Africa's promise and despair

A careful history of the continent's challenges – and a wise collection of policy prescriptions for change

In late June, Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's scholarly president, traveled to Kananaskis, Alberta, to sell G-8 heads of state on a new aid package for Africa. Asking for a handout for Africa was nothing new. But Mbeki's pitch differed dramatically from past aid requests. Under his proposed New Plan for Africa's Development (NEPAD), African states, in return for assistance from the West, will pledge themselves to enhancing democracy and good governance and reducing conflict, signing on to strict standards to be policed by their peers. In other words, under the new, self-imposed regime, they'll have to start reforming before they can expect any more help from the outside. This is a welcome sign, one of several recent positive developments in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, as Robert Rotberg writes in "Ending Autocracy, Enabling Democracy," the region has entered an unusually promising period.

Both local behemoths, Nigeria and South Africa, have managed largely successful transitions to democracy. Democracy is also prevailing in Zambia, Namibia, Malawi, and valiant Botswana. Ghana, Senegal, and Tanzania have all recently managed free and fair polls. Fragile cease-fires are holding in Sierra Leone and Angola. Moreover, disastrous economic policies – such as state interference, price controls, and high import tariffs – that doomed much of postcolonial Africa to poverty have been repudiated.

Of course, one need only look at recent headlines to be reminded that critical problems persist: a number of still-smoldering wars (one of which, in Congo, has ensnared five other states), the AIDS pandemic, and raging unemployment (50 percent in some places). Most spectacularly, Zimbabwe, long a beacon of relative stability, has recently imploded, as the increasingly erratic Robert Mugabe desperately struggles to prop up his plummeting popularity.

As Rotberg shows, this pattern – a seesawing between promise and despair – has been an all-too-common feature of the region's 40-year postcolonial history. Since the heady years of 1960-1966, when 29 African states achieved their independence, the area's aspirations for effective self-rule have consistently been dashed by an epic series of natural and manmade disasters. "Africa in the second half of the 20th century," he writes, "is a tale of great hope and expectation, followed by disappointment," as the continent has struggled to turn what had been an arbitrary colonial patchwork into modern, functioning nation-states.

Few are better equipped to tell this story than Rotberg, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and one of the United States's leading Africa experts. He has traveled through and reported on the continent for four decades. (He was even banned at one point from white-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia.)

In "Ending Autocracy," he has compiled 229 of his pieces from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, the New Republic, and other journals. He has added summaries and some new analysis in order to educate an American public woefully ignorant of Africa's recent history and to offer policy solutions to experts on how to "achieve justice, peace, and improving standards of living" for the region.

These are, obviously, not easy tasks, especially for what is one of the world's most unfortunate places. But Rotberg brings remarkable fluency and erudition to the project. His essays cover an impressive range of topics, from the long battles against entrenched white rule in Rhodesia and South Africa, to the civil war in Angola, to a careful analysis of the misguided economic policies of resource-rich Zambia, which, since independence, have turned it from one of Africa's most promising countries to one of the worst off. Along the way, the reader is treated to acutely drawn sketches of local leaders such as Malawi's Hastings Banda, Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda, and Kenya's Daniel arap Moi.

For someone working in a field known for its left-wing leanings, Rotberg's writing is refreshingly free of liberal pieties. For example, while he was always quick to criticize the Reagan administration for its cozy engagement of apartheid South Africa, he is equally hard on the muddled socialism that caused so much economic wreckage in the region, and he pillories local leaders for their autocratic excesses.

That said, this may not be a book for everyone. Rotberg doesn't always make the context of his essays as clear as he could, which leads to some slow going for readers unfamiliar with African history. And, as is perhaps inevitable for a collection of this sort, there is some repetition in the writing. Nor does Rotberg ever fully answer the most vexing question about Africa: why even successful or well-meaning governments there slip into mismanagement and corruption, and squander opportunities that other regions, such as East Asia, have successfully exploited.

Still, this book – thanks to both its careful history and its policy prescriptions – should become essential reading for anyone seriously interested in Africa.

Its format pays tribute to an earlier era, when Americans cared more about foreign countries; it's hard to imagine the region getting such extensive coverage in popular newspapers or magazines today. And that's a tragedy. For despite the hopeful signals, Africa still bleeds from numerous wounds. It may be true that, as Rotberg writes, the region now benefits from "tougher-minded thinking, better discipline, less fuzzy math, and clear-eyed leaders who are showing the way to a promised land." But optimists, including Rotberg, have been wrong about southern Africa before. And even if they're not, the area still needs as much well-informed help as it can get. This, fortunately, Rotberg delivers.

• Jonathan Tepperman is senior editor at Foreign Affairs magazine.

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