The Telling of a Very Sad Story

I am going to take you to a different sort of place this week – to a book. But it is a book that will take you on a massive journey: up, down and right across the African continent. Not a safari-type book, however, with pretty pictures and travellers’ tales. No, it is Martin Meredith’s ‘The State of Africa’ – a history of fifty years of independence. Yes, it has some pictures – but a disconcerting gallery of Africa’s Big Men and of the suffering they have inflicted on their peoples.

I picked it up in an airport bookshop a few weeks ago. I saw Bob Geldof’s extravagant plug on the cover: ‘You cannot even begin to understand contemporary African politics if you have not read this fascinating book.’

I took that, as they say, with a pinch of salt. I mean, how could anyone – in less than seven hundred pages – do justice to the stories of even only the larger of Africa’s forty-odd countries? But I was setting out on a long flight – and I knew that I would soon by bored by the project evaluation reports that I was supposed to have already read.

And once I started Meredith’s book, I kept on reading. I began to agree with Bob Geldof.

OK, you might be saying – yet another mzungu’s biased version of Africa. After all, as the African proverb has it: ‘Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ But this is not really a hunter’s tale – it is a post-colonial history. And it is not at all written, as a Hendrik Verwoerd or an Ian Smith might have written it, as a justification of their white supremacy ideologies and as a realisation of their darkest prophecies.

Meredith may not wear Bata safari boots, but – journalist, biographer (with an excellent book on Mugabe) and historian – he certainly knows Africa. He has not only worked and travelled across it – he has read it thoroughly, too. His tale of Africa over the last fifty years may be a pessimistic and a sad one – but he tells it with a sympathy and, I think, a balance.

In his overall assessment of what has been happening to Africa, Meredith pulls no punches. ‘In reality,’ he says, fifty years after the beginning of the independence era, Africa’s prospects are bleaker than ever before.’ He tells how its average per capita national income is one third lower than the world’s next poorest region, South Asia. How, most African countries have lower per capita than they had in 1980 or, in some cases, in 1960. How half of Africa’s 880 million people live on less than US$1a day. How its entire economic output is no more than $420 billion, just 1.3 per cent of the world GDP – and less than a country like Mexico…. And so on.

Meredith is critical of the way Western governments are so little inclined to amend their trade and agricultural policies for the sake of Africa’s revival. ‘Determined to protect their own producers,’ he says, ‘industrialised countries operate a system of subsidies and tariff barriers that have a crippling effect on African producers.’ He tells how the total value of their agricultural subsidies amounts to 1 billion dollars a day – $370 billion a year – a figure higher than the gross domestic product of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. And he then comes up with a bizarre but very significant point: The European Union subsidy for each of its cows is about $900 a year – more than the average African income.

But Meredith lays the greatest blame for Africa’s plight on its Big Men and their ruling elites. ‘Their preoccupation, above all’ he says, ‘has been to hold power for the purpose of self enrichment.’ He argues that the patrimonial systems that they have used to stay in power have drained away a huge proportion of state resources. The World Bank estimates that up to 40% of Africa’s private wealth is held off-shore.

Then there is a commentary on how corruption is impoverishing the nations – with Kenya as the prime example. But, so close to the Elections, I think I shouldn’t quote what Meredith says on this one. Too close to home and too close to the Elections, don’t you think?

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation