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Last Updated: 12/01/2005Poor Africa
Martin Meredith tells the fascinating and horrifying tale of the last 50 years of African history in The Fate of Africa: From the hopes of freedom to the heart of despair. The book is exhaustive and exhausting, and leaves one wondering where to turn for new hope.
Title: The Fate of Africa
Poor Africa. Two centuries of colonialism, of slavery at the hands of the French and the Spanish and the British and the Portuguese and the Belgians and the Germans. They came from all sides and carved up the continent like a Christmas turkey. They drew arbitrary lines that united and divided with no regard for the history or needs of Africans, calling the land Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Congo, and the Ivory Coast
Some colonial powers built railways and roads, some even built school systems and universities. But it wasn’t enough - the colonialists took for granted the complacency of the masses, ignoring the signs of discontent, and in the end the clamor for self-determination could not be resisted.
Poor Africa was getting to its feet.
Which brings us to Ghana, 1951, and the beginning of Martin Meredith's The Fate of Africa. On 9 February, a British official in Ghana made the decision to release the then-dissident and future president Kwame Nkrumah from prison. It was a pattern that would be repeated many times over the course of the next few decades: activists jailed as political rabble-rousers released by colonial powers under political pressure, only to become the leaders of nationalist movements.
Within two years of Nkrumah's release, Ghana had a new constitution and a government with an all-African cabinet. In another year, Nkrumah was elected president, and finally, on March 6, 1957, “as crowds danced and sang in parliament Square, the Union flag was lowered and the new flag of Ghana, red, green and gold, was hoisted in its place.”
The jubilation was well merited: It was the first time in the history of the continent that a colonial power had ceded control to the Africans. There was enormous optimism surrounding the event. Ghana was the richest tropical nation in the world, with a working system of justice, a healthy middle class, and a wealth of natural resources. Indeed, much of the rest of Africa was looking to Nkrumah's Ghana for leadership and inspiration. Writes Meredith, “No other African state was launched with so much promise for the world.”
You can feel at this point that the other shoe is about to drop, and as Meredith proceeds through his telling of the last 50 years of African history it eventually does. But not before he shifts his focus to the military coup in Egypt, nationalist rumblings in the francophone states, and further upheavals in the British holdings.
And so Meredith encourages the reader to hope, which is one of his greatest successes in the 700-word modern history of the African continent. He places you at the moments of change, assessing decisions along with the historical figures making them: Egypt's Nasser, the loved yet feared military man; Senegal's Senghor, the poet and Francophile; Tanzania's Nyerere, the sincere socialist.
He encourages the readers to hope along with the rest of Africa that this time, this time, things will be different, social justice will come, freedom and prosperity are within reach.
Those familiar with African history will read this book with a continuous sinking feeling, for they will know that although freedom and prosperity were often within reach on the African continent, they were almost never grasped.
So from the heights of hope that Meredith brings us to, he drops us into the vicious circle of war, corruption, poverty and starvation that was to characterize the African continent.
The newly independent Ghana government soon slipped into a corruption free-for-all, with Nkrumah himself accepting kickbacks sometimes in the range of seven figures. Regularly extolled by the media as a sort of African Christ figure, Nkrumah became more and more arrogant, irrational. His calls for a united Africa were increasingly ignored until, while traveling in China, he finally was deposed in 1966 by a military coup.
He died in exile in Guinea in 1972, still writing books and making plans for the unification of Africa. Meanwhile, Ghana, a once-healthy nation, had fallen into desperate times, with a cocoa industry in ruins and an economy that was shrinking by 3 percent a year.
It was the same almost everywhere: Idealistic, charismatic leaders who came to power on a wave of nationalism and populism turned into corrupt tyrants interested only in power for themselves and their friends.
In the Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny was open about his desire to rule the country as an autocrat, saying, “In young countries such as our own we need a chief who is all-powerful for a specific period of time.” He was equally open about the “billions” of francs his business activities earned him as a member of Ivory Coast’s ruling elite.
In Malawi, Hastings Banda operated like a Maravi king, and demanded “not just obedience but servility.” Even in Tanzania, where Julius Nyerere “stood out as a beacon of hope that Africa might yet find a route to the kind of new society that nationalist leaders had once imagined,” the one-party system was used to silence political opposition, and in 1981, the 20th anniversary of Tanzanian independence, Nyerere admitted in a radio address that the country was still as poor as ever.
And that was just the beginning. New tyrants emerged across Africa with every political coup. Often they were military leaders, promising to clean up the very real problem of corruption with military efficiency. Just as often those military leaders fell victim to the same temptations as their predecessors, and as they clung to greater power and wealth, the people were always the losers.
Heart of Darkness
Even worse than the dictators were the war zones. So many of the conflicts compiled in The Fate of Africa had no obvious solution at the time and are still with us today. Countries like the Congo, Angola, Sudan and Chad hardly had a chance to develop a national identity, since as soon as they started to stand up they were always beaten down by civil war or invasion or rebel groups.
These countries seemed to be constantly broken into pieces by a flurry of acronymed factions that could never come to an agreement and, in the case of some conflicts involving mineral resources, never wanted to. They were also surrogate battle grounds for the incredibly misnamed “Cold War,” with Cuba and China pumping in arms and troops from one side, and the U.S. contributing money, arms, and diplomatic encouragement from the other.
Once again, in the middle of it all there were people trying to live. In Ethiopia, one of the worst famines of all time was helped along by government slash and burn tactics designed to flush out rebels. In Liberia, Sierra Leon, and the Congo, child soldiers were used with a devastating effect on the future of those countries.
Meredith also tackles some of the most famous conflicts and issues, devoting multiple chapters to the Battle of Algiers, the Somalia fiasco, the Rwanda genocide, and the AIDS crisis.
"Out of Africa, always something new”
It’s an emotionally exhausting book. So much war, dying, suffering, greed, corruption, and disappointment leaves one feeling wasted and cynical. In the last chapter, Meredith gives some staggering statistics: One fifth of all Africans have lived in war-battered countries; Africa’s 12 million refugees make up 40 percent of the world’s total refugees; half of Africa’s 880 million people live on less that $1 per day; corruption on the African continent costs $148 billion annually - more than a quarter of the continent’s entire gross domestic product.
Yet there is a little glimmer of hope. After reading 650 pages of depressing and horrifying history, one arrives at the story of Nelson Mandela. We all take it for granted that Mandela was a great man, but I would imagine that few people fully understand why. You see, after 40 years of African leaders that folded - almost to a man - under the pressures of corruption, ideologies, revenge, cronyism, violence, and the thirst for power, Mandela did something truly incredible when he took charge of the South African government: he created unity.
After the fall of Apartheid, South Africa was ripe for the kind of revenge killings and backlash seen over and over again in Africa through the years. But somehow, Mandela defied all odds and probabilities and entered power with the selfless goal of unifying a country. I can’t stress enough how remarkable it was to read this story after getting a thorough dosage of the history of the rest of Africa. The fact that the country held a Truth and Reconciliation Commission - and that it actually worked - is nothing short of marvelous.
So maybe, as Pliny the Elder suggested, something new always does come out of Africa after all. It’s nice to have a little bit of hope.
But poor, poor Africa. Hope seems in short supply.
Peter Krupa is the editor of the Peace & Conflict Monitor