Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa; From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair: A History of 50 Years of Independence (New York: Public Affairs, 2005), 752pp.
In the late 19th century, in the space of fifty years or so, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Belgium carved up Africa among themselves in an orgy of violence and greed. Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness (1902) was one of the first to narrate the devastating legacy of European exploitation and colonialism. More recent studies have included Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, and Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible, both treatments of the Congo published in 1998. With nearly a dozen important books about Africa to his credit, Martin Meredith's massive tome begins where Thomas Pakenham left off in his panoramic book, The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 (1991).
There are very few bright spots for the 880 million people who live today in Africa's 53 countries. Nelson Mandela showed what sound judgment, integrity and a conciliatory posture can accomplish. Even so, most people in South Africa remain abysmally poor, and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, defended the psychopathic dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and alternately claimed that HIV did not exist or that it was a white conspiracy. Compared to South Africa, most of Africa fares far worse. With only four independent states in Africa in 1945, Meredith documents this continental disaster country by country, beginning with Ghana's independence on March 6, 1957. Conventional wisdom argues that nothing could have been worse than colonial rule. Meredith demonstrates how and why this conventional wisdom is probably false.
After nearly 700 pages of meticulous research (and moving prose), Meredith finishes with a concluding chapter. Despite rhetoric about an African "renaissance," by almost every conceivable index Africa today faces complex problems of epic proportions. Fifty years after independence, its prospects, he believes, "are bleaker than ever before." As for politics and democracy, for example, "when Abdou Diouf of Senegal accepted defeat in an election in March 2000, he was only the fourth African president to do so in four decades." Half of all Africans live on less than US$1 a day. Its world trade has plummeted by half since 1980. It is the only part of the world where school enrollment is falling—40% of all Africans and 50% of African women cannot read. Life expectancy is dropping. AIDS has taken a devastating toll. Worst of all, Africa will never succeed without significant aid from the West, but these countries, having poured $300 billion into Africa with very little to show for it, are more reluctant than ever to invest. Even if the West did help, Meredith believes, "the sum of Africa's misfortunes—its wars, its despotisms, its corruption, its droughts, its everyday violence—presents a crisis of such magnitude that it goes beyond the reach of foreseeable solutions." Ultimately, in his opinion, Africa's own "Big Men" dictators are to blame, for they are the ones who have plundered the continent for personal gain and political power.
I am interested to see what Meredith's study does to conversations about Africa, especially in light of outspoken advocates for vigorous intervention like Bono and Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty, 2005). Further, given the magnitude of Africa's dysfunction, this book renewed my appreciation for all the many NGOs, Christian and otherwise, that have not given up but have served Africa with expertise, passion, and love. Finally, having traveled to Africa five times, I echo Meredith's tribute to "the resilience and humor with which ordinary Africans confront their many adversities."