Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Africa: Politics and Despair

This weekend I finally finished reading two important recent books on Africa: Martin Meredith's massive The Fate of Africa: From The Hopes of Freedom To The Heart of Despair, and Gerard Prunier's relatively short but intense Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Both books are already helping fuel a growing debate in the U.S. and in Europe about what if anything "the international community" can do to solve Africa's general problems, and the immediate and deadly crisis in Darfur.

Meredith's book, which attempts a panoramic history of post-colonial Africa, is fascinating, instructive, and impressively well-written, but as the subtitle suggests, his tale is one of unremitting woe and disillusionment. As you read through his roughly chronological account which shifts from region to region, the bright spots of independent Africa steadily blink out, and country after country devolves into corruption, tyranny, bankruptcy, and savage armed conflict (Botswana is the only country earning unqualified praise from Meredith, with South Africa being judged a qualified success).

Indeed, I fear that Meredith's book may have an impact on general readers similiar to that of Robert Kaplan's 1993 book Balkan Ghosts, a cautionary tale about the depth of ethnic confilicts in the post-communist Balkans that reportedly influenced Bill Clinton to avoid U.S. intervention in the Bosnian civil war. Why bother trying to do anything about impossible people in impossible places?

But Meredith has a very distinct point of view about what's gone wrong in Africa, and what that means for non-Africans who want to do something constructive about it. As he relentlessly tells us, Africa's failure is above all a failure in political leadership, and until its elites figure that out and do something fundamental about it, nothing else matters. As Andrew Rice usefully explained in The Nation a few weeks ago, this position places Meredith near one extreme, with Jeffrey Sachs on the other, in the ongoing chicken-and-egg debate on whether Africa's poverty causes misgovernment, or its misgovernment causes poverty. (You should also read Sam Rosenfeld's October interview with Meredith on the American Prospect site, wherein Meredith makes it clear he is indeed skeptical of the current Blair-and-Sachs-led effort to dramatically boost no-strings aid to Africa).

Like Meredith, the French ethnographer Gerard Prunier focuses on political factors in his complex and ultimately angry book about Darfur. And even more than Meredith, he is disdainful of those who think humanitaritan assistance will solve the conflict that has probably killed over 300,000 people and displaced--while destroying the livelihoods of--more than two million people. But Prunier certainly doesn't counsel international inaction until such time as the Sudanese get their act together. Au contraire: the major thrust of his book is to explain how Darfur was dragged into the current nightmare by the conflicts and intrigues of its neighbors, and then to indict the many excuses "the international community" has given itself from taking the diplomatic and military steps that could have stopped the killing, and still could.

I'm writing a full review of Prunier's book for Blueprint Magazine, but I encourage anyone interesed in Africa to read it, and to read Meredith as well.
-- Posted at 4:10 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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