The fate of Africa : from the hopes of freedom to the heart of despair : a history of fifty years of independence

by Martin Meredith

Paper Book, 2005




New York : Public Affairs, cop. 2005


Presents a narrative of the last fifty years of African history, analyzing the factors which account for the political chaos, financial troubles, and civil wars which prevail in many African countries today.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
“The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence” by Martin Meredith left me feeling very sad and frustrated about the condition of most countries in Africa. This is a very big book, over 700 pages long if you count the notes and index. But in spite of its’ size, it’s readable.
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And that’s a good thing, because I think this is a book that people should read.

At the end of the nineteenth century, many European powers laid claim to various parts of Africa, and cut it up in various countries without much thought to tribal placement. For example, boundaries between two countries might be based on something arbitrary such as lines of latitude and longitude– even though doing so would split apart African cultural groups. So you might say colonialism was the beginnings of doom for Africa.

Fifty or so years ago, after years of colonial rule, many of the African countries were given independence (of course, this book goes into detail about this) – mostly at a cost of native lives. For instance, Belgian Congo became the Democratic Republic of Congo, and French West Africa was divided up into smaller countries that included Mauritania and Niger. Unfortunately, after an initial honeymoon period when many of these countries under independent rule seemed to show promise, things continued to go downhill. The reasons are varied — and Meredith details them very well; and it’s difficult for me to attempt to summarize. One thing I hadn’t realized is that during the Cold War, even when a country’s rule was known to be blatantly corrupt, in spite of that, it would be propped up by the West (or the Soviet Union, whichever the case might be) in hopes to keep it from going to the other side.

Billions of dollars have been poured in these African countries over the years, with very little to show for it. It is shocking to realize the sheer numbers — millions — of Africans who have died because of starvation, of AIDS and other illnesses, of civil wars, of genocides, and so forth. It is depressing to realize that most of this world has now pretty much given up on Africa.

Meredith documents all of this in great detail, from discussing leaders of countries such as Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta (he was a Moscow-trained revolutionary) and King Leopold (who helped ruin The Congo) and Nelson Mandela in South Africa — to the economies of Africa (i.e. all the money that ended up into corrupt hands). Religious issues are also covered, such as radical Islam in the northern African countries such as Sudan. Also, many genocides were and are based on religious differences in Africa.

After a while, I felt I was reading the same thing over and over because it seemed like history kept repeating itself. Meredith does not provide any real answers on how to solve Africa’s problems, but that is probably because they just can’t be solved overnight.
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LibraryThing member santhony
Had I been asked to review this work midway through, I would have given it at least four stars. However, the second half of the book began to read like a repeat of the first. I guess it is not the author's fault that the history of African development since independence has been the political
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equivalent of Groundhog Day (the movie).

This book is not a bad beginning for anyone just beginning to study recent African history, especially post colonial sub-Saharan Africa. When you consider that in just under 700 pages, the author covers virtually every country on the continent, you begin to get an idea of just how cursory the analysis is in many instances.

The recipe for this book is as follows: Begin with a region sporting literally thousands of disparate tribes and cultures. Mix in colonial powers who create political subdivisions without any regard for these cultures. Remove the colonial powers and entrust governance to native populations with no education and no experience in self government. Add the emergence of local "strong men" and the inevitable ethnic cleansing, corruption and large scale looting of government assets. Lather, rinse and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat. You get the idea.

Almost without exception, despite in many cases the presence of abundant natural resources and even on ocassion (though extremely rarely) honest politicians, each and every independent sub-Saharan African country has regressed since independence, and usually by an extremely wide margin. It is little wonder that most nations have begun to suffer from foreign aid fatigue in the face of failure after failure.

The author of this work is not without his biases. He doesn't pretend neutrality in most instances and for that I was grateful. There is evil in the world and evil is abetted in an effort to display moral relativism. The author also heaps generous scorn on the United Nations and in particular Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Secretary General during much of the period in question.

