gone, and “the outcome for agriculture was even worse,” all despite immense amounts of aid from outside.  Most Africans lived from hand to mouth through subsistence agriculture, diseases ran rampant, and most of the population was “illiterate and innumerate.”  Notwithstanding all this, “between 1950 and 1980, Africa’s population tripled.”  This brought calamities of its own as vast numbers of desperate people flooded into the cities, creating miserable slums and high unemployment.  The stage was set for the AIDS/HIV epidemic which began in 1985 and which has ravaged the continent ever since.  By 1989, within a mere four years, 800,000 Ugandans, for example, were infected with HIV.

            The cessation of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s changed the mix, and there was again a resurgence of hope.  Marxism-Leninism instantly lost its attraction and outside support; and there was a radical redirection toward free-market reforms and democratization.  Or at least those were the aspirations of the international donor community, the International Monetary Fund, and the western democracies.  The results were disappointingly cosmetic.  “A new breed of dictators emerged, adept at maintaining a façade of democracy sufficient for them to be able to obtain foreign aid.”  The effect was that “democratic change brought no amelioration to the economic crisis that virtually all African states faced.”  Wars and genocides spread like cancers.  “In 2000 there were more than ten major conflicts underway in Africa.”  And now, as the denouement of it all, Meredith says, “In reality, fifty years after the beginning of the independence era, Africa’s prospects are bleaker than ever before” (emphasis added).  Except that there can really be no denouement as such; the play cannot simply come to an end, with the actors and audience packing up and leaving.  The wretched millions will continue to eke out their lives, while continuing to multiply, and the outside world at least in part recoils, not without reason, with “aid fatigue.”

                 This is it in a nutshell.  The Fate of Africa is, however, more than an overview.  It gives the detail about the progression of this woe within Africa’s many countries, with particular emphasis on Algeria, Angola, Chad, the Congo (under its various names as The Congo, then Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe.  We are able to follow the careers of such men, among others, as

            .  Ahmed Ben Bella and Col. Houari Boumedienne in Algeria;

            .  Mathieu Kerekou in Benin;

            .  Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic;

            .  Francois Tombalbaye and Hissein Habre in Chad;

            .  Patrice Lumumba, Moise Tshombe and Joseph Mobutu in the Congo;

            .  Col. Gamal Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt;

            .  Maj. Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia;

            .  Kwame Nkrumah and Jerry Rawlings in Ghana;

            .  Ahmed Sekou Toure in Guinea;

            .  Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi in Kenya;

            .  Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor in Liberia;

            .  Muammar Gaddafi in Libya;

            .  Hasting Banda in Malawi;

            .  Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Gen. Sani Abacha in Nigeria;

            .  Leopold Senghor and Abdou Diouf in Senegal;

            .  Gen. Mohammed Siyad Barre and Gen. Muhammed Farah Aideed in Somalia;

            .  Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, P.W. Botha, F.W. de Klerk, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki in South Africa;

            .  Gaafar Numeiri and Gen. Omar al-Bashir in Sudan;

            .  Julius Nyerere in Tanzania;

            .  Milton Obote, Idi Amin and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda; and

            .  Ian Smith, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

            Many of these are world-famous names, and it isn’t too much to say that educated individuals everywhere feel a need to know what these men stood for and did.  That, of course, is an insurmountable task without a book such as Meredith’s.

            So far, we have recounted the content of The Fate of Africa.  The history brings to mind several points that merit discussion:

            1.  In historical perspective, it is remarkable how brief the period of European colonialism was.  The slave trade had long produced contact on at least the  periphery of black Africa by some European powers, and a much more penetrating contact in the north and east by the Arabs.  But it will be surprising to someone not familiar with the history that the “scramble for Africa” didn’t occur until the final third of the nineteenth century.  Then the colonial period was over by shortly after the middle of the next century, thus spanning a period of significantly less than a hundred years.  If it weren’t for the fact that the colonization had a profound effect in matters of infrastructure and administration, this would hardly seem more than a blip in the long history of the continent.  And in many fundamental ways, that is all it was.  Sub-Saharan Africa in particular was extremely primitive before the colonization, steeped in tribalism, animistic religions believing in malevolent spirits, cannibalism, war, internal slavery, and ignorance.  We should note that the history that Meredith has to tell seems to reveal, in effect, a continuation of that primitivism.  This is made most evident when we read of post-independence cannibalism—not in some remote backwater, but by people at the top—in places like the Central African Republic, Uganda and Liberia.

