A slogan painted on trucks and taxicabs all over Africa, much beloved by metaphor-hunting authors, reads: NO CONDITION IS PERMANENT. This is true, but some are recurring. Tyranny in Zimbabwe, famine in Niger, a constitutional coup in Togo, rampant corruption in Kenya, protesters shot in Ethiopia, an epidemic in Angola, civil war in Sudan–those are this year’s headlines, but if you think you’ve heard it all before, you have. Martin Meredith, in his new book The Fate of Africa, writes that “what is so striking about the fifty-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes.” Some countries, like Nigeria and Zambia, have gone through cycles of reform and decay. But Meredith’s subtitle–From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair–sums up the overall trend. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the heady days of the 1960s, much of the continent was no less prosperous than South Korea or Malaysia. While those Asian nations have transformed themselves into economic “tigers,” however, gross domestic products across Africa shrank during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Africans are getting poorer, not richer. They are living shorter, hungrier lives.

The decline of an entire continent confounds our preconceptions about human advancement. The economist Jeffrey Sachs points out in his recent book The End of Poverty that our Hegelian notion of linear progress is relatively new. For most of history, humans lived miserable existences and couldn’t expect better before the afterlife. But since the Industrial Revolution the situation has improved, and not only in the rich countries of Europe and North America. Between 1981 and 2001, Sachs says, hundreds of millions of people, many of them in Asian nations like China and India, emerged from extreme poverty. But a billion have been left behind, most of them in Africa. “The greatest tragedy of our time,” Sachs writes, is that one-sixth of all humans still live a dollar-a-day existence, scraping by on the margins of starvation.

How can one continent be so out of step with humankind’s march of progress? Everyone agrees that Africans are desperately poor and typically endure governments that are, to varying degrees, corrupt and capricious. The dispute is about causes and consequences. One group–call it the poverty-first camp–believes African governments are so lousy precisely because their countries are so poor. The other group–the governance-first camp–holds that Africans are impoverished because their rulers keep them that way. The argument may seem pedantic, but there are billions of dollars at stake, and millions of lives. The fundamental question is whether those who are well-off can salve a continent’s suffering, or if, for all our good intentions, Africans are really on their own.

Recently, the poverty-first crowd has been making a lot of noise. The weekend before the July G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, millions of people watched as pop stars in cities around the world played concerts organized by Africa crusader Bob Geldof. The event’s platform–forgive Africa’s debts, increase its development aid, end trade policies that undermine its exports–echoed the recommendations of Sachs, the antipoverty movement’s house economist. A Columbia University professor and an adviser to Kofi Annan, Sachs has lately become a favorite brain of the US Weekly set: Bono wrote his book’s introduction, and he recently starred alongside Angelina Jolie in an MTV special about their travels in Kenya. The celebrity endorsements amplify Sachs’s serious argument that for too long, rich countries have done too little to help the poor. At the end of the Gleneagles summit, world leaders announced that they would increase global aid by about $50 billion by 2010. Sachs says the poor need much more, right away: about $75 billion a year, half of it for Africa. “I reject the plaintive cries of the doomsayers who say that ending poverty is impossible,” he writes.

The doomsayers, sadly, include many of those who know the continent best. Two other recent books–Meredith’s sweeping history of the post-independence era, and Robert Guest’s more tightly focused The Shackled Continent–have joined the immense corpus of literature arguing that, for all the continent’s geographical and historical handicaps, Africa’s main problems are political. Guest, an optimist, believes that with better leadership African countries could catch up. But Meredith reaches a dismal conclusion. Even “given greater Western efforts,” he writes, “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. At the core of the crisis is the failure of African leaders to provide effective government.”

Meredith, a British journalist and historian, is the author of biographies of Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe. Here, he offers an ambitious survey of fifty years, fifty-three countries and countless wars and coups. The story begins in the early 1950s, with the first stirrings of nationalism among the colonized peoples of Africa. Seventy years of rule from afar had left the continent spectacularly ill-equipped for self-rule–a collection of states that were nations in name only, drawn up according to the realpolitical whims of the likes of Gladstone, Bismarck and Belgium’s King Leopold, who presided over the deaths of millions of Congolese. Some European powers were spiteful about leaving: French President Charles de Gaulle, piqued by the lack of deference shown him by Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré, had colonial officials cart away their office furniture, while the Portuguese fought a series of bloody wars to hold on to Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. Other colonial powers were more benevolent. Britain, for instance, built some good schools and decent roads in East Africa. What none of the Europeans left behind, however, were societies equipped to approach the immense challenge of mending the tribal, regional and religious rifts created and exacerbated–often deliberately–in the interest of dividing and ruling.

