Is Africa finally finding itself?

2009-01-02 00:00

IT takes particular aplomb to write about an entire continent, especially one as diverse as Africa. Richard Dowden’s credentials are as good as any — a lifetime career as a journalist and an academic, culminating in the presidency of the Royal African Society. Intriguingly, his first encounter with the continent in the seventies bears a vague resemblance to the doctor in the Last King of Scotland.

Dowden’s approach is a sequence of chronologically random sketches of some of the countries he has visited, heavily laced with his own experiences. It is a readable account from which general conclusions pop up often enough to make this a heavyweight book. Many of his conclusions, it must be said, are cause for pessimism.

Perhaps the most revealing statement is that “Fifty years after most of Africa had become independent, the colonialist mentality seemed more evident among the colonised than the colonisers,” citing the examples of Zimbabwe and Sudan. In other words, by and large Africa has swopped one set of oppressors for another. He makes a critical point about colonialism: it quickly destroyed, but failed to stay long enough to build a viable, modern alternative. The Chinese offer nothing new.

His chapter on South Africa is relatively weak, but many of the trends he identifies in other African countries throw light on this country’s current condition. He highlights, for instance, the emphasis placed in Africa upon the holder of power, not what should be done, and the continued influence of the big man. African spirituality encourages a belief that he can divine the thoughts of opponents and punish them accordingly, a recipe for political meltdown.

Dowden provides a convincing explanation of the African argument against winner-take-all electoral systems. If a party garners, say 40% of the popular vote, surely, the argument goes, it is entitled to an appropriate share of power. There is logic in this belief in proportionalism, but only within a political culture where public service rather than private gain is dominant.

The creative and able move away from rural areas and the idea of growing food and other commodities has little appeal for the ambitious. Land involves status rather than productivity and it is not a focus of investment. Consequently, Asia, considered of comparatively low potential 50 years ago compared with Africa, has hijacked its exports by investing confidently in its own future.

Western aid agencies are a target for scathing comment and Dowden offers a number of alternative scenarios that might help Africa without throwing money at it. One is a more sympathetic attitude by the West to agricultural exports, coupled with recognition that globalisation has done Africa no favours in development terms. Another is international co-operation over migration and corruption.

This book is compelling reading for anyone interested in Africa and the author’s writing skill commands attention. The chapter on Nigeria is particularly masterful. Oil, he argues, has replaced the constitution in a failed state that works. He writes convincingly about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a shell state in which corruption is the foundation of the economy and in which many people have barely left the Stone Age. The DRC is described as “an immense carcass being hacked to pieces … in which anyone with a gun, a mobile phone and an airstrip can become a wealthy warlord”. Ominously, Dowden endorses a belief that Africa cannot flourish without a successful DRC.

Is there cause for optimism? Dowden searches for it in a new generation of independent-minded technocrats armed with cellphones and the Internet. Wars have decreased in number, but divisive politics create their own violence as was seen in Kenya recently. Capital flight and human migration continue to hamper development.

But this impressive book ends with a message of hope. Returning to Uganda 32 years after he had been expelled during Idi Amin’s tyranny, what Dowden found was uplifting: integration of tradition and modernity, economic activity and an end to what he describes as the continent’s schizophrenia. “Africa,” he concludes, “is finding itself.”

• Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles is published by Portobello.

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