Inventing Africa: History, Archaeology and Ideas
By Robin Derricourt
Pluto Press | $39.95
By Jean-Michel Severino and Olivier Ray
Translated by David Fernbach
Polity | $37.95
My First Coup d’Etat: Memories from the Lost Decades of Africa
By John Dramani Mahama
Bloomsbury | $29.99
THE image of Africa depends very much on the teller – their perceptions and prejudices, and their preoccupations with the positives and negatives of a huge continent embracing many nations and peoples, each with their own story to tell and be told. These books offer three quite different images; though radically different in their contents and presentation, they complement one another in odd ways, illustrating the more complex whole.
Robin Derricourt provides a broad-brush narrative of shifting perceptions of Africa through selected case studies in archaeology, literature and history, ostensibly through the conceptual framework of Edward Said’s notion of “Orientalism” and the insights of Said’s African intellectual allies, Victor Mudimbe, Ali Mazrui and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Themes in the “construction of the other” are only loosely applied, however, and there is no clear central argument or body of theory flowing through the text. Rather, each chapter reads like a potential journal article, with only passing reference to what comes before or leading into what follows.
Inventing Africa examines the use and misuse of African history, including the overt colonial racism of the author Rider Haggard and the Australian–South African archaeologist Raymond Dart, the academic infighting surrounding Louis Leakey and the diffusionist theories of Australian Grafton Elliot Smith. It considers the impact of the Black Egyptocentric theories of Cheikh Diop and Martin Bernal and the work of the more widely read Basil Davidson, and their influence on Afro-American studies and the popular imagination more generally. And it looks at the manipulation of the past by a tourist industry selling a “timeless Africa” and, especially in southern Africa, political parties seeking legitimacy through links with the past.
In the tradition of great synthesisers like Basil Davidson and Michael Crowder, Derricourt demonstrates his mastery of the secondary literature. But one wonders about the prospective readership for this book. Derricourt’s dismissal of Cheikh Diop is rather jarring in a volume ostensibly devoted to debunking racial and cultural stereotyping: “In France and francophone Africa… Diop maintained a reputation as a leading influence, in a culture where the beauty of ideas is sometimes valued higher than their factual accuracy [emphasis added].” His critique of Basil Davidson’s “resilient optimism” reads as if it were written against the background of Africa in the 1980s or 1990s, not 2011.
In contrast, Africa’s Moment offers tantalising images of an emergent Africa in the twenty-first century. Written by two eminent French authorities, Jean-Michel Severino, formerly vice-president of the World Bank and CEO of the French Development Agency, and Olivier Ray of the policy analysis department within the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it draws heavily on French scholarship. The authors examine the many positive changes that are taking place across Africa but also consider the numerous obstacles to social and economic progress. While they are well aware of the pitfalls of prediction, they analyse the factors bringing change in Africa and the failure of many in the West to move beyond the pessimistic image of Africa, born of the lost decades of the 1980s and 1990s when Africa was ravaged by military dictators and economic ruin.
At the end of the Cold War, Africa was abandoned to the World Bank and the IMF, whose “structural adjustment” programs kept debt repayments flowing to Western institutions, while ravaging the continent’s health, education and infrastructure programs. The debt burden eventually became so onerous that the West was compelled to institute “debt forgiveness.” The G8 conspicuously failed to deliver on their Millennium aid promises.
Debt forgiveness, which was conceived at the close of the twentieth century as a form of international charity to the “basket case” that was Africa, helped lay the foundations for development when the new tide of trade and investment began pouring in, not only from China and India but also from non-traditional African investors such as the Middle East and Brazil. As the authors point out, it is not merely new sources of foreign investment but also diversity and innovation that are fuelling economic growth. Investment in new technologies, such as mobile phones and the internet, is transforming once-isolated communities. Moreover, cut off from the global economy, African banks and governments were less exposed to the ravages of the global financial crisis
While the black economy of local petty-trading and cottage industries has been consistently ignored in World Bank–IMF analysis, it provides the bulk of employment and key functions within African national economies. The extent that investment and new technologies penetrate the domestic sector will be a key factor in the socioeconomic redistribution of the benefits of the “new economy.” Other key contributors to economic growth identified in Africa’s Moment include population growth and urbanisation, expanding the potential domestic market.
But this is a story of optimism tempered with caution. Population growth and urbanisation are breaking down old ethnic barriers, often to be replaced by religious ideologies and intolerance: both Islamic fundamentalism and American-sponsored born-again Christian sects. Decades of sub-standard education and youth unemployment have fed disenchantment, crime and civil unrest. “Land hunger” in rural areas, compounded by population growth and arcane agricultural practices, could lead to increasing ethnic clashes unless techniques in the rural sector change and investment increases dramatically.
The current resource boom in Africa could fall victim to the “Dutch disease,” whereby strong exports (hydrocarbons in this case) lead to underinvestment and a dramatic erosion of the established agrarian and industrial sectors, leaving little to fall back on when finite resources are exhausted. On top of that, corruption and civil strife are still endemic in many countries, such as Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the potential for military intervention is often not far below the surface. Yet, as Severino and Ray point out, Africa is composed of diverse socioeconomic polities. Some countries, such as Botswana and Ghana, have emerged as stable democracies with growing economies.
Africa’s Moment is a provocative assessment of Africa in the twenty-first century and should be read by decision-makers in the corporate sector, government and the media, as well as those interested in Africa and the global economy more generally.
Finally, My First Coup d’Etat captures life in Ghana through the eyes of a boy growing into manhood during the “lost decades” between the overthrow of the independence government of Kwame Nkrumah in 1966 and the fitful restoration of democracy in the early 1990s. It is not a straightforward chronological biography but a series of often interwoven personal stories, or “memories.”
Mahama’s father was a minister in the Nkrumah government and suffered persecution under successive military governments, none of which come off with any credit, however this is not a political narrative. Rather, it is a warm and engaging story of adolescence and young adulthood in boarding school and university, moving between urban and rural households between the capital, Accra, and the Northern Region. It’s a great read, a book that you won’t want to put down. One looks forward to the sequel from the author, who became president of Ghana in July this year. •
David Dorward is an Honorary Associate in the School of Historical and European Studies at La Trobe University.