Yet in those early years, all these challenges seemed manageable. “Expectations were high,” Meredith writes, with charismatic leaders like Léopold Senghor, Senegal’s philosopher-president, and the regal Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, seemingly poised to lead the continent to democracy and self-sufficiency. The rains were good, the harvests bountiful and the infrastructure, left behind by the Europeans, adequate. The “sense of euphoria,” Meredith writes, “had been raised to ever greater heights by the lavish promises of nationalist politicians campaigning for power, pledging to provide education, medical care, employment and land for all. ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom,’ Nkrumah had told his followers, ‘and all else shall be added unto you.'”

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and the first man to lead an African colony to independence, is of especial interest to Meredith, perhaps because his career established the pattern of disappointment. A former political prisoner of deep nationalist conviction, he took over when the British exited Ghana in 1957. Nkrumah was hailed worldwide as a prophet of liberation, and he acted the part, wrapping himself in kente cloth and talking of a United States of Africa. He spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a five-year spree, constructing lavish public buildings, creating nationalized industries from scratch and establishing a Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute to codify his thinking. He encouraged a personality cult and took grandiose titles, such as Osagyefo, which means “redeemer.”

When his popularity waned, Nkrumah turned to other methods of rule. He doled out patronage, as his cabinet ministers demanded 10 percent cuts of every public contract. (When one Nkrumah crony was questioned about his exorbitant lifestyle, he replied, “Socialism doesn’t mean that if you’ve made a lot of money, you can’t keep it.”) As Ghana went bankrupt, Nkrumah became increasingly remote, surrounded by sycophants inside Christianborg Castle, a former slaving fort. He crushed labor unions and imprisoned political opponents. After more than one attempt on his life, he created a praetorian guard within the army, made up mostly of his own tribesmen. In February 1966, while Nkrumah was on a state visit to China, the military overthrew him. Ghanaians celebrated in the streets.

With eerie uniformity, this same drama played out in country after country, as colonial exploitation gave way to the rule of homegrown tyrants. In Meredith’s account, these so-called Big Men begin to blur together. Even their flourishes seem interchangeable. Meredith, who has a gift for the mordant aside, tells us that Nkrumah built himself a large zoo that featured a boa constrictor sent by Fidel Castro. The Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny allowed a sacred elephant to roam the grounds of his palace. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie kept caged lions and leopards. Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, another cat person, used to feed his lions dissidents.

Ghana was lucky by comparison. Its dictators were gentler than the likes of Bokassa, a reputed cannibal, or Idi Amin, who had one of his wives killed, dismembered and dumped in a car trunk. Coup leader Jerry Rawlings, an Air Force lieutenant, led Ghana well enough to be hailed in the 1990s as one of a “new breed” of enlightened autocrats. Rawlings presided over World Bank-mandated economic reforms. Pleased donors flooded the country with billions in foreign aid. Rawlings eventually handed over power to an elected civilian. Nonetheless, Meredith writes that in 1998 “Ghana’s gross national product was still 16 percent lower than in 1970.” This, mind you, is one of the continent’s success stories.

Meredith’s book is full of tales like this, and worse. The author seems to be emulating Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa, an epic history of the early colonial period. But Meredith is a victim of his own scope; when he leaves southern Africa, his area of expertise, he leans heavily on earlier writers. As his narrative flits from crisis to crisis, his attempts at a wider analysis disappear into the repetitive gloom. What’s missing is a unifying idea, an explanation. For that, one must turn to Robert Guest and Jeffrey Sachs.

Guest spent years traveling the continent as an editor and writer for The Economist, and his fine book is filled with the kind of vivid details that come from spending too many nights in dingy, sweltering hotel rooms. (I should mention that he is a professional acquaintance; he edited several stories I wrote for his publication between 2002 and 2004.) Before being assigned to Africa he was stationed in booming East Asia, an experience that shapes his view of the continent’s predicament. “Any country inhabited by human beings has the potential to grow rich. We know this because many countries have already done so,” he writes. “If Africa is to succeed too, it is crucial to understand what has gone wrong in the past. Just why is Africa so poor?”

The answer, Guest believes, is misrule. In his view, corruption isn’t just a symptom of Africa’s deeper problems. It is the deeper problem. When government ministers loot social programs, it exacerbates poverty, disease and illiteracy. When customs agents demand bribes for allowing trucks to cross borders, it increases shipping costs, and hence the prices poor consumers pay. When rulers distribute jobs and contracts to their own tribal kin, it deepens ethnic divisions.

