In an African country, an Englishman – a senior consultant engineer for an oil company – checks into the best hotel in the capital city. The next morning, eating his breakfast by candlelight (the electricity has failed), he is disturbed by a steady drip of water onto the table in front of him. An inquiry soon establishes that this is an overflow from malfunctioning lavatories on the floor above – quite a regular occurrence. At his request, the oil company moves him to the city’s second-best hotel, but this, he discovers, is full of prostitutes plying their trade among the businessmen and foreign officials who stay there. The Englishman finds the relentless soliciting uncongenial and wearing, and asks his employers to put him up in a house. This they duly do: he shares a pleasant house in a suburb with a colleague; the oil company lays on a car and driver to transport them the few miles to the city-centre office each day.
The one problem is that the city’s traffic is so chaotic that this brief journey can take them up to four hours, a fair proportion of this time being spent locked immobile in a boiling honking jam. One morning, as they sit in just such a halted stream of cars, a gun is thrust through the rear window and a thief demands their wallets and their watches, which the two startled Englishmen hastily deliver up. The thief saunters off through the loud cars entirely confident there will be no pursuit. A few days later, again while on their journey into the city, their car hits and runs over a pedestrian, killing him. An angry crowd gathers. The two Englishmen are hauled out of the back seat and are manhandled and abused. Curiously, the driver is unmolested. To the Englishmen’s relief, the police arrive with uncharacteristic promptness, but, instead of releasing them from the clutches of the mob and escorting them to safety, arrest them for manslaughter. Protests that they were in fact not driving the car are unavailing and they are put in gaol where they spend two uncomfortable nights. Bail is set and paid by the oil company. On their release pending trial, the two men are taken to an airfield where an oil company plane secretly flies them to a neighbouring country, and from there they journey back to Britain and safety.
This is the sort of morose traveller’s tale that increasingly comes out of contemporary Africa these days. Indeed, to the timid European much of the continent must seem as dark and threatening a place as it did in the middle of the 19th century. But your reaction to this (true) story – outrage, resignation, a smile, world-weary nostalgia, smugness? – is probably a fair indication of your attitude to the various states of affairs currently preoccupying and bedevilling the unhappy place. However, after reading David Lamb’s The Africans these responses should be leavened with another one – despair. For this comprehensive and valuable survey of the status quo in sub-Saharan Africa is such a depressing catalogue of human iniquity that the reader experiences the same sense of foreboding as that of, say, some prescient European at the outset of the Hundred Years War.
For four years, Lamb was the Los Angeles Times Africa correspondent. He visited all the countries he writes about and talked with many heads of state. His nationality allows him a certain objectivity about the various post-colonial legacies he encounters, and overall his stance and judgments seem studiously fair-minded, unsentimental and nonpartisan. The book is written primarily for American readers with a view to introducing them to a continent and its inhabitants about which and whom they have only the haziest of impressions. This simplicity is a strength, although African problems are presented in terms of American analogies (‘the carnage was tantamount to murdering the entire population of Louisville, Kentucky’) which give rise on occasion to bathos. Less easily overlooked, however, are the lapses into journalese which are probably due to the recycling of newspaper articles. This sort of chatty familiarity can be irksome (‘Mrs Ngei, 40 years old and the mother of 13 children’), and sometimes provokes glib judgments (‘Africans simply do not work or produce when they are not rewarded with economic incentive’), or offensive fallacies (‘where a European couple might kiss, Africans copulate’).
This thorough conspectus of the continent invites comparison with John Gunther’s Inside Africa, a survey done in the last days of colonialism, and, until events overtake it, The Africans should stand, in succession to Gunther, as the most accessible and comprehensive overview of the continent. The twenty-odd years since the late Fifties have seen the collapse of so many idealistic hopes and aspirations that Lamb’s ‘story so far’ seems all the more baleful. Of the 51 countries that have achieved independence only three, in Lamb’s estimation, have approximated to the confident prognosis held out for them: Kenya, Malawi and the Ivory Coast. As for the others, the story is sadly familiar: corruption, waste, pomp and vanity give way to military coups, revolutions and civil wars which are in turn followed by desperate poverty, vast debts and a meagre existence based on the conditional charity of Western banks or on Communist intervention. The more flamboyant and grotesque dictators – Amin, Bokassa – become notorious in the West, and the fafes of their benighted countries gain some international renown. But the pattern is repeated almost everywhere.
