Africa has been largely free for half a century, and the resources many of its nations contain are ever more precious. Yet, writes long-time Africa observer Meredith (Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa, 2003, etc.), “Africa’s prospects are bleaker than ever before.”
Meredith’s complex but highly accessible narrative has a dramatis personae dozens strong. One representative figure is Kwame Nkrumah, who was there at the start of the continent’s independence movement. Jailed by the British for antigovernment activity, he was released in 1951 only to become, instantly, prime minister of the new independent nation of Ghana. He began as a sincere left democrat, it seems, then drew closer to socialism as a proven modernizer of developing nations, then claimed for himself the ability “of achieving for Africa what Marx and Lenin had done for Europe and Mao Tse-tung for China” by promulgating “Nkrumahism.” He then began to press for leadership of a pan-African union—which peers such as Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta and Hastings Banda did not grant him. Nkrumah’s supposedly loyal subjects deposed him in 1966. Military coups would topple similarly ambitious leaders in Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Uganda and elsewhere, and bring down the emperor of Ethiopia, the one country in Africa not to have been colonized. Those military coups often had the effect of instilling yet another cult-of-personality-mad strongman, as with Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic, which he would eventually deem to be an empire. Meredith’s account is more descriptive than prescriptive, but he does point to trends that could be repeated anywhere in the world: a strong leader rises, surrounds himself with a ruling elite, becomes distant from the people, eventually starts thinking of himself as a god, then falls—or, as in the case of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, largely disappears from view while others do the ruling. Sadly, that pattern has been repeated many times over in Africa, the victim of more than its share of “vampire-like politicians.”
Sharp-edged, politically astute and pessimistic: a good complement to John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the Continent (1999).