Little light on the Dark Continent

Africa since Independence - What Went Wrong with Africa - The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars
May 20, 2005

Writing the history of continents is difficult, and Africa, with its multiplicity of states and varied population, seems to present insuperable problems. Nonetheless, it is possible to provide a comprehensive single-volume view of short periods of continental African history. David Nugent's Africa since Independence deals excellently with the problem by taking a thematic approach in which the main features of African history are considered within a broadly chronological structure.

Although it is a scholarly work that addresses the arguments of other authorities, it also provides a clear narrative account of African experience that is interesting to informed general readers.

African history shows several broad trends. Most African countries experienced decolonisation or liberation and many were subject to irredentism and secessionism. All experimented with economic structures, some favouring capitalism, others socialism and a few hardline Marxism, though with African modifications. The lure of Pan-Africanism affected many, leading to the creation of the generally unsuccessful Organisation of African Unity. Many experienced military dictatorship. Almost all of Africa had a new dose of outside intervention from the 1980s onwards, due to conditions imposed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and others in return for assistance. Most of the continent has been seriously affected by Aids. Finally, a general resurgence of democracy occurred in the last two decades of the 20th century.

Within these general themes, however, there is an immense variety of experience. Decolonisation in the 1960s varied according to the nature of the European colonising power, and this decolonisation again differed widely from the later second liberation of the Portuguese colonies, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Differing experiences of decolonisation or liberation had long-term effects on the subsequent development of various regions, which again emphasises the variety of African history.

Similarly, although military rule is usually oppressive, it is a mistake to see all African military regimes as alike. As Nugent shows, they varied considerably, many being initially designed as caretaker regimes or reforming movements. Even among the outright usurpers, there is a world of difference between the naked violence of Idi Amin in Uganda and the more sophisticated personality cult established by Mobutu in Zaire.

Experiences of socialism and capitalism also varied, but it is possible to see, despite Nugent's even-handed treatment, that countries such as Tanzania and Ghana that took the socialist route were generally less successful economically than those such as Kenya or the Ivory Coast that chose capitalism. But these were not quite the economic miracles that some commentators made out, and in the general crisis of the 1980s both socialist and capitalist nations had to appeal to the IMF and the World Bank.

Nugent appears to see the conditions laid down by these institutions regarding limited government and free markets as somewhat negative, and it is true that the process must have looked to some Africans like a "de facto recolonisation of the continent". This purely ideological objection would be irrelevant were it not for the fact that the Structural Adjustment Programmes (Saps) imposed on African nations have not resulted in the economic benefits they were supposed to promote, although again it is important to notice that Nugent's approach shows that the effects of Saps varied between countries. It does seem that most of Africa is now more in debt than ever. Nugent does not pay much attention to African debt, which has become a burning international concern in recent years, and this omission may be seen by some readers as a weakness in an otherwise comprehensive book.

Economics plays a huge role in any consideration of recent African history. Unlike Nugent's wide-ranging work, Roel van der Veen's What Went Wrong with Africa? is more economic in its focus, attempting to answer the question of why sub-Saharan Africa is "the only large contiguous region left out of the worldwide rise in prosperity over the past 50 years". Despite this, it is not a conventional economic history stuffed with graphs, but an accessible work that links Africa's failure to cultural as well as economic and political factors. The flaw is that this approach leads to generalisation of the type Nugent's approach avoids. Van der Veen explicitly defends generalisations, and his analysis may support this, but it also leaves him open to criticism for simplification.

Van der Veen has little time for the dependency theory fashionable in the 1970s and still present in the anti-globalisation movement, which holds that poor countries can never improve their lot because rich ones maintain an international system designed to keep them dependent. In refutation of this, he points to the prosperity of Asian countries that began in much the same condition as those in Africa, and shows that even African countries with huge advantages (such as oil-rich Nigeria) have failed to flourish.

Instead, Van der Veen advances a modified version of the earlier modernisation theory that held that Africa's success depended on its ability to abandon old ways and embrace modernity as represented by the West. In this interpretation, Africa's problems are a result of its failure to modernise due to factors inherent in African society that pre-date colonialism, although they may have been strengthened during the colonial period.

Patronage is a significant feature in African history. The powerful leading man who maintains power by creating a network of clients through the distribution of favour has always been a notable figure in African society.

This has an unfortunate effect in states where leaders use their authority not for the common good but to maintain their power bases by distributing government favour and jobs. Such practices are plainly an obstruction to the working of democracy and the functioning of the state. They probably hindered the working of Saps, as opportunities created by privatisation often led only to the further engrossing of wealth in the hands of patrons.

Economic progress is further hindered by the fact that successful African entrepreneurs are expected to act as patrons and distribute the fruits of their success to their family and other connections.

Patronage is probably related to two other African problems. The first is presidentialism, a tendency in African leaders to rule in an authoritarian manner with all effective power centred in the leader, contrary to the spirit of democracy. The roots of this may lie in African history, when leaders possessed a "sacred" character. The problems caused by ethnic divisions are likewise ancient, and were strengthened by the colonial practice of favouring chosen groups. Ethnic feeling can also be stirred up by patron leaders to strengthen their position. The consequences of unchecked ethnic sentiment can be judged by the genocide in Rwanda.

The chief problem with this interpretation is that these features (as Van der Veen admits) are not peculiar to Africa. Neither do they automatically cause failure. Patronage was central to successful Western polities such as 18th-century Britain, presidentialism is found in both the caudillismo of Latin America and in Lee Kwan Yew's highly prosperous Singapore, and no one contemplating Yugoslavia can believe that disastrous ethnic divisions are confined to Africa. Despite this, the book is a challenging and possibly controversial response to commentators who see Africa's problems mainly in terms of external influences.

Civil war has been a disastrous feature of African history, and Douglas H.

Johnson's examination of Sudan is an analysis of one of the most enduring and devastating of conflicts. Like Van der Veen, he finds origins for African problems in the pre-colonial past, observing that the north/south and Muslim/non-Muslim divisions that resulted in ongoing conflict pre-date colonialism, acquiring significance particularly during the Turco-Egyptian and Mahdist periods in the 19th century. These divisions were exacerbated by the later British administration, which deliberately differentiated between the "Arab" north and the "African" south, adopting different administrative, religious and educational policies for each region.

When Sudan achieved independence in 1956, it was as a unitary state dominated by the mainly Muslim north, rather than the federation hoped for by southerners. The first Sudanese civil war followed soon after independence. The general view of subsequent events is of a general north/south conflict, but Johnson's careful examination shows that matters are far more complex. The conflict has changed since the 1950s, and those commentators who believe that peace can be restored by a return to the stipulations of the deeply flawed Addis Ababa agreement that ended the first civil war in 1972 by allowing a measure of regional autonomy are mistaken. Furthermore, neither the north nor the south are monolithic power blocs; the south, in particular, has been prone to factionalism, especially since the 1990s. As a result, the picture is less one of a single north/south struggle than one of multiple civil wars. The fact that southern Sudan is an oil-producing area means that foreign interests are inevitably involved, and the politics of international aid are also significant. In short, Douglas's analysis shows that the conflict cannot be reduced to a straightforward regional or religious struggle, and this appears to make any resolution of the devastating war elusive.

The author's sympathies clearly lie with the south, but this does not result in any blatant bias, and the work generally presents a clear and concise account of an African conflict that appears dauntingly confusing to anyone approaching it for the first time. Douglas's inclusion of a substantial bibliographical essay will also be of great use to general and academic readers, although a specialist work of this nature will possibly appeal more to the latter. Like Nugent and Van der Veen, Douglas also provides a comprehensive glossary of the acronyms that bedevil all accounts of African history.

These three works differ widely in focus, but they have a common feature.

Despite authorial attempts to show that there have been some positive developments in Africa, it is difficult for their readers to avoid the conclusion that these are outweighed by negative ones, that the future looks grim and that there are no easy solutions. Solutions must nonetheless be found; until then, South African President Thabo Mbeki's vision of an "African renaissance" will, as Van der Veen says, be merely "a mirage to most Africans".

Alexander du Toit holds a PhD in imperial and colonial history from London University.

Africa since Independence

Author - Paul Nugent
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 620
Price - £52.50 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 333 682 6 and 683 4

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