Book of the Month: The Fate of Africa

(By: Eric McLaughlin)
I like to borrow books from the Faders.  They are focused readers.  Not exactly the place to go for leisurely fiction, but if you want some good perspectives on Burundi, Africa, International Development, Culture and Theology, Raising Kids Cross-Culturally, or Poverty Alleviation, they have some good choices.

So I borrow them from time to time, interspersed with some Agatha Christie and Stephen Lawhead to balance things out, and it leads to some very formative discussions.  In France, Jason was slowly working his way through a veritable tome that frankly scared the literary daylights out of me.  It was about 800 large pages with small print and small margins.  It was called "The Fate of Africa" by Meredith Martin, a history of the continent's first fifty years since independence.  The giant scope of the topic did nothing to alleviate my anxieties, but as Jason solidly extolled its merits, I decided to give it a go.  After I did, John devoured it in a record 10 days (pressured speech, spending sprees, and other clinical signs of mania being absent at the time.)

Though it is not for the faint of heart or the person with only a passing interest in our fair continent, "The Fate of Africa" is definitely worth the effort.  He starts with the beginnings of the independence movement with Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, and Egypt, and moves slowly forward, giving fascinating case stories of different countries at different times.  He's pretty equitable, so by the end, there aren't many countries left that you haven't heard a good bit about.  If you've ever been taken by a desire to have places like Malawi, Equatorial Guinea, and Central African Republic be more than a blank name on a map, then here's your chance.  The stories are very engaging, sometimes almost spellbinding, usually in their awfulness.

The reason Jason never made this a Book of the Month post is that it's hard to summarize something so huge, but I'll give a few things I took away:

1.  Martin has done his research really well.  The scope of his discussions necessitate that you often take his judgements at his word, but in general, I find myself trusting him.
2.  For several decades, the fate of African countries was strangely caught in the crossfire of the Cold War.  Western powers would support a despot out of fear that communists would gain a foothold there, and vice versa.  African leaders would play this dynamic up to their advantage.
3.  The Algerian War with France resulted in the end of the French government at that time, with General de Gaulle being called into power by popular acclaim, not a legal process, to restart the French republic.  It's interesting, since many military coups in Francophone Africa were by former soldiers of his, who took over the government, when it seemed defunct.
4.  Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) was led by a frankly racist white government that seceded from Britain to avoid Britain being able to set any eventual timeline for future black rule.  Mugabe's subsequent actions are still unjustified, but it's interesting to know what he was up against.
5.  The UN debacle of Somalia was unfortunately timed right before the Rwandan genocide, making everyone more reluctant to intervene than usual (plus all the Americans were watching a famous White Bronco car chase).  The story of Rwanda (and Burundi) is fascinating, especially as to how the conflict spread into Congo, and led to the toppling of the regime of the largest country in Africa.
6.  The first African head of state to lose an election and leave office was in 1991 in Benin.  Wow.
7.  Nelson Mandela really was incredible, and his successor's bungling of the AIDS crisis is almost as incredible.

Lastly, I would have loved to hear him talk more about the one country which seems to be an exception to bad leadership, stagnant poverty, and an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor - namely, Botswana.  Quiet little Botswana somehow turned it's mineral wealth into a middle class and solid developmental progress and democracy.  How?  What did they do differently?  I guess any good non-fiction book leaves you with a good reading objective for the next book.

But I keep checking the Fader's bookshelves for a book on Botswana, and nothing has shown up yet.


Unknown said...

Eric et al -

Check out "The Bottom Billion" by Collier for a good framework on why the world's poorest nations tend to get trapped there and how some (like Botswana) manage to escape.

Praying for you guys!

Luke Cropsey

Cindy said...

Thanks for the cliff notes, Eric! Intriguing. Being a big-picture fan and being old enough to recall the primary-source reports of some of these events, it sounds like an interesting read.

tscarlet said...

Fabulous book review! The intimidating tome is now on its way to my doorstep (thanks to Abebooks, $3.48 w/ free shipping!).