Roel van der Veen. What Went Wrong with Africa? A Contemporary History. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers/Stylus Publishing, 2004. 377 pp. References. Bibliography. Country index. $39.95. Paper.
A historian by training, Roel van der Veen became a development specialist in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and moved from the Asia to the Africa desk in 1995. Frustrated by the fact that he could not find "a rapid introduction to Africa's recent history and problems," he decided to write "a general review of contemporary African history for all those with an interest in the continent" (5). Evidently, the author is not familiar with Basil Davidson's Modern Africa: A Social and Political History (Longman, 2nd ed., 1989), or Elikia M'Bokolo's L'Afrique au XXème siècle (Éditions du Seuil, 1985), both excellent brief introductions to Africa's contemporary history up to the 1980s.
Using modernization as a theoretical framework, van der Veen wonders why sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world that has been left out of the worldwide rise in prosperity over the past fifty years. Adopting a multidisciplinary perspective combining history, political science, economics, sociology, and cultural studies, he focuses on what he sees as Africa's main problem: state failure in general, and the failure of African leadership in particular. In broad strokes and through 370 dense pages of text organized thematically-the cold war, economic decline, democratization, renaissance, state disintegration, war, globalization, population, and poverty and aid-he paints a vivid and dismal picture of Africa and its people, mired in disease, poverty, hunger, debt, and conflict. In essence, the author attributes the failure of Africa's development to a failure to realize the continent's potential for modernization.
This work is commendable on several counts. First, it is arguably one of the most ambitious syntheses of contemporary African history and politics to date, combining the study of internal and external factors, usually treated separately in the literature under the rubrics of African politics and African international relations. Furthermore, van der Veen adopts a unique multidisciplinary perspective, as well as a long-term historical perspective, rightly arguing that "in order to understand Africa's present-day situation, we must look not only at outside influences but also at long-term, indigenous African elements" (351). Following Basil Davidson (The Black Man's Burden, Times Books, 1992), the author rightly argues that the African neocolonial state is an unreformed European construct that has been left intact by the African politico-bureaucratic elite which took over the reins of government after independence-hence the divorce between the African elites and their people. The Africanization of the colonial state thus "culminated in general dysfunctions, along with financial and moral bankruptcy" (355). Van der Veen is also correct when he observes that contemporary Africa is characterized by a poverty of ideology. Neverdieless, he concludes his book on an optimistic note, predicting that in the foreseeable future Africa will not become more unstable than it is at present, that African states will survive violent conflict, that Africans will obtain more say in running their countries, and that modern African states will eventually emerge.
This being said, this work suffers from a number of major deficiencies of both form and substance. First, the audior generally fails to support his argument with adequate factual and statistical evidence, and whole sections of the book are devoid of references. Furthermore, a work of this magnitude requires, in addition to a country index, a thematic index as well as an index of the names of personalities and authors. Another major problem has to do with van der Veen's arbitrary and unjustifiable exclusive focus on sub-Saharan Africa, dubiously characterized as "a natural unit" (19). …