Monday, July 28, 2008

The Fate of Africa

Since I'm traveling to Africa this October with International Development Enterprises (IDE), I decided I need to learn more about the continent. I'm embarrassed with how little I learned about Africa during my 19 years of formal education in the United States.

On a recent visit to my local library, I picked up The Fate of Africa, by Martin Meredith. At a dense 688 pages, I was concerned that the book would taste more like medicine than dessert, but I was pleasantly surprised at how the book engaged me. Meredith tells the story of Africa primarily through biographies of its leaders over approximately the past 50 years. These biographies are gripping, vivid, and on many occasions, shocking.

In my own words, Africa since the 1950s has been marked by 7C's: colonialism, collapse, control, corruption, coups, Cold War, and conflict. Let me explain:

According to a map at the beginning of the book, in 1955 around 30 or so countries were controlled by either Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, or Italy. Only seven African countries were independent from European control: Libya, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, South Africa, and Southwest Africa (i.e., modern-day Namibia, which was controlled by South Africa).

The European regimes collapsed in the 1950s and 1960s under extreme pressure from the populations they controlled, in most cases accompanied by violence. Each European power had different approaches and timelines to their withdrawals, but the end result was the same for the colonized territories: independence.

Most 20th century African leaders consolidated their power, setting up one-party systems, limiting personal freedoms, and often killing those who opposed them or who they perceived as a threat to their continued rule. Of the first 150 or so leaders during the first few decades of independence, only six voluntarily relinquished power.


British historian Lord Acton observed that "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." A review of Africa from the 1950s to the early 21st century supports Acton's observation. African leaders during that time generally set up economic systems to benefit themselves, their families, and their cronies. Despite the poverty all around them and their initial rhetoric about change and hope, many African leaders robbed their countries of natural resource wealth and foreign aid, building up net-worths in the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.

According to Meredith, the first two decades of African independence yielded over 40 successful coups and numerous failed coup attempts. Coup leaders talked of the need to overthrow the controlling and corrupt leaders, but in many cases they were as bad as or worse than the regimes they replaced.

Cold War
During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union supported regimes that were considered to be sympathetic to their brand of politics. The result was flows of money and weapons that exacerbated the tendency for civil warfare, all in the name of global prestige. During this power play, the United States knowingly supported murderers, thieves, and tyrants who were considered likely to keep communism at bay.

As president of the United States, Bill Clinton had great hope for Africa's future. He was openly bullish about six countries that he believed were led by promising leaders committed to civil rights, economic growth, and democracy: South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Ghana. He hoped these countries would act as case studies of how to thrive in modern Africa. However, during Clinton's own presidency, Eritrea and Ethiopia were at war with each other, as were Rwanda and Uganda. Even Africa's most promising future stars have had difficulty staying out of conflict.

Given the continent's sobering 7C's, what is Africa's fate? Meredith ends his book with the following words: "After decades of mismanagement and corruption, most African states...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."

That's it? No silver lining? In the end, Meredith proves to be more informative than inspiring. Those committed to helping Africans will have to look to other sources for hope. But social entrepreneurs are used to being told that they're dreamers. Despite our dreams, we must understand the nightmares that many Africans have lived (and died) through. Despite our fresh energy, we must realize that some whom we approach for investment have experienced "aid fatigue" from spending $300 billion of aid with few tangible results. And ultimately, we must learn from these past failures if we hope to have success in the future. I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in Africa.

1 comment:

smason said...

For interesting fiction set in Africa, you might try The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (maybe not before October).