Ghana is a case in point. I can remember waving the red, yellow and green Ghanaian flag at the motorcade of Kwame Nkrumah and the Duke of Edinburgh as it swept them past my primary school on their way to formalise Ghana’s independence. In 1957 Ghana was the world’s largest producer of cocoa and the world’s largest exporter of manganese. In seven years, Nkrumah’s manic profligacy reduced a £200 million foreign exchange surplus into a £500 million national debt. He was overthrown by a military coup in 1966. There followed a brief interlude of shaky civilian government before another coup in 1972, headed by General Acheampong, who, over the six troubled years of his reign, salted away a personal fortune of £50 million in Swiss banks. He was overthrown by his own chief of staff, who vied with him in avarice until the arrival of Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings in 1978. Rawlings executed Acheampong and his usurper, handed power back to the civilians, but reclaimed it a year and a half later. He now governs a bankrupt and utterly destitute nation, the first black African country to gain independence and, at that time, a stirring example for all the emerging black nations that were jostling in its train.
The irony is overpowering and cruel, and there are many possible explanations for the astonishing fragility of African governments, most of which are effectively analysed by Lamb: the ‘one crop’ economy of colonial countries; the spurious nature of national borders; the ignoring of racial and tribal animosities; and the desultory and tardy Africanisation that took place only when independence was imminent and inevitable. All these represent charges which can be laid, with differing degrees of emphasis, at the doors of the colonial powers. Yet the wholesale collapse of African countries has been so spectacular that some less specific set of causes is often sought. The one that has gained most ground recently is the notion that the fault lay in imposing Western-style democratic government upon people to whom the concept was wholly alien: that in some basic, atavistic way democracy is just not right for Africa. Early in his book, Lamb accedes to this view:
The splintered, struggling Africa of today cannot afford the luxury of multiparties and independent presses and honest debate ... At this stage most African countries are best served by benign dictators. Democracy can come later, if it is to come at all ... What Africa needs to develop is an African political system, imported from neither East nor West.
The alarmed italics are mine. Lamb’s shining examples are Numeiri of the Sudan and, though more grudgingly, Machel of Mozambique. Both are leaders who have concentrated on reinforcing the sense of nation rather than tribe, both shun material excess and display, and Numeiri at least has pursued a broad-minded if potentially risky course of reconciliation with former enemies.
‘Benevolent dictatorship’, however, is a dubious fate to wish on any country as a solution to its problems (any takers here?), and smacks of the paternalism which dominated British attitudes to the governing of Africa and which Lamb elsewhere rightly decries. Numeiri may indeed be the genuine article, but the notion is so hard to define that it would take only a slight realignment of the logic to adduce a General Stroessner or a Castro as an example of the same breed. One is left with the feeling that the old saw about democracy is essentially correct: there’s a lot wrong with it, until one considers the alternatives.
The problems of Africa are compounded by the legacies of colonialism – by the duplicity and bad faith of former colonial powers, and by the absence of a middle class – and they are exacerbated today by the vested interests of East and West and their respective agencies – an aspect only touched upon by Lamb. But some of them originate in the manifest deficiencies of the men in power. Lamb quotes a judgment on Nkrumah which could serve as an epitaph on all of Africa’s demagogues and tyrants. ‘He could have been a great man ... Somewhere down the line, however, he became ambitious, built a cult of personality and ruthlessly used the power invested in him by his own constitution. He developed a strange love for absolute power.’ Not so strange among those who seek to govern. The democratic process – in theory – incorporates checks to control that ‘strange love’ which drives all politicians. Relying on the benevolence of some dictator seems a poor alternative.
The very modest success story which Lamb advances at the end of his book to provide the palest glimmer of hope for the others is that of Nigeria. This is a country which, within fifteen years of its birth, had seen three military coups, tribal massacres in tens of thousands, Africa’s bloodiest civil war with over a million fatalities, unrivalled corruption and incompetence – yet, somehow, in the aftermath of all this it has engineered a peaceful handover of power to a civilian government and has called two general elections in the last four years which weren’t total travesty and farce. Nigeria has oil, it’s true, but it has done an efficient job of vitiating that miraculous blessing, and it’s fair to say that oil has proved as much its enemy as its saviour.
Human folly of the African variety achieved its most outrageous objective correlative in the bloated form of Idi Amin, a character palely illumined in a memoir by his former foreign minister, the erstwhile Vogue model, Princess Elizabeth of Toro. In this extraordinary account of her life we move from the feudal monarchy of Uganda to independence, coup, the vengeful paranoia of a dictator, his overthrow, and the bungling reimposition of the despot Amin had displaced – to the great joy of the population at the time. The blame for Uganda’s ills – which persist today – is placed squarely on the shoulders of Britain, who, Princess Elizabeth maintains, imposed a Western-style central government at odds with the ‘tried and tested’ African monarchies. Obote, with the tacit encouragement of the British, crushed the monarchies in 1966 and 1967, and Amin’s years simply consolidated the process whereby ‘the whole civilisation and culture’ of Uganda was ‘dismantled’. Princess Elizabeth makes some telling points, notably about the Western claim that black countries are incapable of governing themselves, but one would have thought that her royal blood prevented her from being the most disinterested judge of the need for a return to monarchical rule. While intermittently interesting and forceful, her autobiography is characterised by an astounding and at times droll naivety that undermines much of the common sense it contains. For example, she talks with some feeling about the ‘new’ colonialism: the domination of capital and the link between foreign aid and foreign policy, with the corollary that the African today is still suffering from ‘colonial conditioning, amounting to a mentality of unconscious belief in the white man and his creations, which holds him back from liberating himself ... he has to experience some inner change before he can hope to achieve his full potential as an African.’ She then proceeds to outline the means to this regeneration: an African ideology which, as expressed in her numinous terminology, seems to take the form of rejecting capital, technology and specific religions (i.e. Islam) and substituting ‘a spiritual acceptance of the world’ and ‘the immemorial belief that life was, and is, and shall be.’ One can just about see what she’s driving at, but these high-sounding conclusions sit very uneasily beside the lyrical account of her own marriage and recent life. She and her betrothed, Wilbur Nyabongo, she tells us, ‘have immersed ourselves in listening night and day to music from such favourite groups and individuals as the Commodores, Abba ... Kool and the Gang, Randy Crawford, Teddy Pendergrass and Stevie Wonder’, When they eventually get married she notices Wilbur’s hands shake when he agrees to endow her with all his worldly goods: ‘perhaps because all his worldly goods were in the shape of a 91 1SC Porsche car!’ Then she thanks by name all the generous friends who stumped up the thirty grand necessary to put Wilbur through airline pilot school (why didn’t he flog the Porsche?). It seems the West does have some appeal, after all.
A similar, though more sinister, regal shortsightedness is evident in Ryszard Kapuściński’s fascinating account of Haile Selassie’s downfall, made up of ostensibly verbatim conversations with palace officials and minor politicians, all of whom had access to the decrepit little emperor during his final months of power. With its wide-eyed barbarities and absurd protocol, The Emperor reads like a cross between a Ruritanian operetta and the last act of a Jacobean tragedy. The medieval atmosphere and a purblind obsession with dignity and esteem virtually guaranteed the collapse of Haile Selassie’s court and empire and closed another bizarre chapter in the history of modern Africa. In a poor country, Kapuściński reminds us, the only source of property and income is privilege. No wonder the scramble for it is so intense; no wonder the effort to retain it so uncompromising.
But before we congratulate ourselves on our good luck in living somewhere else it might be as well to ponder on a comment of David Lamb’s:
To be sure, Uganda represents the ultimate horror of what a tribalistic, misled, primitive country can become. But it would be unfair to say that Uganda has any more lessons for Africa than Northern Ireland does for Europe ... no continent has a patent on the injustices man inflicts on man. Africa produced Amin, but Europe gave us Hitler ... The lessons of Uganda are for all mankind, not just for Africa.