African Historical Review, 48:2, pp 107-9
Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent, Keith Somerville Hurst & Company. 2015. xvi + 408 pp. ISBN: 978-1-84904-515-5
Reviewed by Wendell Moore University of south Africa firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
In Africa’s Long Road since Independence, Keith Somerville delivers a historical overview of Africa with a rich focus on the development issues that the continent has encountered and that continue to challenge it. The author must be commended for showing how history can inform the present through contemporary analysis while also providing guidance for the future. The emphasis of the book is on late twentieth-century African history. Somerville illustrates how African leaders’ rigid control over state revenue and the preservation of their gatekeeper status is remarkably consistent with the colonial system. As a result, the majority of Africans remain poor, and African states continue to rely on the export of commodities to other parts of the world. The author pays particular attention to the oil crisis, Cold War dynamics and the development emergency that African countries faced during the 1970s, which, he argues, sculptured the politics of the continent for the twenty-first century.
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As a means of saving failing African economies, international financial institutions and donor countries began promoting Structural Adjustment Programs from the 1980s till the 1990s. Added to economic austerity measures, implemented from the end of the Cold War, was a notion that African states should practice ‘good governance’ in order to qualify for ‘Western’ loans. In the new millennium, there has been a greater measure of ‘freedom’ for African citizens and a sense of rising prosperity on the continent. Nonetheless, this has not fundamentally changed élite patronage and Africa’s uneven development continues. A crucial dimension to the changes occurring in contemporary African economic development since the end of the 1990s is the starring role of China. China has increasingly become a major partner for African states, accounting for 18 per cent of Africa’s total trade by the end of 2011 (p. 310). This is largely because, unlike ‘Western’ aid, the loans the Chinese provide do not come with ‘conditions’, and usually leave political decisions to the host country while including popular infrastructural development such as roads, sports arenas, railways and hospitals as part of their agreement packages. The Chinese therefore offer an alternative for African development, which has arguably been controlled since independence by mother countries in Europe, international institutions and the hegemony promoted by the United States of America. To be sure, Somerville argues, African development does not just follow ‘Western’ models blindly. While external forces have significant influence over African development, it has been African agency that has shaped their cultural, social and economic structures. At a political level ‘African states may have European elements grafted on to them, but they have become something genetically different’ (p. 321). In many senses, Africa’s Long Road since Independence is a development history of Africa. While it may not offer any real advice on exactly what needs to be done to enhance African development, it does show where it is African states have progressed and why they may have failed at other times. It therefore is not a pessimistic take on Africa but an optimistic one that highlights achievements rather than impediments to African development. However, Keith Somerville is critical of the continuation of gatekeeper states and citizens (the now famous concept formulated by Frederick Cooper) in Africa. By employing this concept, it makes it possible, he argues, to recognise that ‘African élites have been active agents in the process of underdevelopment and the creation and maintenance of dependency’ (p. 331). This has kept the majority of Africans still clearly sidelined from real power and wealth, which consequently excludes them from accessing the benefits of superior basic services afforded the élite in education, health care and employment. The author argues that, while there have been improvements to many of these services, most African leaders openly use coercion and corruption to maintain their positions of power and increase the means of their
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clients. The phenomenon of gatekeeping has evolved and is far from reaching its conclusion. Additionally, the author places great emphasis on the interplay between ‘structure and agency, between local and national or continental or global factors rather than trying to find a single theme or hypothesis that explains everything’, which summarises Africa in a nutshell (p. xiii). This is possible because the author is an accomplished journalist with extensive experience of the continent. As such, the book at times reads like a newspaper of events rather than academic literature. This is refreshing and reminiscent of Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (London: Perseus, 2006). Kevin Somerville therefore does well in portraying Africa as dynamic and innovative. Moreover, the broad picture that the book provides allows for the story of Africa, rather than ideological agendas, to shine through. It has the right blend of analysis and a narrative that is easy to grasp. I am sure that, perhaps with minor changes, it could be used as a text book for university students. Because it focuses on the period beginning with the watershed years of the 1970s, the book is more relatable to contemporary African students, who, I would argue, may well find that it deals with many struggles their generation faces. The book’s highly readable and interdisciplinary nature also means that it could be used in various academic disciplines including history, politics, development studies, sociology or geography. This wide-ranging appeal is its greatest strength. In conclusion, Somerville adds an important caution that writing African history and development must not only focus on ‘conflict, corruption, incompetent government and massive social inequality’. This is not a practice used in the analysis of Europe or East Asia he argues, so why should it be for Africa? (p. 325). Rather, to showcase Africa’s strength is to highlight the linkages of the various African situations to other nation states or regions on the continent as well as internationally. It is to show how the continent endeavours to make its citizens prosper in its own vibrant, original and at times contradictory manner.