All in all a very depressing work. I suspect that after finishing the book, you will be glad you are done because the capacity for misery is finite and after about 400 pages, I had reached mine.
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LibraryThing member cwhouston
I've been waiting for this subject matter to be covered in a single volume for ages - this book hasn't disappointed. I do not need to describe the scope of the text in detail, except to say than many aspects of the history of the African countries are covered (e.g. economics and development, health
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etc) in addition to the political and military history.

The writing style is accessible and occasionally cutting and / or humorous. It is an achievement that such a large volume is so easy to read and not at all dull. The progression is largely chronological but the author has skilfully managed to group issues, e.g. US involvement in Somalia, into chapters that can serve as interesting stand alone 'mini-histories'. This has been achieved without the loss of between-chapter continuity.

This book is what I really wanted when I purchased and read 'Africa: A Biography of the Continent' by John Reader - very dry by comparison but worth a look if you want history from year zero.

'The State of Africa' is highly informative, almost unique in coverage, good value and very enjoyable - what more can you ask of a history book?
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LibraryThing member mnicol
Too early for the euphoric Economist cover story on “Africa Rising” (3/12/2011), this revised edition has tempered its 2005 judgment on Africa. In 2005, Meredith said “Africa’s prospects are bleaker than ever before” (p.681). The scarcely sunny alternative phrasing in 2011 is that
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“Africa’s prospects are as bleak as ever” (p.691). Meredith balances hopeful prospects from the “Arab Spring”, in 2011, with earlier examples of how hopeful change was blighted in Core d’Ivoire and Kenya. He retains the sameconcluding paragraph – referring to “vampire-like politicians” – from 2005: “Time and Again [Africa’s] potential for economic development has been disrupted by the predatory politics of ruling elites seeking personal gain, often precipitating violence for their own ends. ‘The problem is not so much that development has failed, as that it was never really on the agenda in the first place’ (citing a Claude Ake 1996 essay)…“After decades of mismanagement and corruption, most African states have become hollowed out. They are no longer instruments capable of serving the public good…”
Very fine, select bibliography.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Long and sobering history of tragedies. The evil people can do to each other is revealed fully here. The scope of the work is also very impressive, as I'm not sure there are too many other works which even attempt to go on this scale while are intended for the general public.
LibraryThing member stillatim
From now on, when I'm trying to explain to someone what 'irony' does not mean, I'll use this example: while I was on a plane between LA and Phillie, the entire world was watching a half hour documentary about a repulsive lunatic, and being encouraged to start a war in Uganda (i.e., the wrong
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country) in order to 'bring him to justice.' I finished this book just as we landed (I'd started it before I flew; it's very, very long), checked my email, and... you can guess the rest. That is not irony. It's just sad.

This book should be mandatory reading for human beings. Meredith writes beautifully about the twentieht century's biggest cluster-cuff, patiently showing how pretty much everything that could have gone wrong for Africa did go wrong; how almost every legitimate attempt to help out was ruined by African politicians, Western politicians and businessmen, and Soviet/Chinese politicians. It's incredibly depressing, but you know what? It is depressing. It's no use banging on about how 'we have to believe in hope' and 'you shouldn't deny Africans' agency'. Of course we do. But the history of Africa's problems is complex, and so is the present; part of that complexity is the fact that the heads of state in Africa are almost inevitably 'cut the Gordian knot' types; that type of person tends to deny the 'agency' of his/her population. Hope without some understanding of the situation leads to... Kony2012.

It's a little frustrating that Meredith offers no solutions to even localized problems, but it's also to his credit that he avoids simplistic solutions or explanations. Creating 'civil society' won't help much when rich countries pay their farmers to produce food that could be produced more cheaply, for export, in Africa. Cutting those tariffs won't do much good unless someone puts a stop to the insanity that is African politics. Improving leadership won't do much good if 'investors' continue to treat the continent like their own private money tree. And so on. This is not a rejection of hope, it's a demand that *everyone* accepts their part of the blame, and works to pay off their debts to the unluckiest people on the planet.

