Martin Meredith's almost 700-page book on modern Africa is exactly what its subtitle promises: "from the hopes of freedom to the heart of despair." By the end of the book one does despair that anything good can come out of Africa, that anything can be done to lift it out of poverty, corruption, famine, drought, and a host of other problems.
The focus of the book is on a number of African leaders who assumed leadership after the independence of most African countries in the Fifties and Sixties, looking at the profound (and generally disastrous) consequences their exercise of power had on their countries in the decades they were in control. Martin notes that despite the oppressiveness of the colonial powers, they did bring order and a civilizing influence to Africa --- Christianity, literacy, education, and health care. They built roads, schools, and hospitals, and generally left African countries better off than before they came. Despite this beginning, and then the billions in foreign aid made available after independence, much of Africa is worse off by every measurement today than at independence approximately 50 years ago.
While the author makes no apology for colonialism or white racism, he also does not lay the blame for Africa's troubles on the colonialist. Rather, he puts the root cause in a failure of African leadership: "[F]or the most part, Africa has suffered grievously at the hands of its Big Men and its ruling elites. Their preoccupation, above all, has been to hold power for the purpose of self-enrichment. The patrimonial systems they have used to sustain themselves in power have drained away a huge proportion of state resources." Indeed, their record is one of indifference to the suffering of the people, of squandered capital (and stolen capital), and of horrific and inhumane torture and oppression of their enemies. For example, Robert Mugabe still rules over Zimbabwe after 20 years and has made a country once known as the breadbasket of Africa into a food importer. He is a virtual dictator, insisting on a one-party system (as did almost all other African leaders). He is only one example of the many African leaders who have behaved in much the same manner.
Even with oil (as in Nigeria) or other resources (like diamonds, as in Angola), revenues have been wasted. Corruption is endemic to most governments. It's no wonder that hope is lacking.
Which brings me to a critique of the book. No doubt things are bleak in Africa (with the exception of South Africa and Botswana), but there is little hope or any prognosis for change in this book. One has the sense that the author has no hope. He spends less than a page on Botswana, which has had good leadership, a lack of corruption, and multi-party democracy since independence. And while he spends considerable time on South Africa, where Nelson Mandela emerged as a voice of hope, one has the sense that what success has been enjoyed there may not be translatable to other countries. Finally, this is not a record of the church in Africa, either, so we do not have a picture of hope that might otherwise emerge from the Church's work.
The sense I am left with is that Africa needs not only a revival of Christian hope (it has had revivals and has a strong Christian presence) but a revival that leads to a reformation of their culture. The latter has not really happened.
Meredith begins his book with a quote from Pliny the Elder: "Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (Out of Africa always something new)." We can hope and pray that Pliny is right.