            2.  Interestingly, despite the contemporary world’s near-universal condemnation of “colonialism” as having been a terrible imposition, there was no movement among Africans themselves, upon receiving independence, to return to the decentralized tribalism that had preceded the colonial period.  Rather, the “nations” whose boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by European powers on colonial maps were embraced as now being “nations” as such, even though they contained a polyglot mixture of peoples.  This remarkable fact is surely worthy of comment; it means that there was a tacit recognition by Africans themselves that the pre-colonial condition of Africa was not something to which they wished to return.  Though much condemned, the colonialism had at least offered a bridge to the modern world. 

            It is true, however, that even though the Africans themselves accepted the colonial divisions as the basis for their newly-independent states, they took over a nearly-impossible situation.  How to govern such impossible mixtures?  The “strong men” who seized power often justified their one-party rule as being the only way the mix could be made governable.  Quite possibly they were right—on this score, at least.

            3.   The loss of esprit de corps, or what the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset called “elan vital,” by Europeans during the sixty years since World War II is itself a major fact worth noting.  Europeans were no longer commanders of all they surveyed.  They came to lack a “tribal” sense of their own, and withdrew into themselves.  This left out to dry the many thousands of whites who had gone to live in Africa and who had supposed they were an enlightened element that would simultaneously serve themselves and bring much good to an otherwise dark continent.  There were some vestiges of “white solidarity” at first, but it wasn’t long before the West in general succumbed to the moral pressure of the world’s “people of color.”  This cut the ground out from under European bastions everywhere, and most especially in Rhodesia and South Africa, both of which were forced eventually to turn themselves over to black majority rule. 

            4.  It is hard to read Meredith’s history without asking whether this submergence of the European bastions not only produced tragedy for the white populations, but also ill-served the black majorities.  It is fair to ask whether black Zimbabweans (erstwhile Rhodesians) are now—and will be in the future—better off for having jettisoned the white-centered civilization they inherited.  The same question applies to South Africa.  Meredith’s deep pessimism about the depths to which contemporary Africa has sunk doesn’t seem to suggest that South Africa in twenty, thirty or fifty years will necessarily retain much resemblance to the advanced civilization that was delivered first to Nelson Mandela and successively to Thabo Mbeki.   Will the black majority itself be better off? 

            It is understandable, as perhaps a universal human yearning, for people to want to be independent and self-determining—and the proud peoples of Africa certainly went in for that in a big way in dethroning first the European powers and then the white remnants.  But a wiser course, in terms of their own self-interest, would almost certainly have been to have allowed themselves some concern about “what it takes to maintain—much less to advance in—civilization.”  It has been said that “ideas have consequences”; and Meredith’s history seems to show that “black pride,” without more, has long-since proved its insufficiency.

            5.  The West in particular is full of benevolent regard for the African peoples, and will no doubt give them much aid in the future, as it has in the past, despite the “aid fatigue” induced by the evident futility of past efforts.  Memories are short, and as this is written it is already being urged that the United Nations and the United States intervene in the slaughter in Darfur in western Sudan even though the situation there is hardly more than the chaos in Somalia writ large.  We recall that it was that insufferable tangle that led the U.S. and U.N. to withdraw so ingloriously from Somalia just a few short years ago. 

            Notwithstanding the outside’s aid and attempted interventions, it is apparent that the time has finally arrived when Africans of both the north and south will be put to the test.  What can they do with themselves?  It could be said that they are “at a cross-roads.”  But it is more accurate to think that their mettle will be tested “by the long grind ahead.”   Will they be part of the modern world?  At bottom, and in the due course of time, only Africans can answer.