Note: there's a new edition of this book out, which, as far as I can tell, lengthens the chapters on Sudan, Zimbabwe and South Africa, for obvious reasons.
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LibraryThing member idgoddard
Excellent history of modern Africa and how it got here!
LibraryThing member gooneruk
I finished reading The State of Africa by Martin Meredith the other day. It’s a political history of post-independence Africa, and is it ever depressing.

The book itself is fantastic, a really in-depth look at just about every African country and how each has evolved politically in the last fifty
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years. From apartheid in South Africa to radical Islam in the north, via tribal genocides in the centre of the continent, nary a stone is left uncovered.

But it makes for a thoroughly downbeat assessment. Essentially, the European countries who colonised the continent and then abandoned it post-WWII fucked it over at first. Then Cold War struggles meant ruthless dictators were kept in power by the superpowers, as long as they didn’t turn to the other side.

Many military coups took place, with each takeover followed by promises to open up the country to democracy and the rule of law. Of course, each military-backed ruler merely consolidated his position, and used ethnic/tribal tensions to maintain it. This led to horrific numbers of deaths, most notably in Rwanda and Sudan.

Then there was the rampant racism in countries like South Africa (whites on blacks) and Sudan (Muslims on blacks), as well as more general tensions between the north and south. The onset of HIV in the 90s and 00s added to the generally sombre tone.

There were positive points, especially towards the end. Democracy is arriving there, in leaps and bounds, but it is still held back in places like Zimbabwe.

Meredith is utterly exhaustive in his coverage, and there are some great snippets of information throughout, as well as some truly disturbing anecdotes from what can only be called “survivors”. This book is brilliant, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has even the vaguest interest in Africa, African politics and modern African history.
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LibraryThing member theboylatham
Seven out of ten.
A history of the continent of Africa - focusing on the period after independence. Sadly, full of war, corrupt officaldom and tales of incompetence.
LibraryThing member pjpjx
decent for a survey, but the countries all seem a bit alike after awhile
LibraryThing member rudowske
Meredith seeks to offer the reader a broad look at the politics and historical events that have defined Africa (at least the western view of Africa) since the period of independence from colonial powers starting in the mid 1950's. Meredith is a journalist and his writing is engaging in an expected
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journalistic style. The fact that it is in journalistic style means that it focuses quite a bit on the 'newsworthy' aspects of African history while largely ignoring the few success stories such as Botswana. On the other hand, if Meredith had sought to definitvely cover every aspect of African history in the last fifty years, the book could easily have grown into several volumes.

I recommend the book for anyone who is seeking to gain some perspective on what has happened in Africa the last fifty years. For the most part our (US) media ignores this stuff or only gives it passing reference and generally focuses more on the Middle East. If anyone is going to live and work in Africa, you will find this book a helpful introduction. I give you the same advice that the person who gave me did - give yourself the winter to read it - it is lengthy and quite an undertaking to read it - but well worth the time invested.
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LibraryThing member ToonC
A great survey of post-independance.
All countries seem to have undergone the same experiences, only varying in their degree of misery (from quite miserable to miserable beyond imagination). This suggests the limitations of the view of the author - who is a journalist rather than a historian. He has
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not lived amongst the people he describes but still does identify quite a number of mechanisms of failing democracy and corruption, which then are abundantly illustrated.
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LibraryThing member annbury
Martin Meredith's history of Africa since independence provides a critical service to the general reader -- telling clearly and comprehensively what has happened in Africa since 1960. In so doing, he covers an vast amount of material. There are at present over 50 African states, and they vary
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enormously, in terms of culture, resources, history, and on and on. Meredith discusses all of the major and most of the minor countries individually, moving forward through time in what is a triumph of organization. If I want in future to review the recent history of one or another African country -- or of some cross-border phenomena -- I shall know where to turn.

It is probably too much to expect an explanation at the end of this chronicle. Mr. Meredith's history presents a harrowing account of war after war, dictator after dictator, famine after famine, and mass murder after mass murder. They differ from country to country, of course, but the pattern of kleptocracy combined with monomania emerges again and again. At the end, one has to wonder why, and Mr. Meredith does not really present many answers. It may not be possible to do so, but I wish he had tried.

