Review of The State of Africa: A History of the Continent since Independence, by Martin Meredith (Simon & Schuster, 2013).
A writer sets himself an impossible task and fails, grippingly.
A continent, if it is anything, is a geological expression. Africa is not even that: along the Rift Valley the Somali plate is pulling away from the rest of the landmass, which will eventually split in two. The politics is no less divergent than the tectonics. Africa, scholars are at pains to point out, is a diverse place – most obviously, the latitudinal rupture between countries north and south of the Sahara, but also myriad political, cultural, ethnic, economic and geographical distinctions.
That makes a continental history a brave project. In this, Africa is not unique. Imagine writing a postwar history of little old Europe, with its fairly stable, mostly quite boring politics: the sheer scope is enough to induce queasiness (Tony Judt, in his Postwar, had a good stab at it). But now consider Africa, and the thundering cascade of Events – with a capital ‘E’ – that have shaken its fifty-something countries in recent decades. The intrepid historian, like one of those deluded, disastrous ‘explorers’ of old, is left floundering in a swamp of his own hubris, drowning in counter-coups and indigestible acronyms.
Martin Meredith, a journalist and biographer, has had a try. He has produced a pacey, readable version of a continental history in The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence (Simon & Schuster, 2013), first written in 2005 and since updated. It never suffers from being dull. But Meredith’s strengths as a storyteller undermine his skills as a historian: after skipping through its 700-plus pages the reader is left feeling thrillingly informed, but oddly unenlightened.
The template of the book is of Greek tragedy: both in the overall arc of the narrative, and in the disappointments and downfalls of the tyrants that form its principal cast. The familiar story of postwar Africa is given little challenge here. So it is that we start, inevitably, with Kwame Nkrumah and the great hopes of independence, soon crumbling into the realities of one-party rule and mismanaged economies, the ‘lost decade’ of the eighties and the ravages of AIDS: a miserable decline, repeated in country after country, as ‘vampire-like politicians’ sell the future of their peoples for personal gain.
Those politicians and their foibles are described in revealing detail. Meredith tells us, dutifully, about Nkrumah’s disastrous policies towards Ghanaian cocoa farmers; but also, more juicily, his acquisition of an Egyptian wife, whom he had never met, thanks to assistance from fellow revolutionary Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser. The strange grandeur of Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism is poignantly captured by the gifts he received for his own private zoo: from Haile Selassie, a lion; from Liberian President Tubman, a hippo; and from fellow traveller Fidel Castro, a boa constrictor.
Meredith has an ear for a choice quote, too, and lets many of Africa’s leaders condemn themselves in their own words. An ailing President Mobutu, holed up in his jungle palace at Gbadolite, explains to a journalist why he needs to charter a Concorde: ‘I cannot sleep at all on a plane and I am terribly scared of sleeping pills… Do not accuse me of wasting money… Just think of the time I save.’
But in his eagerness to damn the ‘Big Men’, Meredith allows his narrative to be captured by them. It is true that African politics has been characterised by the personalisation of power, and that certain figures, for good or ill, dominate its history. No adequate history could ignore Kenyatta and Senghor, Mugabe or Mengistu. But the ‘Big Men’ approach to Africa is no more complete than Carlyle’s ‘Great Men’ approach to history: these people do not emerge from a vacuum, and history is not biography.
Indeed, the reader of Meredith’s account is left wondering, as another dictator goes by, where such monsters keep coming from. Arguing that Africa’s problems stem from bad leadership only takes us so far. The question, surely, is how African institutions promote and sustain these leaders. Perhaps it owes something to the legacy of colonial state-making. Perhaps the culture of ‘neo-patrimonialism’ plays a role. Perhaps bad leaders are a consequence, not just a cause, of poverty. Meredith does not say.
Nor does he stray far from conventional political history. Economics plays second fiddle: the structural adjustment policies of the eighties are dealt with in ten cursory pages. Where Judt, in his Postwar, has indulgent sections on Italian cinema, Meredith makes few forays into cultural or intellectual history. The novelist Chinua Achebe is marched on three times to provide an illustrative quote, but leaves the scene without further discussion. Africa’s complex relationship with the outside world also gets little attention.
Yet it would be unfair to judge Meredith too harshly on this account. His problem – an unavoidable one – is those relentless, inescapable, capital-E ‘Events’: the wars, coups and revolutions that have been tragically common in Africa’s past (and present). As a good journalist, he knows such things can hardly be ignored. But by attempting to chronicle them completely he leaves himself no room for anything else.
And in fairness, his book does not aim at academic history. Instead, it is intended as a gentle, if lengthy, introduction for the general reader. In this, Meredith succeeds – even if he fails at the grander project suggested by the book’s title. The result is long on Events and short on Explanations, but fascinating throughout.