Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Review: The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith

Title: The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair: A History of 50 Years of Independence
Author: Martin Meredith
Publisher: Public Affairs
Year: 2005

I read my first Martin Meredith books in the mid-1980s as a graduate student in African History at UCLA: The Past is Another Country: Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, 1890-1979 (published in 1979) and The First Dance of Freedom (published in 1985). Meredith, whose long experience observing and writing about Africa began as a journalist covering the continent for British newspapers, subsequently published significant books on South Africa and Zimbabwe, including a biography of Nelson Mandela (1999) and volumes on Robert Mugabe's increasingly tyrannical and catastrophic rule over Zimbabwe (2003, 2007). Like other journalists who make a career writing history, Meredith's books not surprisingly have a journalist's strengths (a very engaging writing style, perceptive observation and insight) and weaknesses (not particularly arresting or compelling as historical analysis or historical interpretation). The Fate of Africa demonstrates these same strengths and weaknesses.

Why should anyone want to read this book?

First, Meredith's treatment of the era of independence is very well done, worth reading the book just for this section. He captures the euphoria of this moment in history, full of optimism and hope for the future. Nearly universal rejoicing accompanied the achievement of self-government with its promise for justice, autonomy, and economic development. This historical context for comprehending modern Africa is valuable for the important, foundational levels of understanding it provides.

Second, Meredith's chapters on selected regional, national, and sub-national stories in Africa since 1957 provide concise historical background for current conditions in those parts of Africa. Chapters on Kenya or Ethiopia or Somalia or Sudan or Rwanda, Zaire, Nigeria, Liberia, Zimbabwe or South Africa may be profitably read by themselves as an introductory primer or as a refresher on each story. For the beginning reader setting out to learn Africa, all of these individual, complex stories can be overwhelming, as should be expected for an incredibly diverse continent three times the size of the U.S. with more than fifty national narratives of colonization, independence, and post-independence history -- not to mention important narratives other than those using nation states as the main unit of study.

Finally, the most important questions Meredith seeks to address in The Fate of Africa are: How did the hopeful Africa at independence become the present Africa of despair? and its implicit companion: What would need to happen to accomplish positive change? Most of the literature, historical or otherwise, has answered the first question by blaming africa's poverty, corruption, political instability, and political tyranny on 1) the colonial legacy or continuing post-independence exploitation (economic and political) by rich and powerful outsiders (nations and corporations); 2) the failure of African leadership; 3) some combination of both with more or less connection, even partnership, between them. Meredith's is emphatically a #2 explanation, and, although he would undoubtedly agree that some nuance of #3 is more comprehensively true, his narratives from different parts of Africa certainly support his #2 answer. If Meredith's answer to the first question is accepted, then the answer to the second question is easy: better leadership. Since leadership functions in context, local and global, it seems clear that better leadership is easier to state as an answer than it is to achieve as an answer.

Review by Steven D. Edgington, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven D. Edgington is Dean of Pacific Christian College, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Professor of History.

The views in this book review are not necessarily the views of Hope International University.

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