Thursday, March 24, 2016

How is Africa changing?

This is a review of The Rift - A New Africa Breaks Free by Alex Perry, Little Brown and Company, NY, 2015.

The premise of this book is that Africa has changed. Duh! Is that enough to write a book about?  Apparently so.  Author Perry makes a good case, at least for those whose heads have been stuck in the sand for the last twenty years that the Africa they knew has indeed changed.   The title indicates that Africa has broken free of past constraints and is now master of its own fate.  The author observes that nations like Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe are no longer bound by colonial ties, and western visions of economies, but are forging their own ways with their own independent minded leaders.  Some leaders like Kagame and Museveni are politically astute and running their own show, others like Mugabe are lost in the past and rely on thuggish brutality to stay in power.  Perry underlines his views on Zimbabwe with an anecdote wherein he was imprisoned for several days by the regime’s minions. That’s his technique, he reports personal encounters with activists, observers, perpetrators and victims, then extrapolates his points from there.  It is an effective journalistic approach to writing.  

 Economically, Perry makes the point that the colonial paradigm of western exploitation of African resources no longer governs.  Others, like China, are involved, but the biggest current obstacles to economic progress are Africans themselves.  The portraits painted of South Africa and Nigeria where corruption is rife are insightful, especially the observation that South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, is intrinsically corrupt because as a freedom fighter organization it was anti- state and anti-law.  Ergo, its officials have inculcated an ethos to consider public assets fruit of the struggle.  Sadly, Nigerians cannot claim such a distinction, but Perry argues that British colonial favoring of the resource poor north contributed to the northern predilection to loot the oil rich south. 

Perry devotes quite a bit of space to conflict, especially violence with connections to global terrorism.  He (correctly) states that in three cases -  Somalia (Al Shabab),  Nigeria (Boko Harum)  and Mali (Al Qaeda in the Maghreb - AQIM) the roots of the terrorist organizations lie in indigenous nationalist movements.  Furthermore these movements expanded and grew in strength because the west, particularly the United States, saw fit to consider, treat and attack these movements as part of a global Al Qaeda network.  Perry argues that in part because of such pressures the groups did, in fact, align themselves with global networks.  Whatever the background, violence continues to be exacerbated by western, and western proxy intervention, i.e. Ethiopia and Uganda in Somalia, UN forces in Mali.  Perry has harsh words for U.S. renditions and interrogations of suspected Al Shabab operatives in East African prisons.  On the other hand he luridly describes videos of awful violence perpetrated by Boko Harum operatives in Nigeria, but offers little confidence that the inept Nigerian military can cope with the problem.

Beyond the negativism of much of the book, the author does find some reasons for optimism.  African politics are increasingly bereft of external string pulling.  Economic bright spots revolve around capitalizing on Africa’s enormous agriculture potential.  Reforming land tenure policies to permit individual ownership is key to investment that will lead to surplus production.  This is happening in Ethiopia. There and elsewhere in East Africa, modern cell phone communications make market prices available.  Unconstrained communications promote widespread freedoms of all sorts - information, political, economic and security.  Kenya’s mpesa electronic money system is setting a global precedent for a new type of financial system.  Innovative local leaders in urban areas, like the mayor of Lagos, are forging ahead with infrastructure and social projects that may make Africa’s sprawling cities more livable.   Finally, Perry has found throughout the continent people of integrity who are determined to battle for justice, equity and progress.  He puts faith in them. 

There is a lot I disagreed with in this book, more along the intensity of the presentation rather than the issues themselves.  I was dismayed by the vivid, almost voyeuristic descriptions, especially the opening account of watching a child die in Mogadishu.  However, agree or disagree, Perry makes his case. Africa has changed and is no longer subject to the same strictures as before.  Students of Africa or those who just want a perspective on the continent should read this book.