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Why Is Africa Still Poor? | The Nation

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Why Is Africa Still Poor?

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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.

About the Author

Andrew Rice
Andrew Rice is the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda (...

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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.

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