            6.  Global implications are revealed by seeing Meredith’s The Fate of Africa in the context of Amy Chua’s discussion of worldwide ethnic animosities in her book World on Fire (which this reviewer examined in these pages in the Fall 2005 issue).   Chua examines 34 different countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and even North America (Mexico), giving the specifics about how in many cases minority ethnic groups have long dominated the economies and often the politics of nations that are otherwise inhabited by much larger impoverished masses.  This poses a dilemma for outsiders—“Wilsonians,” in American parlance—who would presume to make the affairs of those many peoples their business.  It is a dilemma that is rarely, if ever, discussed, but that should be at the heart of any debate over the wisdom of outside intervention.  One horn of the dilemma is that a populist approach, crusading for “democracy,” will (if “democracy” means anything at all) champion the impoverished majorities, even if in doing so it will in many cases overturn the productive strata that keeps a given society’s head above water.  The other horn is that if the outsider champions the small, dominant (and often most productive) elite, the intervener runs the risk of swimming in the face of a revolutionary tidal wave. Samuel Huntington told us in his The Clash of Civilizations that an outsider’s attempt to refashion those societies is both culturally presumptuous and physically dangerous.  Now we see that there is even more to it—that there is a fundamental policy dilemma that the outsiders (and those who disagree with them) should consider quite seriously.  To do so would go far toward eliminating much of the naivete that underlies so much of what passes for “idealism” in global meliorism.

            7.  We are shifting into a much lower gear when we mention the following subjects, but facts revealed by Meredith’s history have a distinct bearing on both:

            The Congress of the United States in 1977 enacted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which outlawed the bribing of foreign governmental officials or political candidates.  One wonders what world the sponsors of that legislation were thinking of, since they hardly seem to have had their feet planted in this one.  We see about Africa, first, that since the nations received their independence a great many of their economic undertakings have been conducted by (highly inefficient, corrupt) state-owned enterprises.  This means that most people active in the economies of those countries have been “government officials.”  Second, we are told that it has hardly been possible to participate in those economies without paying bribes, since bribery has been so integral a part of their web of cronyism and corruption.  Meredith says, for example, that in Zaire “nothing could be accomplished without a bribe.”  He tells us that “in many parts of West Africa there had been a long tradition of ‘dash’—of gift-giving for services rendered… Foreign firms and local businessmen alike budgeted for the extra 10 per cent that had to be paid either to politicians or to the ruling party….”  Given these conditions, thanks to the Act, an American firm has had a choice either of treating such a country as off-limits (impairing the United States’ position in world commerce) or of violating the law against bribery.

            Some time ago, this reviewer wrote a monograph entitled Lynching—A History and Analysis.  Among other things, the monograph offered evidence against the oft-repeated truism, asserted within most of the literature on lynching, that “the United States is the only country whose people have engaged in lynching.”  The rebuttal of the truism wasn’t hard to come by.  It is evident to anyone who has read much history that extra-legal executions have been carried out with public condonation at some time or other in many countries.  Consistently with this, it is relevant to note that Meredith tells about a mass-lynching in Liberia in 1980: “Amid much jubilation, watched by a crowd of thousands laughing and jeering and filmed by camera crews, thirteen high-ranking officials were tied to telephone poles on a beach in Monrovia and executed by a squad of drunken soldiers, firing volley after volley at them… The soldiers rushed forward to kick and pummel the corpses.”  He also tells about the killing of the criminal element in Nigeria in 1999, where “an Igbo vigilante force known as the Bakassi Boys became infamous for its use of ‘jungle justice’ but was widely popular… According to a report by the Civil Liberties Organisation in 2002, the Bakassi Boys were estimated to have executed as many as 3,000 people in Anambra State over an eighteen-month period.” 

            8.  Earlier, we said we would hold until later our mention of Meredith’s own biases and the shallowness of some of his analysis.  These shouldn’t be omitted from our review, even though they don’t seriously impair his telling of the history. 

