Continent of heartbreak

The struggle of independent Africa to find its way

In March 1957, congratulatory messages from world leaders including Eisenhower, Nehru, Zhou En-lai and Queen Elizabeth II poured into Ghana, even as delegations from 56 countries were arriving there for six days of festivities. At that moment, there seemed to be much to celebrate. Ghana was gaining its independence from Britain. Rich in cocoa, gold, timber, and bauxite, the infant nation seemed destined for a bright future. At its helm stood national hero Kwame Nkrumah. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth attended the festivies.]

This competent and well-educated man, a political-prisoner-turned-leader, charmed the global elite who surrounded him as the world arrived to fête his country. He opened the State Ball paired with the Duchess of Kent, employing dance steps taught him only hours earlier by Louis Armstrong's wife Lucille.

Such is the lively scene painted in the first chapter of "The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair" by veteran Africa observer Martin Meredith.

But by Chapter 15, it's the early 1970s, and Nkrumah - overthrown by his own military in 1966 - is a deluded and pathetic man living in exile in Guinea in a villa with a leaking roof. Ghana was by then on its way to utter impoverishment, with crime rates soaring, public services crumbling, and the educated classes in flight.

This month - between Live 8 concerts and the meeting of the G-8 leaders in Edinburgh - the world is again turning its attention to Africa. But today there is less than ever to celebrate, according to Meredith.

"The Fate of Africa" is not an easy book to read. Not because of its length - the pages actually turn quite easily as Meredith strides through a half century of the tumult of African independence - but rather because it tells of so much heartbreak.

Yet Meredith leaves readers little time to indulge in emotion. In a style that is broad rather than deep, his narrative rushes from country to country, determined to touch down in all corners of the continent.

He tells the stories of a generation of young nationalist leaders in Africa - Nkrumah in Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Léopold Senghor of Senegal, Haile Selassie in Ethiopia - and of their early successes and later failures.

The book explains the ways in which the different European colonizers either accepted and facilitated the emergence of the new nations (the British) or turned the separation into bitter and sometimes bloody struggles (the French and the Portuguese).

It chronicles the shocking excesses and even madness of some African leaders (Jean-Bedel Bokassa who spent $22 million on his coronation as emperor of the Central African Republic) and the willingness of world leaders to overlook their worst practices. (Joseph Mobutu of Zaire, believed to have stolen an estimated $5 billion from his crumbling nation, later warmly recalled his stay with the Bush family in Kennebunkport.)

Along the way are bits and pieces of stories that are alternately intriguing, surprising, and touching (Che Guevara writing in his journal after battling in the Congo: "This is the history of a failure"; Senghor's induction into the Académie française; Nelson Mandela, on trial, stating readiness to die for his dream of a free and democratic society).

Some readers, however, may be frustrated both by the book's rapid sweep and its unwillingness to offer solutions.

After years of reporting and writing on Africa first as a journalist and then as an academic, Meredith knows his territory. He is generous with numbers and statistics. He uses these - indices like gross domestic product figures, infant mortality rates, per capita income, literacy and school enrollment rates - to trace the decline of African prospects from the 1960s down through the 1980s and, he argues, (with some exceptions) into an even bleaker period today.

But Meredith is neither a philosopher nor an ideologue. "The Fate of Africa" is not a book that attempts to rationalize the heartbreak he describes or to suggest an improved path for the future (other than to urge better governance).

It is rather a work that serves as a guide through events that many readers outside Africa may know best as headline fragments rather than as a cohesive history.

As such, it makes for fascinating - although constantly disturbing - reading. Often it would seem that the book's true theme is simply man's inhumanity to man.

Occasionally, Meredith relies on the words of others to spell this out. He quotes economist Arthur Lewis who wrote in a 1965 study of one-party states in West Africa: "Much of what is going on is fully explained in terms of the normal lust of human beings for power and money."

He also tells of Monitor staff writer Scott Peterson, who, while working as a reporter for The Daily Telegraph in London and an occasional freelancer for this paper, listened to relief workers in the Sudan negotiate with gunmen to get food to the starving. Peterson later wrote, "There was no sense of community, no sense of easing a human crisis - just me and what goes into my pocket."

It's an observation that could be applied to so many of the African leaders Meredith writes of, as well as to the outsiders who plundered Africa for interests of their own.

There will undoubtedly be readers who will challenge Meredith's fairly relentless pessimism on his subject, and there will certainly be others who will clamor for more depth. He skims rapidly over complex topics and (apart from glancing references to South Africa and Botswana) credits few positive developments.

But the dark history Meredith narrates is one that merits repetition. So many of the atrocities he writes of could have been curtailed if the world had paid more heed.

In that spirit, those who believe that knowledge is power might well agree that spending a few hours with a book like this makes at least as positive a contribution to the future of Africa as attending a concert.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.

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