Africa Fate

"African governments and the vampirelike politicians who run them
are regarded by the populations they rule
as yet another burden they have to bear
in the struggle for survival."


"government of the governors,
by the governors,
for the governors:
government as plunder"

Africa: Who will govern the governors?
"The Fate of Africa" by Martin Meredith
book review by Tony Keller, Globe & Mail, August 27, 2005

In 1980, Leopold Senghor, president of Senegal, did something unprecedented: He stepped down, willingly. It was the first voluntary transfer of power in Africa since independence. All of the others from that first generation of leaders left in a body bag, at the point of a gun or not at all.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Fifty years ago, Africa was seen as a continent of promise. After decades (in some cases centuries) of colonialism, it was finally set on a path to join the modern world. Released from shackles, it would surely deliver unto its people economic growth, education, democracy, the whole kit. Yet from the very first, it all went wrong. Carefully crafted constitutions, often featuring Canadian-style federalism, gave way to dictatorships; responsible government to the cult of personality; the rule of law to arbitrary arrest and torture and worse. It was government of the governors, by the governors, for the governors: government as plunder.

A French agronomist wrote that the cost of the "presidency, parliament and ministers . . . probably represents, in relation to the national income of the country, more than the cost to France of the court of Louis XVI in 1788." He was talking about Gabon in the early 1960s, but he could have been describing almost anywhere on the continent. If you want to skip the blow-by-blow history and go straight to the Coles Notes summary of how Africa's hopes were betrayed, this -- with apologies to Churchill -- may be it: Never in the course of human endeavour have so many been so badly governed by so few, and for so long.

If you'd like a more detailed elaboration of the story, however, read Martin Meredith's The Fate of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence. Meredith, a British journalist and author of eight other books on Africa, has been covering the continent since the 1960s. He writes history like a BBC anchor reads the news: just the facts, no superfluous emoting. In his restrained voice, Africa's tragedy is all the more moving for his lack of constantly reminding you to be moved.

This is traditional history, where politics -- who came to power, and how, and what they did when they got there -- is primary, and society and economy are environment and results. The book is also delightfully free of the academic duckspeak that too often infects books written by . . . well, by academics. You may disagree with some of what Meredith has to say; you will never find yourself trying to decipher what he means.

Thanks to this clear delivery, as well as Meredith's talent for focusing in on only the most important events and characters while rarely giving the impression that he has left anything out, this 800-page doorstopper is a remarkably easy, accessible read. Assuming that it's possible to digest pleasantly a book with a subtitle that says, in part, From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair.

Africans may be the unluckiest people on Earth. When they were set on their course to independence, they had the distinct misfortune of having at the helm of the various ships of state leaders who were, almost to a man, megalomaniacs, sociopaths or socialists. Usually all of the above. And whether these men came to power via elections or the barrel of a gun, once ensconced, they generally came to see themselves as indispensable, and used all means necessary to stay in power. Sometimes, they used quite a bit more.

It started in 1957 with Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of the first post-colonial state: Ghana. A former dissident, he held degrees in economics, sociology and philosophy, and had won several elections. The country he led was one of the richest in Africa, richer than many in Asia, with an established parliament, a prosperous middle class, an efficient civil service and an impartial judiciary. Blessed with extensive natural resources, it was also the world's largest exporter of cocoa.

That economic potential was strangled in the crib. Nkrumah wanted a great leap forward. He ended up delivering a miserable slide backward, by undermining the productive parts of the economy, such as small-farm cocoa production, in an effort to subsidize state-owned industrialization. Massive corruption and the centralization of decision-making in the hands of one unaccountable man, who often signed multimillion-dollar contracts personally, without informing anyone or keeping records, did the rest.

The result, Meredith notes, was that "from being one of the most prosperous countries in the tropical world at the time of independence in 1957, Ghana by 1965 had become virtually bankrupt." Zambia and Nigeria, also once large agricultural exporters, suffered similar declines. And Ghana, like much of the rest of the continent, never got back on track. At independence, it had the same standard of living as South Korea: an income of around $500 U.S. per person. Current South Korean per capita gross national income, according to the World Bank, is $13,900. Current Ghanaian per capita gross national income: $390.

Nkrumah also pioneered the replacement of constitutional democracy with an African version of l'état, c'est moi. "Within a year of independence," Meredith writes, "Nkrumah introduced laws allowing the government to detain anyone without trial for up to five years." Twelve members of parliament voted against the Preventive Detention Act; 11 of them were imprisoned under it.

Most newly independent African states, if they held elections at all, got the one-man, one-vote, one-time version. In the place of democratic politics came enforced cults of personality. Nkrumah assumed such titles as Man of Destiny, Star of Africa. His birthday became a public holiday. Youth groups repeated slogans such as "Nkrumah is the new Messiah." And his was a relatively mild case of the virus compared to what was to come.

Consider Equatorial Guinea. After independence from Spain, in 1968, Francisco Macias Nguema executed 10 out of 12 ministers in the first government, killed two-thirds of national assembly deputies, and murdered, imprisoned or drove into exile most civil servants. Priests were forced to recite slogans such as, "There is no God other than Macias." In 1976, his remaining civil servants signed a petition, begging for moderation; all 114 of the petitioners were arrested and tortured. One observer called it the "cottage-industry Dachau of Africa."

Consider Uganda, once the jewel of East Africa. In the 1970s, under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, a semi-literate former boxing champion, most of the country's educated class were exiled or eliminated. Perhaps 250,000 died. Some opponents were fed, Bond villain-style, to crocodiles; some may have been fed to Amin himself. (Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who declared himself "emperor" of the Central African Republic in 1977, had similar tastes. After his ouster, they found bodies in his fridge -- and in the croc pond, bone fragments of 30 victims.)

