Book Review: The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith

Mr. Meredith gave the expression “the dark continent” a whole new connotation in The Fate of Africa.  This narrative provided an historical overview of the region’s development from the end of the Second World War through 2005; at least in my version of the book. An intriguing synopsis resulted from it. The tome began with a quote from Pliny the Elder: “Out of Africa, always something new.” On a continent with so many diverse cultures, ethnic groups and nations, the development of each country followed the same pattern. Lamentably, Mr. Meredith showed how nearly every government degenerated from high hopes into kleptocratic authoritarianism; the latter of which they learned from their colonial governments. (Page 154)

Ghana’s independence on 6 March 1957 served as the centerpiece of the book’s beginning. The first African nation to achieve independence from a colonial power became a major event in world history. (Page 26) This served as one of the very few positive events to take place throughout the entire narrative. Some rare others included Nelson Mandela’s election to the South African Presidency and the end of apartheid. Another occurred when Abdou Diof of Senegal left office after losing an election in March of 2000. At the time, he was only the fourth African leader in four decades to relinquish power voluntarily. (The first one, Leopold Sedar Senghor, also served as Senegal’s president.)  That pretty much covers all the positive events covered by the book.

Although my version of The Fate of Africa came out over a decade ago, I found the author’s analysis of foreign aid very topical. Angus Deaton received the Nobel Prize in Economics this year. One of his areas of study concerned how outside financial support can restrain a country’s development. In his history, Mr. Meredith referenced the “donor fatigue” that took place in the 1980s. The West became frustrated with the profligacy of various African rulers. (Page 376) The author also provided myriad details how leaders used donor finance to delay as well as implement reforms. (Page 374) None of this should’ve surprised anybody. Earlier in the book Mr. Meredith detailed how African leaders “selfishly” pursued development goals. (Page 144)

The author explicated the rise of political Islam on the continent. He traced its origins to the “demise of the Pan-Arab nationalism of the 1960s” (Page 443) and the Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967. (Page 443) Meredith traced its development in multiple countries such as Egypt, Algeria and Somalia. Of course, he elucidated its permeation into Sudan. Most people are familiar with political Islam’s influence in the Middle East. I applaud the author for exploring its prevalence in Africa.

As disturbing as I found the overall book, I thought it well written. His lucidity made the overall narrative more impactful. The author even included some good lines to make the text more memorable. Kenyans resorted to humor in explaining how their court system worked. “Why hire a lawyer when you can buy a judge?” They joked. (Page 285) Meredith explained that “while most states had an army, the Algerian army had a state.” (Page 447) He quoted someone as saying Libya’s leader, Colonel Qadaffi, had a “split personality – both evil.” (Page 351)

I had one criticism of the book. At times I wondered about the author’s core purpose in writing it. For a time I thought he aspired to educate people about the avaricious governance that infected the continent and the ensuing catastrophic human suffering it begot. At other times, I found the book a polemic blasting American foreign policy towards the region.

While Meredith criticized the programs of Britain, France and Belgium, I thought he reserved his main ire for the United States. Here’s his commentary on American policy towards Liberia. After vilifying its support of Samuel Doe he wrote the following.

It was a sign of how pusillanimous the United States had become in dealing with African dictators it favoured; that while the election was rejected in almost all quarters as fraudulent, US officials alone applauded it as “generally fair enough although marked by a few irregularities.” (Page 552)

The author presented the following anecdote about an American government official’s trip to Ghana’s independence ceremony.

But the most enthusiastic visitor was Richard Nixon, then the United States vice-president. From the moment he touched down in Accra, he rushed about shaking hands, hugging paramount chiefs, fondling black babies and posing for photographs. It was not always to good effect. Surrounded by a crowd of Ghanaians at an official ceremony, he slapped one man on the shoulder and asked what it felt like to be free. “I wouldn’t know, sir,” replied the man. “I’m from Alabama.” (Page 26)  

And there’s more. Here are Mr. Meredith’s thoughts on America’s response to a terrorist attack.

The repercussions of Sudan’s alliance with Islamist extremists reverberated for many years. In August 1998 “sleeper” cells planted by as-Qa’eda in East Africa in 1994 bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 263 people and injuring more than 5,000. President Clinton retaliated by ordering a missile strike against a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, claiming it was being used to manufacture chemical weapons. No credible evidence was ever provided to support the claim but Sudan lost a large part of its capacity to produce medical supplies. (Page 593)

Several pages earlier, the author criticized Sudanese President Omar-al Bashir. He infused religion as a pretext to launch a jihad against his political enemies in the country’s south. First Meredith attacked the US for being too passive. When they responded with force against a brutal dictator, he criticized that. What approach would he advocate the US to take with brutal thugs?

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan (a native Ghanaian) observed, “Let us be careful not to mistake hope for achievement.” (Page 681) Sadly, there’s been exponentially more of the former throughout Africa’s postwar history. While The Fate of Africa provided a detailed analysis of how the current situation evolved, in terms of what can be done to rectify, it offered no answers.