The question, “Why is Africa poor?” has been discussed several times. So many authors have argued that the legacy left by colonialism, over 50 years ago, still haunts the continent. Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo tells us it is aid — that has funded a wave of neocolonialism producing the same effects as colonialism did. For journalist Robert Guest, it is the African people, especially their leaders, to blame for the mess they have made of their continent.
The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption, and African Lives is a lengthy treatise of this argument. First published in 2004 by Pan Books and re-released in September 2010 by Smithsonian Books, the book has attracted much acclaim and appraisal for its detailed analysis of the African problem. Robert Guest being a journalist plying the continent, has firsthand experience with the hardships, and the bizarre things that the people have to deal with everyday. He meets prostitutes in Harare, rebels in Chad and flood victims in Mozambique. He even meets the superstitious in Tanzania – and all these are narrated to the smallest detail and in extremely pleasant prose.
Robert Guest does not totally disagree with the claim that colonialism did much harm; instead he argues that that the current crop of leaders, citing Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi, have done far more harm than what the colonialists did. He bashes them for corruption, tribalism and failure to support liberal growth of the economies. He blames many of the leaders for accumulating so much wealth, instead of tackling HIV/AIDS head on.
Perching on recklessness, Robert Guest makes the argument that HIV/AIDS has killed many Africans leaving the continent poor. By 2002, “46 million Africans were dead or doomed” and the continent has had to remain with a large orphaned and widowed population that contributes less to growth.
Robert Guest winds his book around the saying, “the son of snake is a snake” in an analysis of the acute tribal crisis on the continent. That it has been a cycle of conflict, from father to child — filled with bigotry! There have been ethnically perpetrated civil conflicts on the continent, and these have furiously conspired to deny Africa growth; Nigeria, Namibia, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Kenya Ethiopia Somalia, etc.
However, over time, this book has been met with fierce criticisms for its simplistic interpretation of the African reality. The episodes are narrated in a manner so journalistic that it often in not only goes for the dramatic — and the analyses are stripped of their history. For example, the Rwanda holocaust is interpreted just as a product of sheer bigotry and not as a reality created by the colonial project and only exploded in 1994.
He is criticized further in Genocide by Denial by Professor Peter Mugyenyi who argues that Robert Guest got it wrong on several issues, specifically on HIV/AIDS. Mugyenyi notes that the big pharmaceutical companies prized profits over lives. On the other hand, Guest’s rationalizes that producing drugs is often a hefty investment and will definitely transform into a huge sale price and should be protected by law! “The truth is that pharmaceutical companies have never had a priority agenda to rush and help disease-ridden, poor African countries.” The professor notes, and adds that it was a bluff that there were big funds to recoup for the investments that had been incurred for AZT the respected anti-retroviral had been discovered way long before the AIDS scourge!
Put together, The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption, and African Lives remains a substantive narrative of the African plight; bad leadership, corruption, tribalism, HIV/AIDS; but with very little to offer on how to move the continent forward. Just as Professor Mugyenyi notes, “most of his diagnosis and prescriptions are contentious.”