Saturday, January 9, 2010

'Politics and Government in African States, 1960-1985'

This review originally appeared in the Washington Times Magazine on Monday, August 17, 1987.  This version was published a few weeks later in the New York City Tribune, on Wednesday, September 23, 1987. The bio-line is slightly inaccurate; I had finished my degree at the LSE in June 1987. This article must have been submitted to the newspaper before I left London but was not published until after my return to the United States.

A Hefty But ‘Uneven’ Compendium of African Issues

Politics and Government in African States, 1960-1985, eds. Peter Duignan and Robert H. Jackson, Stanford, California, Hoover Institute Press, and London, Croom Helm, $36.95, hardcover; $20.95, paperback 434 pp.

In his comic novel Scoop, Evelyn Waugh describes the foreign editor of a major newspaper searching frantically and unavailingly on a map of Africa for the country of Ishmaelia, so that he can send a war correspondent to cover the revolution there.

Things have not changed much. In many American minds, the map of Africa stretches from Cape Town in the south to Pretoria in the north. The rest of the continent, because it tends to be forgotten by the major media, remains unknown to the American voter— and to students, businessmen and even political activists.

To be sure, a few rare instances of trouble in Africa outside South Africa have reached our television screens— Idi Amin’s hideous Uganda, the genocide in Ethiopia, ethnic strife in Nigeria — but these events merely scratch the surface.

In the 25 or so years since most of its countries became independent states, Africa has been a cauldron of political activity: exciting, disgusting, heartening, backward, progressive, tyrannical, and benign.

For these of us concerned with civil rights, personal dignity, and human freedom, most of Africa since 1960 presents a sad case. One-party systems and military dictatorships are the rule; ethnic conflicts tear many African states apart; governments teem with corruption; negative growth rates and reduced standards of living are the product of centralized planning in a socialist mold.

This hefty volume examines about half of the states of Africa. As might be expected in a multi-author work, the result is uneven. Some chapters, for instance, are quite good on colonial history and weak on current economics; others provide nearly no background on the colonial period yet give detailed accounts of recent political developments.

The book, unfortunately, has many faults. It lacks maps, even a single map of the continent; its many references to geography had me jumping up regularly to consult a wall map. Moreover, nowhere in the book are any of the nine authors identified.

It is apparent also that the Hoover Institution Press lacks a good copy editor — the volume suffers from numerous typographical errors, inconsistencies and impenetrable sentences that diminish readability and reduce credibility. (This, despite a long production process. Some of the essays indicate that they were written in late 1984, others in mid-1985, with publication late in 1986.)

Despite its flaws, this is a volume worth consulting. Once one had been warned of the potential inaccuracies -- and the fact that several of the essays have been overtaken by events, it is possible to find a wealth of information about and interpretation of politics in Africa over the past quarter century.

Political developments in individual African countries can be remarkably similar or remarkably different. All (except Ethiopia and Liberia) were colonies of Europe. All (except Somalia) are multinational states, with multiple languages and dialects, various religions, competing customs and legal traditions and burgeoning populations. All (except South Africa and, to some extent, Zimbabwe), are non-industrialized, economically underdeveloped, and lacking the capability to feed themselves.

There are some success stories. The Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Kenya have been politically stable and have to one degree or another been able to press ahead economically.

But as long as other African states persist in statist “solutions” to their economic and demographic problems, such as forced collectivization of agriculture, stagnation and poverty are inevitable results.

It took Europe and North America hundreds of years to rise from the grime and contagion of the Middle Ages to the political stability and economic prosperity they enjoy today. It was surely too much to expect that the fledgling African nations could do the same in less than a generation.

What the next 25, 50, or a hundred years will bring is anybody’s guess, but the story of sub-Saharan Africa since independence cautions us to be pessimistic.

Richard Sincere is currently pursuing post-graduate studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Richard M. Weaver Fellow.

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