The man who replaced Amin, Milton Obote, wasn't much better: human-rights groups accused him of responsibility for 300,000 deaths. Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zaire -- the continent's largest countries -- all spent the decades after independence suffering nightmarish dictatorships and bloody civil wars.

Even Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, one of Africa's more mild-tempered leaders -- and consequently favoured with the most Western aid -- got into the game. Between 1973 and 1977, his government forced 11 million people to move to new model villages and communal farms. This Pol Pot-lite attempt at building the perfect socialist farming society was the continent's greatest ever mass displacement of human beings. It delivered Pol Pot-lite results: Agricultural output collapsed and the average Tanzanian's standard of living fell by nearly 50 per cent between 1975 and 1983. Only the generosity of Western donors averted catastrophe.

This is a superb, necessary book, but it isn't exactly prime-time movie-of-the-week material. The notes of optimism are few. Meredith resists the temptation to wish them into existence and, to the end, remains true to what he has witnessed. Here is his final paragraph. "After decades of mismanagement and corruption, most African states have become hollowed out. They are no longer instruments capable of serving the public good. Indeed, far from being able to provide aid and protection to their citizens, 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." Dear reader: There will be no Hollywood ending.

'Fate of Africa' collects the pieces of a continent’s story,
book review by Janet Maslin, New York Times News Service

In the words of an African proverb cited in Martin Meredith’s Sisyphean new book: “You never finish eating the meat of an elephant.” That thought is summoned by the overwhelmingly difficult assignment that this historian, biographer and journalist has given himself. With The Fate of Africa, he has set out to present a panoramic view of African history during the last half century and to contain all its furious upheaval in a single authoritative volume.

Everything about this subject is immense: the idealism, megalomania, economic obstacles, rampant corruption, unimaginable suffering (AIDS, famine, drought and genocide are only its better-known causes) and hopelessly irreconcilable differences leading to endless warfare.

For the author, even organizing this information is a hugely daunting job. How can such vast amounts of information be analyzed for the reader? One way was to follow parallel developments in different places — which is more or less how Meredith works, with attention to the hair-trigger ways in which one coup or crisis could set off subsequent disasters. He is able to steer the book firmly without compromising its hard-won clarity.

He might just as easily have divided the book’s terrain into geographical regions and studied each one chronologically. But one of his initial points is that even the boundaries that once defined African nations lacked legitimacy. When European colonial powers carved up the continent late in the 19th century, the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, remarked, “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were.”

The Fate of Africa does not even attempt to deal with such past outrages. In fact, its lack of range beyond the author’s designated half century is a liability. But Meredith wisely begins his narrative on Feb. 9, 1951, a pivotal date in the history of what was then Britain’s Gold Coast (but would soon reclaim its earlier name, Ghana). On that day the political prisoner Kwame Nkrumah was elected to political office as Britain began fulfilling its promises for the country’s self-determination. Four days later, Nkrumah was designated the new prime minister. And the cycle this book describes — from the shadow of colonialism to the bloom of self-government, onward to tyranny, profiteering and vicious internecine warfare — had begun.

“What is so striking about the 50-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes,” Meredith writes, making the book’s most striking point. So he must present many nuanced versions of the same story. Once the founding fathers, idealists and ideologues like Nkrumah (a lonely figure who shared an unlikely friendship with Queen Elizabeth) give way to a new breed of authority, the book becomes heavily dominated by the self-styled giant: “a flamboyant, autocratic figure, accustomed to living in style and demanding total obedience.”

Africa has produced many versions of this figure. And their tenacity has been extraordinary: By the end of the 1980s, Meredith points out, “not a single African head of state in three decades had allowed himself to be voted out of office.” Instead, these dictators — figures as different as Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Idi Amin of Uganda, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe — “strutted the stage, tolerating neither opposition nor dissent, rigging elections, emasculating the courts, cowing the press, stifling the universities, demanding abject servility and making themselves exceedingly rich.”

Although Meredith finds a few bright spots of economic viability (Botswana), uplift (South Africans coming out in droves to vote for Nelson Mandela’s presidency), noble characters (the poet-president Leopold Senghor in Senegal) and worthwhile leadership (Vice President John Garang, the former rebel leader whose death in a helicopter accident last week set off paroxysms of grief in Sudan), almost all of his book involves copiously documented evidence of rampant graft and mind-boggling corruption.

Meredith’s frequent claim is that complicated African problems have been exploited and oversimplified for the benefit of the wider world. He points to rampant misconceptions that Hutu refugees were the victims, not the perpetrators, of Rwandan genocide. He sees a cynical political component to publicized starvation in places including Ethiopia and Biafra. The book underscores the frustration of famine relief organizations in trying to deal with governments cynical enough to use starvation as both photo opportunity and military tactic.

As for its title, The Fate of Africa finds woe there too. “Far from being able to provide aid and protection to their citizens,” he writes, “African governments and the vampirelike politicians who run them are regarded by the populations they rule as yet another burden they have to bear in the struggle for survival.”


(...Actually, I'm just about at the Zimbabwe chapter of the massive hardcover book I've been reading this past couple of weeks entitled THE FATE OF AFRICA: FROM THE HOPES OF FREEDOM TO THE HEART OF DARKNESS: A HISTORY OF 50 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE by Martin Meredith. I'm on page 563 and the chapter that I am coming up to on page 617 is entitled A DEGREE IN VIOLENCE which will be describing Robert Mugabe and the post-1980 days...~ Jackie Jura)

Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~