Africa is forever on our TV screens, but the bad-news stories (famine, genocide, corruption) massively outweigh the good (South Africa). Ever since the process of de-colonialisation began in the mid-1950s, and arguably before, the continent has appeared to be stuck in a process of irreversible decline. Constant war, improper use of natural resources and misappropriation of revenues and aid monies contribute to an impression of a continent beyond hope. How did we get here? What, if anything, is to be done? Fully revised and updated and weaving together the key stories and characters of the last sixty years into a stunningly compelling and coherent narrative, Martin Meredith has produced the definitive history of how European ideas of how to organise 10,000 different ethnic groups has led to what Tony Blair described as the ‘scar on the conscience of the world’.
As far as complex narratives go, African history is up there with the most complicated of them all. This 688 page book seeks to unravel the tumultuous past and explain the politics of Africa as a whole as combined and separate states.
This ambitious and critical exploration is unblinkingly honest and brutal. Yet it is also easily readable and not in the least confusing, despite many acronyms and the jumps around a number of countries.
The vast scale is of the book with a summation of the establishment of colonial rule and up to the beginnings of Independence, before going on to form an extremely concise and readable series of case studies. The chronological nature of the book separated – roughly into decades – allows for the understanding of contemporary problems and movements to be understood within the context of the region.
We have been giving away mountains and lakes and rivers to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were.
Charting a path through the wholesale destruction of a continent’s equilibrium, carving geometric lines through long-established tribal lands and swapping of said territory between Western empires, is always going to be indicative of problems and from this inauspicious beginning, the book doesn’t let up on the blood and tears that have not just blighted a continent but has become a reflection on the rest of the world.
This book is by no means exhaustive but what it does do is help the reader to understand just exactly how seismic the changes have been since independence and what the populations of every African country have been through at one time or another. It is one of those books where I just had to keep reading. In its simple journalistic style it presents the facts and places blame firmly on all sides involved where it is deserved.
At the heart of the problems is the western world’s reactionary decisions, lack of on the ground intelligence and short-sighted decisions aimed at revenue and strategic value that has had ferocious repercussions for millions of innocent people. Whilst willing to fund dictators who are amenable to a countries wishes is a purely political if callous decisions, from a humanitarian point of view it is despicable and the jury is out on how significant the gains have been, apart from taking of African natural resources that is.
The comprehensiveness of the sequential accounts is impressive, towards the end though I did find myself getting a little too jaded with all the harrowing accounts, but that is the history of the continent and I read on completing this book within a week and have to say that I am amazed with the immense amount put into its pages. Not to mention the way it kept everything simple to preserve the forward momentum of history unfolding as well as allowing you time to learn a political background before it moves on, even when multiple countries are being written about at the same time.
A few countries aren’t mentioned except in passing but for a work this detailed I would certainly recommend it and encourage everybody to discover the history of Africa. The all round failures to avert same the story happening in country after country, descending into chaos to the point when it almost seems inevitable. From revolution, to optimism to despair…to where? There is a lot of work to do in Africa, yes but it is not all negative, there are signs in this book (published in 2006) of recovery and of some success stories as well.
To level a minor point of criticism at the book I would say that it is a little too Africacentric, a slightly wider view looking at the world, its dealings with and discussion about the situations occurring would have been interesting but that is beyond the book’s scope, so I won’t complain to loudly about that.
Meredith is impartial when looking at all sides involved, even Nelson Mandela is not above criticism which is how it should be, in order to do a balanced bit of writing. Perhaps to many people eulogise the good he did and represented and not enough has been said of his mistakes which also contributed to the situation in South Africa be it for good or bad.
A universal lesson that can be gleaned from all the political misdirection is to become more aware of the politics and systems around you, educate yourselves to be aware of what is going on, and of what can happen when ideologies and politics go too far and start to harm any cohesive state of people.