It’s no accident, Guest writes, that “the poorest one sixth of humanity endures four fifths of the world’s civil wars.” In Africa, where so many have so little, it’s easy to foment rebellion against Mercedes-driving kleptocrats. Because those who lose power are usually stripped of their ill-gotten wealth, rulers have an incentive to be paranoid and cruel. Perversely, Guest notes, countries that are blessed by nature tend to suffer the most. Nigeria has pumped $280 billion worth of oil since the 1970s, and has seen much of it siphoned off by a series of dictators. Angola endured a long, bloody conflict over its oil and diamonds. Congo is endowed with vast quantities of almost every precious mineral, and today it lies devastated by an interminable war of plunder.

Guest’s book is at its best, however, when it abandons these big stories and focuses on the everyday, showing how corrupt governments plague the lives of normal Africans. In one chapter, he recounts his experiences riding along with a truck driver and his cargo of Guinness Stout on a ridiculously arduous four-day journey across Cameroon. The route is in terrible shape; Guest notes that since 1980 the government has allowed about two-thirds of Cameroon’s roads to be reclaimed by the rainforest. But the worst holdups come at countless police roadblocks, where officers fabricate phantom offenses to generate bribes. “Do you have a gun?” a police officer asks when someone raises an objection. “No. I have a gun, so I know the rules.”

Too often in Africa, Guest says, men with guns twist the rules to enrich themselves, further impoverishing their countrymen in the process. Still, he thinks countries can work their way out of the mess, particularly if they adopt the sort of free-market policies The Economist champions. Some of Guest’s ideas are compelling, such as when he cites the work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto to suggest that African governments could unlock nearly $1 trillion in capital by recognizing the land rights of squatters, who might then be able to borrow money against the value of their property. Elsewhere, he is less convincing. Guest believes that a simple fear of bad publicity will prevent multinational corporations from mistreating African workers, a contention that is quite at odds with historical precedent.

When it comes to development aid, Guest believes that donor nations “should be both more generous and more selective,” rewarding countries that are “trying to implement sensible policies” and cutting off those that aren’t. Aid isn’t the answer, he says. Rather, only Africans can save Africa, by building competitive economies. Right now, he writes, Africa possesses 10 percent of the world’s population and accounts for only 2 percent of global trade; it “hardly produces anything that the rest of the world wants to buy.” Until it does, Guest believes, the continent’s shackles will stay locked.

By this point, you may think you know why Africa languishes. But you’re wrong, says Jeffrey Sachs. In making his passionate call for more foreign aid, he challenges the conventional wisdom that Africa isn’t ready for help. African governments are dictatorial? Sachs says that the thieving-tyrants-with-fly-swatters stereotype of African leaders is “passé,” and that “by the early 1990s…a little-heralded democratic revolution was sweeping the continent.” Corruption is the source of all misery? That contention, he writes, “does not withstand practical experience or serious scrutiny.” Sachs believes Africa’s problem is not politics but simple misfortune. Its soil produces less food than, for instance, East Asia’s. The continent suffers disproportionately from debilitating diseases like AIDS and malaria. Much of its population is concentrated away from its coastline, and this, combined with its lack of good roads and navigable rivers, hampers trade and economic growth. “Africa’s governance is poor,” Sachs writes, “because Africa is poor.”

The idea that Africa is a victim of geography is not new, but Sachs’s book dares to offer a big, bold solution. And an author of Sachs’s pedigree can’t be taken lightly. The globe-trotting Columbia professor is a kind of macroeconomic Winston Wolf. Like Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, he shows up at scenes of carnage with a snappy plan to clean things up. Sometimes he succeeds, as in Bolivia in the hyperinflationary 1980s. Sometimes he fails, as in post-Communist Russia–but never for lack of self-assurance. He says economists should think like scientists when diagnosing Africa’s ills. “In some ways,” he writes, “today’s development economics is like eighteenth-century medicine, when doctors used leeches to draw blood from their patients, often killing them in the process.”

Sachs first approached Africa in the late 1990s, at a time when foreign aid was plummeting from cold war highs. He concluded that many Africans are stuck in a “poverty trap.” They don’t make enough to save, so they can’t amass the capital necessary to build a future. (For an illustration, read Robert Guest’s account of a Malawian farmer who dreams of becoming a merchant but can’t because he finds a bicycle hopelessly expensive.) The End of Poverty contains many common-sensical ideas: Use irrigation and fertilizers to increase crop yields; distribute mosquito nets to combat malaria and pharmaceuticals to lessen the symptoms of AIDS; give rural villages cell phones to ease communication and trade. What’s grabbed the world’s attention, though, is not such incremental prescriptions but Sachs’s claim of a cure.

