Africa and Its Rapacious Leaders

Janet Maslin reviews The Fate of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence by Martin Meredith, in the New York Times Book Review:

08maslIn the words of an African proverb cited in Martin Meredith’s Sisyphean new volume: “You never finish eating the meat of an elephant.” That thought is summoned by the overwhelmingly difficult assignment that this historian, biographer and journalist has given himself. He has set out to present a panoramic view of African history during the past half century, and to contain all its furious upheaval in a single authoritative volume.

Everything about this subject is immense: the idealism, megalomania, economic obstacles, rampant corruption, unimaginable suffering (AIDS, famine, drought and genocide are only its better-known causes) and hopelessly irreconcilable differences leading to endless warfare. “The rebels cannot oust the Portuguese and the Portuguese can contain but not eliminate the rebels,” read a typically bleak 1969 American assessment of a standoff in Guinea-Bissau.

For the author, even organizing this information is a hugely daunting job. How can such vast amounts of information be analyzed for the reader? One way was to follow parallel developments in different places – which is more or less how Mr. Meredith works, with attention to the hair-trigger ways in which one coup or crisis could set off subsequent disasters. He is able to steer the book firmly without compromising its hard-won clarity.

More here.