Journal of Modern African Studies


Africa’s Long Road Since Independence, London: Hurst and Co and Penguin (Pbk)

Very nice review in Journal of Modern African Studies –…/africas_long_r…
A product of thorough familiarity with the continent, Africa’s Long Road Since Independence is a studied reflection on the post-colonial state’s quest for socioeconomic and political modernisation since the 1960s. Keith Somerville presents the reader with an exceptional analysis of the role of structure and agency (both indigenous and foreign) in the continent’s variegated pasts. Systematically, the author reveals the anecdotes of pre-colonial societies, slavery, and colonialism as the antecedents on which the present-day society is sequestered.
What makes the book special is the nuanced presentation of Africa in the context of agency, change, adaptation, and continuity. In the idiom of Ade Ajayi’s brand of history, Somerville sees Africans as active participants in their own history rather than victims or mere consumers of alien influences. Thus, history in Africa evolves as an unbroken chain of episodes and the colonial era stands as an episode rather than a consummate disruption.
The book is neatly organised into seven chapters. Chapter One sets the tone for the rest with the caveat that sub-Saharan Africa has diverse historical pasts embracing a complex and continuing story of decolonisation and state-building. The ongoing quest for national integration is often troubled by conflicts, economic difficulties and external interventions. Across the board, however, there has been measurable progress and some countries have recorded some outstanding performances both on the economic and political fronts. Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 walk the reader through the nerve-jerking tales of post-colonial conflicts, including the worst act of genocide in recent memory in Rwanda. The chapters also highlight the jarring economic fixtures and somersaults the continent has passed through – most prominent among them the trauma endangered by Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) imposed by the IMF and Western donor nations and institutions.
In Chapters 6 and 7, Somerville assesses Africa’s many breakthroughs within the limitations of a world system fashioned since the time of Columbus to undermine the neoliberal expectations of developing world economies as globalisation expands and deepens. It is in this light that China’s recent ‘rediscovery’ of Africa coheres. Indeed, as Somerville notes, ‘unlike Western donors or institutions, China had the capital and the manpower to make major, long-lasting investments after the financial crisis of 2008, and it was willing to offer the sort of inducements that appeal to African elites’ (p. 310).
One minor shortfall of the book is its silence on what the idea of development entails for Africa in the 21st century. Is it a quest to transmute African institutions into Western ones, or take the continent back to the illusions of pre-colonial order? Of course these questions are tough to address. Every serious Africanist must read Somerville’s new book. It is a meticulous handover memo from a man who has observed Africa for thirty years. Somerville reminds one of Basil Davidson, the late genial lover of Africa, who spent all his career promoting African studies in a way perhaps no other will ever match.