“The end of extreme poverty is at hand–within our generation,” he declares, if only rich nations, especially the United States, open their coffers. This, Sachs writes, “is the great opportunity of our time, a commitment that would not only relieve massive suffering and spread economic well-being, but would also promote other Enlightenment objectives of democracy, global security, and the advancement of science.” Sachs attacks those who don’t share his utopian vision, lamenting the “anti-African and antipoor attitudes” of skeptics. “Africa gets a bad rap as the ‘corrupt continent,'” he writes. “Even when such sentiments are not racist in intent, they survive in our societies as conventional wisdom because of existing widespread racism.”

Invoking the R-word in this context seems overheated, especially since those who complain loudest about corruption in Africa tend to be Africans themselves. (Bob Geldof, to his credit, recognizes this.) One might forgive Sachs’s rhetorical overkill if it weren’t emblematic of his book’s deeper failure to engage with the most serious argument against him: history. Ending African poverty is a worthy aspiration. It is also an old ideal, a shoal on which many buoyant ideologies–liberalism, communism, pan-Africanism–have run aground. Sachs talks of the need for an effort akin to the Marshall Plan for postwar Europe. Guest points out that since independence Africa has “received aid equivalent to six Marshall Plans”–with little to show for it.

Much of this assistance has been consumed by graft. Corrupt leaders have proved to be highly adaptable to changing times. When statism was in vogue, they nationalized industries, which they proceeded to operate as patronage mills. When the World Bank demanded privatization, they sold off the state companies to their cousins and cronies. Nowadays, the watchword is “transparency,” but the situation remains much the same. According to a 2002 study conducted by the African Union, corruption consumes more than a quarter of the continent’s gross domestic product every year, about $148 billion.

Faced with such facts, Sachs tries to recalculate reality. He publishes a chart of corruption figures that have been “controlled statistically for income levels” and concludes that Africa is not “distinctly poorly governed by the standards of very poor countries.” This is a little like saying if you control for height, the Ivy League is the best conference in college basketball. The generals who looted Nigeria–a government of “average” honesty by Sachs’s measure–were not stealing relative dollars: Check their Swiss bank statements. Some, like Guest, contend that in Africa corruption matters more than anywhere else, because the margin of survival is so thin. Rapacious rulers are literally stealing bread from the mouths of those they serve.

Sachs’s solution sounds simple enough: Lavish billions on good countries like Ghana and punish bad ones like Zimbabwe by stopping the checks. The hitch is that the list of countries considered “good” and “bad” keeps changing. Sachs’s favorites include Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique. But fifteen years ago these countries were basket cases; Zimbabwe was the success story, under the wise rule of its benevolent autocrat Robert Mugabe. Fifteen years before that, the paragons were Nigeria and Ivory Coast. Whenever a darling disintegrates, much of what development aid finances–paved roads, schools, hospitals, advanced farms–is destroyed, and the process must begin anew.

The closer you look at some of Sachs’s chosen countries, the more you wonder about his judgment. Take Kenya, for instance. Sachs minimizes the problem of corruption there, attacking leery donors for their “useless and false moralizing,” but no Kenyan I’ve ever met would share his lack of concern. (Nor, it’s likely, would the country’s former anticorruption czar, who resigned earlier this year in frustration.) One leader Sachs frequently consults, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has lately been acting like an old-school dictator, imprisoning political opponents after an allegedly fraudulent election. In Uganda, where more than half the country’s budget comes from foreign aid, a recent confidential report written for the World Bank concludes that donor aid is becoming a “mechanism for regime maintenance,” allowing the ruling party to set up “slush funds” to pay for patronage and a military buildup. Meanwhile, the percentage of Ugandans living in poverty has risen. Sachs says this is nothing an extra $1.8 billion a year won’t fix.

The point is that playing favorites requires vigilance and a willingness to recognize when success is turning sour. Africa is not the unremitting disaster Martin Meredith portrays. Countries like Botswana and Senegal stand out as models of stability, and Sachs is right to say that more Africans enjoy more democracy today than ever before. Everyone who knows the continent well believes it could benefit from a boost in generosity and–especially–closer attention from the American government. But an endeavor as ambitious as ending African poverty demands a little humility in the face of the task. We must recognize history, and understand the continent as it is, not as we wish it to be. To worry about corruption and misrule is to amplify the concerns of Africans I’ve met all over the continent, whose greatest anger is inevitably reserved for those leaders who have misspent so much in their names. Their voices should be heard, too, over the din of the rock concerts.