            His principal bias reflects his premise of moral equivalency between the Soviet and Chinese efforts to impose Marxism-Leninism in Africa and the United States’ activities that opposed those efforts.  Meredith rarely, if ever, says anything good about the Communist interventions and tyrannies; but this does not keep him from casting repeated aspirations on anti-Communist endeavors.  When Mobutu in the Congo joined with the United States in resisting Lumumba’s bringing in of the Soviet Union, what it amounted to, in Meredith’s words, was that Mobutu was “a willing accomplice in the intrigues of Western governments.”  This moral equivalency that looks askance at both sides finds its roots, perhaps, in his view that in a place like Angola each superpower was pursuing its “own prestige and… preoccupation with the global balance of power.”  This is in line with what has been commonplace among foreign affairs “realists,” who have preferred to look at the world as it was at the time of World War I, as a struggle among nation-states, and to ignore ideology as a facade.  This reduces the Cold War to a competition between superpowers, not between “the free world” and an expansionist totalitarianism.

            Meredith is similarly disposed in judging the remnants of European civilization in Africa in contrast to the depravity he so vividly describes elsewhere.  He doesn’t hold anything back in recounting Mugabe’s brutality in Zimbabwe, for example, but neither does he think well of Ian Smith, who sought to maintain the white-dominated social order that preceded Mugabe.  He details Mugabe’s atrocities, but sees no inconsistency in calling Smith a “die-hard.”   About South Africa, Meredith reports that it now has “one of the highest crime rates in the world” and that by 2001 one million people had died of AIDS and 5.3 million were infected with HIV, but this doesn’t suggest to him that perhaps he shouldn’t take so jaundiced a view as he does of the white South Africa that existed under P. W. Botha.  We realize, of course, that Meredith’s attitude about white South Africa is fully in line with well-nigh universal conventional wisdom.  That in itself isn’t surprising, but what is remarkable is that someone who is so well versed in the facts about Africa isn’t moved to suggest a reevaluation of that wisdom.

            Turning now to the shallownesses we perceive in Meredith’s history, we see that they are not so much reasons to criticize him as they are a recognition that even a history as comprehensive as his is significantly incomplete.  As a good reporter, he has told the main events that have occurred.  A complaint about historiography as it was written before the age of empirical science is that there is a vast substrate of humanity, culture, mores, religious beliefs, economic and demographic factors, etc., that lies under the surface of the more attention-getting actions of political leaders.  To Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, Napoleon and Katusov, the two opposing generals in Russia, were merely bubbles riding on historical waves far larger than themselves.  Meredith inevitably gets into that substrate to a certain extent, such as when he tells of the AIDS epidemic; but mostly he is concerned with the political history—actions “at the top,” so to speak.  He gives abundant detail about AIDS, without, however, giving any attention to African sexuality.  Readers who want to get a feel for the gritty realities of African life below that surface will do well to read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari (2003), which was reviewed in this journal in the Winter 2004 issue.  A powerful portrayal of the unfathomable complexities of ethnic strife and of a primitive mentality can be found in Rian Milan’s excellent My Traitor’s Heart (1990).

            Beyond the contemporary human substrate, there is a need to place Africa’s recent history into historical perspective.  What was African life like before the European “scramble for Africa”?   The many reports that came to the West from missionaries and explorers in sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-nineteenth century told credible stories of immense brutality, ignorance and superstition.  With that as prologue, it is easier to understand why post-independence Africa has been such a mess.  The “strong men” themselves reflected that earlier condition.  (One example of their ignorance—or perhaps it was just a perverse lust for power—is that so many embraced Marxist-Leninism long after most people in the West and even among Communists themselves had “heard the screams” and turned from it.)  And even if they personally had not, they were trying to build in a swamp, with crocodiles all about. 

            Meredith’s discussion is ambitious in covering so well sixty years of recent African history, and it is asking too much to expect him to have covered, also, the human substrate and the historical prologue.  He is to be applauded for the job he has done.


                                                                       Dwight D. Murphey