The author, Martin Meredith, is a journalist, biographer and a historian who has written extensively on Africa and its recent history. His previous books include In the Name of Apartheid (1988), Nelson Mandela (1997), Coming to Terms: South Africa’s Search for Truth (1999), and Mugabe: Power and Plunder in Zimbabwe (2002).
In The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, published by Free Press in 2005, Meredith offers an overview of the continent’s history that is both readable and illuminating, starting from the independence era of the fifties and sixties.
The fortunes of Africa have changed dramatically in the fifty years since the independence era began. As Europe’s colonial powers withdrew, dozens of new states were launched amid much jubilation and hope. Independence came in the midst of economic boom.
As Meredith shows, the honeymoon of African independence was brief, albeit memorable. African leaders, riding the crest of popularity, stepped forward with energy and enthusiasm to tackle the tasks of development and nation-building. Ambitious plans were launched, bright young men rose quickly to the top. The sense of euphoria had been raised to even greater heights by the lavish promises of nationalist politicians campaigning for power, pledging to provide education, medical care, employment and land for all.
Almost without exception, however, the fortunes of Africa’s newly independent countries took a downward spiral. What went wrong?
Focusing on the key personalities, events and themes of independence era, Meredith seeks to explore and explain the myriad problems that Africa has faced in the past half-century, and faces still.
In defining their ideological stance, most governments opted for the umbrella of African socialism, believing that it held the potential for fast growth after years of exploitation by Western capitalism. For all the hype, African socialism was little more than a potpourri of vague and romantic ideas lacking coherence, and subject to varying interpretations.
In Northern Africa, resurgent Islam played a similar role to African socialism, on the premise that religion (Sharia Law) rather than secular ideology offered the best solution to the prevailing social, economic and political problems.
Neither African socialism nor Islamism really worked. For twenty-six years after independence in 1962, Algeria was run as a one-party dictatorship controlled by a military hierarchy with a monopoly on public life. And this led to insurgency. Compared with the horrors of Algeria, Egypt’s Islamist insurgency in the 1990s was more sporadic but nevertheless made a deep impact. In Ethiopia, Colonel Mengistu Haile Marriam‘s tenth anniversary celebration of the 1974 revolution was so elaborate that the president paid no attention to drought and famine ravaging the country at the time. He even ordered famine areas to be closed to all foreign visitors and banned representatives and journalists from traveling there.
Other countries like Rwanda faced genocide, Liberia faced blood diamonds, and Angola’s interminable civil war that started in 1990 as the cold war drew close brought great inequalities in the country. The stark contrast between the rich and the mass poverty of the rest of the population was so evident, with half of the population of 4 million having no access to clean water and subsisting on less than seventy cents a day.
The inescapable conclusion from Meredith’s look at Africa is that fifty years after Independence, Africa continues to grapple with the same challenges – a rapidly growing population short on skills, increasing poverty, drought, and famine. And all this, despite the fact that the continent enjoys huge resources. In some instances, the book comes across as overly pessimistic about Africa. That notwithstanding, The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence is an important piece of work providing one of the best compilations of Africa’s progress (or lack thereof) in the last half century and a good place to start for anyone trying to understand the roots of Africa’s problems.
Moses Kibe Kihiko holds a Master’s degree in Leadership Studies. He recently published his book “Public Leadership: The Ten Defining Moments How Leaders Acquire & Handle Fame, Power & Glory “with Miraclaire Publishing, Website: www.miraclairebooks.com). Moses is the CEO of Practicum Leadership, a training, consultancy, writing and research firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.