The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence – Martin Meredith

08 Aug

SaAAfrica 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.


Posted by on 08/08/2014 in History, Journalism


Tags: , , , , , ,

35 responses to “The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence – Martin Meredith

  1. colemining

    08/08/2014 at 16:28

    Ste. J- this looks like a great read- another one to add to the always-growing list (just what I needed). I’m trying to get behind the state of the Mid East- and post-colonialism and Western-reaction-without-understanding is a huge theme in that discussion as well. I seem to have some weighty work ahead of me… Thanks for the review!


    • Ste J

      08/08/2014 at 16:41

      Weighty but ultimately rewarding work my friend and anything that educates is worth the time and effort put into it…apologies for adding to your list (again) but I fear it is my duty, just in case you ever ran out of a good read.


  2. LuAnn

    08/08/2014 at 16:30

    I knew nothing of this book or author. I certainly have heard plenty of Africa’s plight, as we all have, but have to admit to knowing little of her history. I will definitely be reading this one. Thank you for bringing it to my attention Ste J.


    • Ste J

      08/08/2014 at 16:44

      I didn’t know that much either. apart from modern news stories, anything pre Mandela was hazy at best apart from the big events that everybody has heard of that is. It is a real good book to flesh out the gaps in your knowledge and to help further the understanding of events. If governments which to make monumental decisions then this book is a guide as to what to avoid, will it be heeded…well governments know best…I’m sure.


      • LuAnn

        08/08/2014 at 16:52

        Yes governments seem to know best, don’t they? 😉


  3. shadowoperator

    08/08/2014 at 17:09

    Thanks for the review, Ste J. I’m not sure that I have the discipline necessary to make myself responsibly read a non-fiction book of this kind–I seem to do better on the sad histories of some of the world’s countries when creative writers are in charge and write a fictionalized account of some events which are nevertheless true to the spirit of the country’s history. The fiction being the spoonful of sugar, you know. But at least now I know where to look when and if I do decide to cover as much of the history of the continent as I can at one gulp!


    • Ste J

      08/08/2014 at 18:26

      Every so often a book comes into my hands that is just eminently readable, Jared Diamond is another one who writes books that just seem to fly by despite their size. I am usually the opposite of your good self and look for the historical context of the situation before putting myself in a novel…I guess I like to be detached first and understand the situation before I am introduced to whatever prejudices are seen through the characters eyes.

      There is little of the minutiae that certain events would have benefited from in the book but as far as overviews go you will learn a lot and it may just tip the balance so you read more of the genre…


  4. Letizia

    08/08/2014 at 18:41

    That was a quick posting. Sounds like a worthwhile read. It must be difficult to write a book covering an entire continent but it sounds like he does a good job at introducing – and at time delving into – the issues. Think I will pick this one up some time. Great review.


    • Ste J

      08/08/2014 at 18:48

      I ruminate quickly sometimes, especially when I am ignoring the books I read in January that still need reviews doing. It must have taken some working out with charts and graphs and probably a lot of Red Bull as well. However they are chronologically done and he manages to finish each part of the country’s story with a neat segue into the next. As the decades progress there is overlap but not to the extent where things ever get confusing. I am happy to add to your list.


  5. Lyn

    08/08/2014 at 19:00

    I have to echo Colemining, and say, this looks like a great read- another one to add to the always-growing list (just what I needed). Your book reviews are always thorough and compellingly written, Ste J.


    • Ste J

      08/08/2014 at 19:17

      I haven’t written a post this long since the 11th March so it was nice to have a lot to say, I’m glad I can interest you in such a diverse range of books…it is great to know people are reading and getting interested. There are many more yet to come, I assure you.


  6. Tom Gething

    08/08/2014 at 21:18

    Great review! I’m always a little wary of books about a continent. A history of Latin America, for example. The parts are always so much more complicated than the whole. But this sounds like a book that recognizes those vast differences between peoples and nations. And I suppose there are overarching lessons for the continent due to the colonial experience. Thanks for introducing me to this book.


    • Ste J

      09/08/2014 at 15:34

      It must take a lot of planning to structure such a diffuse and disparate mix of ideas and cultural differences. The ore I think of the book, the more I think it has got it’s goals spot on…next up will be the book on South American football when I get the money…


  7. Bumba

    08/08/2014 at 22:56

    A very fine review. The topic interests me. The review was excellent in that I now have a good idea about the book and also learned a bit.


    • Ste J

      09/08/2014 at 15:30

      My tick box of aims for the review is complete! I hate to give too much away about a book even when it is easily searchable history on the internet. Anything to make people read books.