Upon finishing this book, I went back to Amazon to see if there is another on the same topic -- is Africa's history since independence really so totally hopeless? I didn't find anything of anything like Mr. Meredith's level of seriousness that presented a less pessimistic view, at least not based on writeups and reviews. For now, I remain stunned, and curious.
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LibraryThing member gpmartinson
Breathtakingly painful history. What can we do? Its unbelievable in how much of a pattern there is.
LibraryThing member Rachabake
This book is a great introduction to modern African history and culture. It presents in sufficient detail all the transformations that the countries went through, and it explains important historical factors that continue to influence current culture and social institutions.

It is also important to
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note that the prose is easygoing and captivating. Meredith integrates storytelling to help ground her readers in the historical moment.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in Africa but who grew up elsewhere. It gives a really comprehensive overview of the essentials you need to know.
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LibraryThing member le.vert.galant
I was looking for a book to summarize the recent history of Africa as I felt that I had a clearer sense of its colonial history than its post-colonial history. I wanted to know how Kwame Nkrumah handled Ghana's transition to independence, what had happened to Nigeria since Biafra, how South Sudan
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and Eritrea sustained separatist movements. This book admirably told those stories. It also told endless tales of civil war and corruption.

What it didn't do was to explain why this pattern repeated itself so regularly in each of these countries. I don't think that this is a fault of the book, but rather it is a fault of my expectations. The notion of a history of Africa as a singular thing is unrealistic. African history, from what I learned here, is a collection of histories of individual states. This book provides a framework for these histories, but the idea of a comprehensive narrative of post-colonial Africa within a single set of covers, such as Tony Junt's book on post-war Europe, is unrealistic. The continent is too fragmented and diverse.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
A short history from independence to the relatively modern day; a grand tour of African countries.
LibraryThing member Dilip-Kumar
An impressive work, covering the post-war experience of a number of African countries in a set of short, crisp chapters that makes it easy to read despite its length. The subject matter, however, makes for grim reading, and may be traumatic for the average reader, although the author narrates the
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history in a dispassionate and methodical manner. The reader is left wondering whether there is some deficiency in human nature that makes such awful and self-defeating cruelty possible.
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LibraryThing member NielsenGW
In the late 19th century, European powers went to work dividing up the continent of Africa among themselves. Great Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Portugal, and Italy each took a piece in hope of increasing their own economies and their own power. By the 1950s, however, African population groups
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began to declare independence from their European overseers. One by one, countries emerged to form a modern Africa, but then, one by one, those same countries began to crumble under their own problems. Rampant cronyism, unmitigated illness, poor education, and a severe lack of infrastructure have led the continent of Africa to the state it’s in now. Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa is an unflinching look at the people and processes that have formed Africa as we know it today.

Each chapter of Meredith’s enormous treatise is a case study in poor governmental choices. Dictator after dictator emerges, corruption plagues the populace, and proper services cannot reach those that need them. Meredith makes no apologies for his views, but neither does he offer solutions. The problems are too complex for easy, book-length answers. It is true that the global community is still sending aid to Africa, but improper oversight of that aid means that it oftentimes ends up in the wrong areas or the wrong hands. Meredith’s history is replete with sadness, misery, and pain, but we as readers should not look away. In some cases, it is the only time we do look. A heavy but eye-opening book.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
A big, depressing book that focuses each chapter on a country or a few countries near each other and explains what challenges they faced, especially in building democratic institutions out of the rubble that colonial powers left behind. Transitions to self-government were fast, mostly because
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Africans wanted it that way, but the Europeans took/destroyed stuff on the way out and hadn’t invited participation before that, so the newly “independent” nations were left without the infrastructure of governance. In many cases, they also had to deal with ethnic divisions that had been exploited by the Europeans to hold on to power. Coup after coup, slaughter after slaughter resulted.
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