The State of Africa

This post collects my thoughts on a book I just finished reading. The State of Africa by Martin Merdith. Its taken me a long time to read but that has nothing to do with the book, rather with the events in my own life.

The book covers the evolution of the African continent since independence (50 years or so). Its a mammoth undertaking and I think Merdith did a great job pulling it off.

The book itself was an impulse buy at Heathrow Airport. Having grown up in Africa I feel connected with the continent and thought it was only right I educate myself more about its history.

At 750+ pages its not a weekend read and the content is quite serious and doesn’t figure many fluffy bunnies. However, it covers a lot of very interesting material and you can’t even begin to grasp contemporary African politics without insight into the history. There are a lot of dates, countries, political party acronyms, statistics, etc. which are sometimes hard to keep track of, but overall its a clear, engaging read.

Amazon has plenty of good, comprehensive reviews so I will just summarize some of the things that struck me and what I took away from it.

Doomed from the outset. The opening chapter sets the stage and already makes you wonder how this could ever end well. The arbitrary way in which colonial powers divided up the continent, oblivious to existing divisions between religions, cultures, languages, tribes, etc., was just bound to cause all kinds of problems. Tribes with completely different backgrounds, cultures, and languages were suddenly told they all belong to the same country.

A quote:

The maps used to carve up the African continent were mostly inaccurate; large areas were described as terra incognita. When marking out the boundaries of their new territories, European negotiators frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map, taking little or no account of the myriad of traditional monarchies, chiefdoms and other African societies that existed on the ground. Nearly one half of the new frontiers imposed on Africa were geometric lines, lines of latitude and longitude, other straight lines or arcs of circles.

Abandoned. In many cases, but not all, former colonies were pretty much left to their own devices after independence, not unusually in a spiteful way: actively destroying infrastructure and documents, suddenly withdrawing all knowledge & expertise (teachers, engineers, civil servants), etc. A good example is the French withdrawal from Guinea, even taking office furniture and telephone wiring with them. The Belgians were also particularly bad in this respect. How can you expect a country to stand on its own two feet overnight?

Gamed. After independence came the cold war. Signs of hope, stability, and democracy, – instead of being gently reinforced and nurtured by the West – were all too often destroyed in the game of gaining influence in the continent and ensuring access to resources. Blatantly corrupt and oppressive regimes were propped up and supported for fear they may turn to communism/capitalism. The Mobutu – US relationship being a good example. The West (East) had the power to push things in the right direction but instead toyed with countries in ideological battles. The hypocrisy of it all.

Sectarianism and patronage. Dig into every African conflict and I guarantee you will quickly reach sectarianism as one of the root causes, the Hutu/Tutsi conflict being of course the most well known. Part of the problem can be traced back to the way groups were divided & lumped together in the colonial era. Other reasons being difference in ideological, political and philosophical convictions, and the exploitation of these differences by rulers to stay in power. A result of this is the extensive network of patronage that a ruler would quickly implement when gaining power. Again, in many cases (most notably the Rwandan conflict) the West had the opportunity to “do the right thing” but consciously chose not to.

Greed and indifference. Sadly the story is invariably the same. A politician calls for action against the corrupt ruling elite, promises change, takes power, and pillages the state resources even more, replacing one network of patronage with another. The degree to which the state treasury and assets are treated as personal chequebooks is astounding. In many cases non trivial percentages of a country’s GDP were simply looted by the ruling elite. At the same there is the striking indifference to the suffering and the misery endured by the local population.

Violence. As a highly educated westerner leading a comfortable and privileged life, violence is pretty much foreign to me. Its hard for me to really understand what violence, and murder mean and feel like. Let alone live in a climate where these are common place. The countless atrocities are just impossible to fathom unless you have experienced a situation like it yourself. Reading about tens, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, to a million deaths, typically brutally and violently murdered is just…. And this is not just once or a handful of times, but many times over. The suffering endured by millions is unimaginable. As if the environmental challenges faced were not bad enough already. Sadly again many of the violence boils down to a ruler clinging on to power, sectarianism, and the rest of the world turning a blind eye.

Complex. One of my big take homes from the book is that its all very complex. The relationships between different fractions and groups within a country, the environmental climate, the stance of the West/East, the outcomes of previous conflicts, etc. Its all interrelated and nothing happens without a reason. It is very simplistic to point a finger at a single person or group for being responsible for a conflict. Often the answer is not so clear cut when you look at the history of the conflict and where it has its roots. You may say “duh!” but I never really fully realized this before reading the book. Its definitely added a mental warning light whenever I read mainstream press coverage of these and similar topics.

Is Africa Different?

The author is not optimistic at the end of the book. The challenges Africa faces are phenomenal and I have seen many people simply shrug their shoulders when you mention this. Some will even simply blame the Africans themselves. Is Africa really different?

My take on it is that people are people and fundamentally the same everywhere, its the context that matters. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond argues that Africa drew the short straw when it came to certain geographical features and fauna and flora. This slowed its own “development” (in the Western sense), a development that was eventually short circuited by colonisation, the root of many problems. Add to that cold war era politics, the scramble for resources, human greed, population growth, climate change, aids, religion, sectarianism and its not surprise the continent is in trouble.

For those that believe the atrocities and violence could never occur in our developed nations, history paints a very different picture. It is shocking what people will do once they find themselves cornered or resources become scarce. Things can turn ugly quickly once the fat years wane. As for corruption and greed. Lets just say people are people, the form is just different.

Lest I be accused of being overly pessimistic lets end on a positive note. I would be the first to agree there are many positive and good things happening in Africa. I like the authors’ starting quote:

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi

In Africa always something new

— Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis bk. 8, sect. 42

Lots of good news and facts can be found on Africa, the good news and through initiatives like the African Youth Journal. I am also hopeful the secularization trends will continue and the barrier to education continue to be decreased. It will also be interesting to see how the relationship with China plays out.

–Dirk

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