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The Fate of Africa (Part I): What Went Wrong

Clip_image002_11Sometimes when you understand why something has gone so wrong, you can begin to see the outlines of a solution, complicated though it may be.  Perhaps that is the case in Africa, a continent rich in resources and with many resourceful and generous people, and yet a continent beset with difficulties, whether political corruption, dictatorship, racial injustice, poverty, or environmental ruin.  That's why I am reading Martin Meredith's very large history of modern Africa, The Fate of Africa, to get some sense of what has gone wrong and, maybe, some sense of what to hope for.  As Martin says, the book examines "the reasons why, after the euphoria of the independence era, so many hopes and ambitions faded and why the future of Africa came to be spoken of only in pessimistic terms." 

Though I am not too far on in the book, already a couple of threads emerge.  First is priority of tribe resulting in fervent nationalistic movements.  These are the same ones that led to independence but also the ones that threaten the viability of these same independent countries.  Nigeria is a case in point.  A resource-rich country, it was seized almost immediately after independence with struggles between the Muslim Hausa and Fulani of the North, Yoruba of the West, and Igbo of the East, as well as 250 other ethic minority groups. 

Second is the ability for good men to do great evil.  As Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said, "The line between good and evil runs through the human heart."  So true.  There is Hastings Banda, for example. Hastings was educated in England and remained there for a long time.  An elder in the Church of Scotland, he was conservative, known for his generosity, and a respected medical doctor.  He tended toward respectable positions in politics, and he did not smoke, drink, or dance.  At 60, he left his English wife and returned to his native Malawi (then Nyasaland) to lead a violent and bloody campaign for independence.  Capable of great good, he was also capable of great evil.

Finally (for now) is the well-known observation that power corrupts.  Nationalist leaders who were swept to power as heroes, as saviors of their people, ended up consolidating their power, murdering and imprisoning their opponents, and living lives of luxury among the poverty and squalor of most of their people.  Case in point: Abdel Nasser, "liberator" of the Egyptian people, who came to power promising reform, consolidated his power in his presidency and made liberal use of a repressive security and intelligence network to eliminate all his foes.  He was regarded as almost god-like, a miracle worker, his likeness displayed in cafes, taxis, and shops throughout Egypt and Africa.

I need some hope for Africa.  The little bit of history I have cited seems to be repeated over and over again.  Robert Mugabe's destruction of once prosperous Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia) is only the latest reminder of what corrupt leaders can do.  I want to see the Africa that Alexander McCall Smith so wonderfully describes in his fictional stories of Botswana, The #1 Ladies Detective Agency.  Is it really there?