"The State of Africa" by Martin Meredith (2011)
"But for the most part, Africa has suffered grievously at the hands of its Big Men and its ruling elites. Their preoccupation, above all, has been to hold power for the purpose of self-enrichment. The patrimonial systems they have used to sustain themselves in power have drained away a huge proportion of state resources. They have commandeered further riches by acting as 'gatekeepers' for foreign companies. Much of the wealth they have acquired has been squandered on luxury living or stashed away in foreign bank accounts and foreign investments. The World Bank has estimated that 40 percent of Africa's private wealth is held offshore. Their scramble for wealth has spawned a culture of corruption permeating every level of society. A report prepared for the African Union in 2002 estimated that corruption cost Africa $148 billion annually - more than a quarter of the continent's entire gross domestic product. Research results published in 2010 estimated that at least $850 million has been siphoned off from Africa since 1970."
The subtitle of this book is "A History of the Continent Since Independence." "Independence" in the African context refers to the independence gained by African states following the gradual departure of colonial powers from the 1950s on. The book begins with the British departure from the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and ends with the failure of the South African ANC administration in the early 2010s.
Between Independence and the recent failures of South African government, "The State of Africa" tells the long, depressing story of a continent that has never even approached its true potential. There are moments of triumph in this book, when the peoples' voices are heard, but these moments are in all cases fleeting.
Democracy is established, or market reforms are implemented, or dictators are ousted, but these euphoric changes are only ever preludes to larger tragedies, and to more offensive acts of predation by whatever despot waits in the wings. If one were to judge the recent history of Africa by this book, then one is forced to the conclusion that Africa is no fit place for anyone to live. I am not altogether sure that this is so, but "The State of Africa" proffers no other conclusion.
I found parts of this book very interesting, even if the whole was both historically and necessarily repetitious. I enjoyed the chapters on Liberia, Ethiopia, and South Africa, though the cruelties experienced in those countries differ only in degree, if not in kind. The history of Africa since Independence is a history of heartbreak, offering few reasons for hope. Examples of real progress are few and far between.
I can't help but wonder if it might be better to end all aid to Africa altogether. Perhaps leave the continent to its own devices for a few decades, and hope that everything there sorts itself out. I realize that this isn't the most pragmatic point of view, but at this moment, in 2014, what other options have been tried? As is often said, "The road to hell is paved with the best intentions," and many Africans have learned this lesson at the hands of dictators, at the hands of Western powers, and at the hands of their own machete-wielding countrymen.
I'm sure there are some good places in Africa. I'm sure there are some kind, loving people. But for all the good places and kind people there is the insanity of neighboring states, the greed of politicians, and the tribal distrust that have marked so many African nations as failed states. It's hard to find a strong enough reason to believe in Africa. It's hard to imagine a place from which true progress might begin. This place has to exist. It must exist. But in reading "The State of Africa" one wonders if cruelty doesn't just beget more cruelty, and if the failures of the past haven't just about crushed the possibilities inherent in the future.