      • Bumba

        09/08/2014 at 18:45

        Hey. I have one for you to check out. I’m going to the library later to take another look at it or perhaps take it out. It weighs a ton. It’s gigantic. And it is very beautifully illustrated. Have you read Campbell?


        • Ste J

          10/08/2014 at 19:05

          I haven’t but would be very interested in a title, or more than one if you can recommend them. I like my books weighty as well.


          • Bumba

            10/08/2014 at 22:03

            The Masks of God is a four book set. There’s Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Western, etc. The Hero of a Thusand Faces is his most popular work – and the least interesting I think. This The Mythic Image, which I did check out of the library yeaterday, is amazing. I would also recommend Campbell’s interviews with Bill Moyers, which were quite popular. He speaks as well as he writes.


            • Ste J

              11/08/2014 at 15:27

              I shall seek them out, The Hero With a Thousand Faces does sound familiar, that is probably on a list somewhere…I will add the rest though, I am thirsty for learning and I like to get my money’s worth of weight and fuel when I next go on a plane.

              Liked by 1 person

  8. readingwithrhythm

    08/08/2014 at 23:43

    My Mom Person has whole shelves devoted to books about Africa. We’ll have to search this one out to add to the family. Nice review, I think.


    • Ste J

      09/08/2014 at 15:28

      Your Mom Person will not be disappointed by the efforts the author has made to fashion an authoritative overview.


  9. Morgan

    09/08/2014 at 16:49

    I have to give you credit for your stick-with-it-ness to even finish reading this. As Fascinating as it surely sounds, from your, as ever, brilliant review, I confess, my attention span would sadly have run short of completion. Props, Kudos and Pepsi(max) 😉


    • Ste J

      10/08/2014 at 18:55

      It is broken up into countries, I expect to allow people to dip in and out as it can get a little overmuch…it is a good read though and I didn’t feel like having a break until near the end…pick it up, it may surprise you.


  10. Christina ~

    10/08/2014 at 06:35

    You read so widely and voraciously, it is enviable and most certainly admirable! I love how you mix it up on us…from Marquez to this history book on a country that, I believe, will be taking center stage in upcoming years…for numerous reasons. I definitely wish to add this to my TBR as I love history and this is definitely a geographical locale I am seriously lacking in. You do entice me with your literary ninja ways to always be adding more and more books…


    • Ste J

      10/08/2014 at 19:09

      Exactly, an African nation needs to win the World Cup sometimes within the next twenty years or so, we can hope at least. I was lacking in the history until I read it as well and it is nice to know as much as possible, which is why I manage to mix up as many books as possible, there are going to be loads more coming up as well, including some Dickens…


  11. readinpleasure

    12/08/2014 at 18:02

    Excellent review, my friend.

    I dare say I know of these problems of Africa, the causes and reasons for where we are now; they made good reading and discussions in history classes when I was in secondary school and still do now in heated arguments with friends over here. But I still think I should read this wonderful book.

    Incidentally Ghana is deemed a success story by the west; whatever that means since currently there is little or no success being felt in the pocket of the ordinary Ghanaian. 🙂


    • Ste J

      15/08/2014 at 15:15

      When writing the review I did have a yourself and a few others in mind and didn’t want to make statements that were plain wrong about the subject. The book is as far as I can tell fair in all its observations but leaves enough room for debate about the merits of certain actions that have been taken…I am sure I would find your debates eye opening my friend.

      I would hazard a guess that the success refers to oil sold to the west, as opposed to the actual welfare of its citizens…it pays to do a little research in the population of a country and view success in relative terms to their welfare.


      • readinpleasure

        15/08/2014 at 16:03

        You are right. What is success of a country if enjoyed by only a few. Even the oil found here is more like an albatross around the neck of Ghana. It’s been heavily mortgaged my dear 🙂


  12. Seyi sandra

    15/08/2014 at 00:25

    This book is definitely not one I think you would read. My husband has read it and has encouraged me to read it but I kept putting it off. I would read that book, maybe later, maybe soon. However, your review was stellar as always my friend!


    • Ste J

      15/08/2014 at 15:08

      I like to read all type of books so eventually I will get to the ones outside my usual sphere. I look forward to your opinion whenever you do read it and if my review helped then that pleases me!


  13. thejerseygal®™

    18/08/2014 at 01:38

    Great review, but all I can think is 688 pages! How fast do you read?


    • Ste J

      18/08/2014 at 16:16

      It took me about a week, I did get hooked on it, although I had a break in the last one hundred pages for two days. I still read it quicker than Heart of Darkness.



Tell me stuff...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: