LSE’s Rosie Coffey reviews The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free in which journalist and author Alex Perry explores the split between a resurgent Africa and a world at odds with its rise.
Ah, an ethnographical study of the history of Kenya’s Rift Valley, I thought, as I picked up the work for review. Not so. ‘Famine. War. Dictators.’, screamed the bright yellow dustjacket: ‘The story of Africa – just not how you imagined it. The extraordinary story of how a billion Africans are overcoming charity, despots and jihadis to finally win their freedom.’ The rather clichéd reference to ‘Africa Break(ing) Free’ aside, I was excited by the boldness.
These three heralds of doom form the running themes of the work. The Rift of the Rift Valley? A metaphor for a continent in flux – a faultline which is creaking and groaning under the push/pull pressures of past, present and future, which will one day fully rupture, ushering in the ‘true liberation’ of the African continent. With Ebola, ‘Islamist extremism’, war and ‘the migration crisis’ important recent themes of Western media coverage, the message seems timely enough. The author, Alex Perry, is well-placed to comment. A frequent contributor to TIME and Newsweek, he has also authored Lifeblood: How to Change the World One Dead Mosquito at a Time; Falling Off the Edge: Globalisation, World Peace and Other Lies; as well as the ebooks Clooney’s War, Cocaine Highway and Once Upon a Jihad.
The Rift is geared to overturning Western perceptions of Africa as well as of the West’s role on the continent. In the words of the publisher, it is ‘a vivid and provocative look at how the world gets Africa wrong, and how a resurgent Africa is forcing us to think again’. Some of the sections provide us with a ‘different’ ‘take’ on the history of Africa over the longue durée: one which is more genesis or hominid (Lucy) than apartheid; more Western racism than Western beneficence; more ill-guided humanitarianism than African uplift.
For the contemporary era, Perry urges Westerners to subject themselves to greater critical scrutiny in the search to explain some of Africa’s difficulties. The book begins with a fascinating discussion of the complicity of the UN and NGOs in the US government’s ‘War on Terror’ in Somalia. UN operations in the Congo are also heavily criticised as well as the reports of Human Rights Watch in regard to Rwanda.
Further, The Rift publishes the views of African leaders. Perry has met and interviewed most. At the heart of the work is the author’s summary of hours of interviews he conducted with Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, whom he shadowed for a week in 2012. Later, Perry’s careful re-telling of his encounters with African entrepreneurs pioneering the technological and infrastructural development of Kenya and Nigeria also provides for compelling reading. This is where Perry is at his strongest: in recounting what he has seen and heard from meeting people on the ground – in other words, in being present.
In counterbalancing the arguments of much of the British media today, The Rift can also be said to be an achievement. Most importantly, it makes its arguments for a general audience. Students, academics and policy makers have long engaged in a process of critical reflection on the history of Africa and of the West’s role in it. Yet it is probably true that there remains a relative dearth of such works for wider audiences.
Not all readers, however, will be entirely convinced by the argumentation. Despite the title of the work and its framing at the start, the majority of the chapters include a frustrating mix of assertions about change surrounded by evidence of continuity. It is not really until the third section of the 3-part work (p. 335 of 416) that the new Africa of which Perry writes at the outset (and which we are anticipating is the focus) is described and explained. This is important. Perry calls on his readers to reassess their views on Africa. Yet he often supplies them with the focus, arguments and imagery which form the subject of his critique. Charity, despots and jihadis figure most prominently. Perry provides a powerful description of an emaciated Somali child. He describes stunning vistas. There are also pygmies.
Additional core arguments might also be more fully substantiated. Sometimes it is not clear to the reader on what basis Perry is making his claims. Most notably, in the case of Kagame, Perry appears to restate the President’s views on Rwanda and the role of the West without subjecting them to any critical scrutiny.
Similarly, on the question of the lingering causes of Africa’s woes – charity and aid workers, most strikingly, but also dictators and Islamists – Perry’s work is useful in reminding us of the importance of investigating their culpability (for a popular Western audience, particularly/solely?, one might argue, the former), but he does not address the issue of causation fully or deeply enough to truly pull us with him all of the way all of the time. At the most extreme, The Rift presents George Clooney as the primary cause of the independence of South Sudan, as well as of its subsequent difficulties. While I have no beef with these arguments on the grounds that Clooney has played Batman for film and promotes Nespresso on the Italian Riviera, the claims would be more convincing if they were fully evidenced, contextualised, and weighed against different factors, including an assessment of the history of the country and, crucially, the role of Africans. All of this is important not least because of Perry’s stated focus: namely, perception and reality, his view that the former often overpowers the latter, sometimes with disastrous consequences; and relatedly, Western co-optation – in Western accounts – of African history.
One is left with the overriding impression that as an author and a journalist specialising in African affairs, Perry’s unique positioning might have equipped him better to explain not why and how Africa is changing, but rather why and how certain older perceptions of the continent have proved to have such longevity.
The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free. Alex Perry. W&N 2015.
Rosie Coffey has recently completed her PhD at LSE and teaches in the Department of International History and on the LSE 100 course.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.