Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent by Keith Somerville is timely given that even recent African history fails to permeate our modern day consciousness and understanding of the current status of the African continent, says Sarah Bradbury.
“African history is the history of Africans and their societies – plural not singular, but singularly African.”
Providing a fine balance between academic rigour and a journalistic narrative style, Keith Somerville’s text, charting the divergent histories of a complex and oft-misunderstood continent is both an informative and engaging read. Dates, data and analysis are laced with the lived experience of a journalist to evoke time and place in a way academic journals are often incapable of doing.
Starting with Africa’s long colonial period, Somerville reveals the idiosyncratic approaches of colonising nations and how their decisions regarding power structures, ruler-drawn border lines and the elevation of some peoples above others came to shape the woes that continue to blight those colonised states long since their independence. Persistently resisting the all-too-easy generalisation of Africa’s national histories, Somerville continually returns to the distinct internal structures and particular economic, social and political forces at play within each country, such as the distinct relationship Rwanda and Burundi had with Belgium.
Somerville deftly handles the nuances of the battles for independence which swept across Africa from the 1950s, with different factions of nationalist movements holding varying visions for post-independence. He highlights the close cooperation between the South African independence movement with communism and the Soviet Union, which had implications for a West dependent on South Africa’s exports and severely suspicious of communist power during the Cold War. He elucidates that divides ran not only along black and white lines but independence movements had support from radical white, mixed-raced and Indian South African groups as well.
The troubled relationship of post-independence governments with flailing African economies is investigated, pointing to the absence of an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, the driving force of capitalism in Europe, North America and East Asia, as resulting in a lop-sided development pattern of shored-up export dependence, aid dependence and power of global markets and companies at the expense of the future of African economies. While this, and the need for a priority of development over democracy, has suited powerful donor nations, it has allowed a deeply damaging system to become entrenched. Despite the uprisings of the early ‘90s, Somerville marks the good governance ‘mantra’ and democratisation process from the late 1980s as superficial and as primarily a further tool used by Western governments to exercise control, criticising the naivety of donor and international financial institutions that privatisation and divestment of state resources would encourage plurality.
He seeks to unearth an inbuilt bias in reporting on Africa, a proposition all the more compelling from a hack who has himself been privy to the pressures and perverse incentives of the media. Corruption and conflict dominated coverage and ethnicity is often the easy answer given by the media for complex processes. He makes reference to the recent Ebola crisis, in which he suggests the media vastly over-reported the Western aid organisations role and underplayed the sacrifice of Guinean, Liberian and Sierra Leonean health workers, only a handful of stories succeeding in capturing the problems of poverty, poor sanitation and water supply that allowed the epidemic to break and spread and recognising links to decimated social provisions caused by Structural Adjustment Programs: “Africa as a whole was represented as affected, with scaremongering media reports depicting it as a continent ravaged by Ebola.”
He ends on the most recent chapter of post-independence Africa, dominated by the concept of Africa rising, the emergence of development ‘role model’ China’, further calls for African unity and African answers to African problems, while the continent seeks to find its place on the global stage amidst a war on terror and continued hegemony of neoliberal ideals. The picture Somerville creates is one riddled with stubborn underlying issues and a lack of empowerment for regular people despite significant advances made: modern day Africa has seen improved quality of life, freedom of speech and increased international economic interest but poverty and its drivers persist, dependence on primary exports remain and the curse of gatekeeping elites continue to exist in evolved forms. He make links to a burgeoning refugee crisis caused by those fleeing authoritarian and repressive systems of rule, such as those in Eritrea, resulting in the thousands of washed-up deaths we continue to see splashed across our papers.
He concludes that external forces have and continue to mould Africa, with the effects of colonialism still reverberating. But African agency, which operates within and has reacted to outside factors, remains crucial to any understanding of the continent. He convincingly warns of the dangers of ‘examining Africa through a normative lens calibrated to view Western-style development as the ideal,” particularly understanding the informal structures which still hold sway in African societies but which remain hidden beneath formal institutions and structures.
His book is timely given that even recent African history fails to permeate our modern day consciousness and understanding of the current status of the continent. Where international development, humanitarian and political and economic forces continue to face barriers to progression, looking into history to understand better the status quo can be as, if not more, enlightening. Ultimately, this is a top recommendation for anyone curious to understand more about the African continent – whether to get behind the generalising headlines, past the impenetrable linguistic style of academia or simply be immersed in its history for a while.
Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent. Keith Somerville. Hurst. 2016.
Sarah Bradbury (@sarabradbury) is a freelance journalist and campaign manager for NGO Communities for Development (@CommunitiesForD). She holds an MSc in Globalisation and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.