Magazine article The Spectator

Downhill All the Way?

Magazine article The Spectator

Downhill All the Way?

Article excerpt

Downhill all the way? THE STATE OF AFRICA: A HISTORY OF FIFTY YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE by Martin Meredith The Free Press, £20, pp. 752, ISBN 0743232216 £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Martin Meredith ended his 1984 book on Africa, The First Dance of Freedom, with a quote from a recent report by the Economic Commission for Africa which looked ahead to the continent's future over the next 25 years. On existing trends, it predicted, poverty in rural areas would reach 'unimaginable dimensions', while the towns would suffer increasingly from crime and destitution. 'The picture that emerges is almost a nightmare.'

Africa has not disappointed Meredith. Twenty years on he is able to conclude this volume on the cheerful note that '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'.

This conclusion somewhat contradicts the quotation from Pliny on the title page: 'Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.' Meredith is saying he got it right 20 years ago and nothing has changed. The Second Dance of Freedom is worse than the first.

Maybe. I will come back to that, but first of all this book docs deal with the primary reasons for Africa's failures: African politics. The aid agency view of Africa presents us with the starving African child and tells us all we need to do is to give aid and forgive debt and the child will live and prosper. The impression is left that the child is hungry and sick because it is African. Africa is seen as a poor place that needs our care and money. No link is made between the child and President Mugabe or Beshir, or King Mswati. The politics are ignored.

The aid agency view - which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown seem to subscribe to - is that the past does not matter; just find policies that will change the present. History? 'Move on.' But in Africa the past does matter. It explains the present and no one is going to move anywhere without it. That is why this book is important. It's about how we got here. The legions of development missionaries, trained in development theory, heading off to Africa's capitals to work in air-conditioned offices, should all be given a copy free.

This book is also great narrative. Delivered in digestible chunks, it plots the politics of independent Africa country by country. Meredith is at his best telling the story of the rise and fall of each ruler. African potentates are nothing if not dramatic. Idi Amin, Mandela, Mugabe, Gaddafi, Nasser, Mobutu - you couldn't make up their stories. Shakespeare would have sculpted their monumental grandeur and pitiful folly, but their tales are more Titus Andronicus than Twelfth Night. The Bey of Tunis, for example, who ruled Tunisia until 1957, filled his palace with clocks, kept a private troupe of dwarves and spent much of his time on astronomy and alchemy. Or take Kwamc Nkrumah, the pan- African visionary who led Ghana to independence and wrecked it. He charmed Queen Elizabeth but chose an Egyptian wife by mail order.

But is Meredith right? Is it all getting worse and worse? His detail is sharp but the background is skimpy and that distorts the perspective. It reads sometimes like an account of a dazzling football game played in a stadium with no spectators. The pulse, the spirit of Africa is somehow missing. From the outside, seen through thickets of figures, Africa does look hopeless. Inside the continent never feels hopeless. Africans live on a mixture of stoicism, humour and hope. The mysterious formula enables them to survive calamities and thwarted expectations that would drive lesser mortals to suicide. …

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