A well-trodden journey into the heart of darkness

Published by The Times (30th December, 2017)

Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa by Paul Kenyon (Head of Zeus)

I came to this book with enthusiasm. The author has made some strong documentaries and promised original stories about Africa. ‘I’m amazed by how little people know about Africa and that’s why I decided to write Dictatorland. I wanted to tell the story of the continent with all the colour, all the intrigue, all the human stories that make it what it is today,’ says Paul Kenyon on a promotional video. ‘We simply have to understand how Africa arrived where it is today. Not just because it is the sleeping giant of global geopolitics, but because Africa’s story is our story.’

Spot on. Unfortunately, this only makes the disappointment with Dictatorland all the more acute. For a start, there is that strange title. No doubt it will stand out on a bookshelf or a digital page, catching the eye of casual browsers attracted by the authorship of a BBC name. Yet what is the implication? That Africa alone is home to dictators, a continent uniquely scarred by a species of repressive autocrats not seen in other places? Or even that the whole of this diverse and huge continent of 54 countries is stuck in some kind of cruel stasis?

As the pages unfold, something rather different from the promised insight emerges. Instead, we find familiar snapshots of the characters who most conform to the clichés of African dictatorship, from Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi through to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, fleshed out with trademark tales of murder, theft and torture.

There seems little fresh beyond occasional reminiscences of old colonial survivors and the odd contemporary actor, let alone any analysis of real depth beneath the despotism and depravity. Tales of Mobutu’s property empire, with 20 grand homes accumulated in Europe including a Brussels château originally built by his nation’s barbaric looter King Leopold, and Mugabe’s grotesque pillaging of the Marange diamond fields feel far from groundbreaking, let alone revelatory.

Nor is there much logic to the selection of countries included in this book beyond exotic sensationalism. So we get Equatorial Guinea, although the author admits he has not visited the tiny coastal nation. But this allows a romp through the blood-crazed mayhem inflicted by the psychotic Francisco Macías Nguema, who wiped out perhaps a quarter of his fellow citizens, followed by the rapacious looting of his loathsome nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, after the discovery of oil. Then a swift detour to Eritrea, where a brilliantly executed insurgency ended up decaying while in power under a paranoid thug who enslaved his people in national service, baked prisoners in metal containers and chained former allies in hideous, silent, solitary cells.

All this is highly readable. But if it is about a post-colonial theft of resources then it seems strange to include Ivory Coast, or indeed Eritrea with its lack of natural assets, while excluding oil-laden Angola and Gabon. There is glancing mention of Ghana, such an innovative and influential country yet still stained by corruption, while giants such as Egypt, Kenya and South Africa are left unexamined.

The author argues that writers on Africa either ‘survey the entire continent from the highest point’ or ‘plunge beneath the jungle canopy and focus on a single and colourful bloom, dissecting every filament beneath a microscope, so that a solitary event or person might give us a sense of the whole’. Yet he has selected only the most poisonous of plants.

At least there is a chapter on Nigeria. It focuses on the atrocious Sani Abacha, a sinister general trained by Britain who became a master of coups and stole billions once installed in power, interwoven with the judicial murder of the writer and Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Kenyon’s narrative is enlivened by the brazen attempt of a colourful minister to seize the country’s biggest oil concession and the shameful behaviour of oil giants. But how much more enlightening it would be if a reporter of Kenyon’s stature had pursued less well-trodden paths in pursuit of more contemporary political thieves; only last year an official audit highlighted a missing £11 billion in revenues from the state-owned oil company.

Kenyon is a decent storyteller, revelling like any journalist in appalling anecdotes such as the hanging of alleged dissidents in an Equatorial Guinea football stadium to the sound of Those Were the Days. He rightly points out the complicity of colonial powers and of western accomplices laundering stolen assets. And he has done diligent research. A chapter on the remarkable rise of Félix Houphouët-Boigny from chieftan’s son to French health minister and then doddery Ivory Coast despot, who blew a fortune on building in his birthplace the world’s biggest church with 35 storeys and space for 16,000 worshippers, is especially vivid.

This is cleverly preceded with revelations of slavery on cocoa plantations that supplied Cadbury’s, on São Tomé, a century earlier. These threatened the Quaker family’s plaudits for progressive labour practices in Bournville and, amid claims of cover-up, William Cadbury sued the London Standard newspaper for libel in 1908. The tycoon scraped victory — but his reputation was soiled with contemptuous damages of one farthing.

Kenyon’s bold claim that his book proffers profound insight into the making of modern Africa is fanciful, to put it kindly. Instead it is another example of how some western writers still portray an entire continent as the heart of darkness, abetted by fellow travellers in the aid industry seeking to raise funds with tear-jerking imagery while casting themselves as saviours. It joins a library of such books dripping with blood, designed for entertainment, but devoid of perception. When such remorseless stereotypes abound, is it any wonder engagement is so often half-hearted and a vast continent viewed with fear?

The great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe once accused Joseph Conrad of perpetuating a myth of Africa as ‘the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation’. Our own continent is stained with more savage dictators and worse horrors in recent history, yet these myopic images served as justification for the colonial invasion and looting of Africa that continues today in altered guise. Books such as Dictatorland show, on many levels, that things have changed less than might have been hoped. They do no favours for readers, offering such a partial perspective. It is hard to resist the conclusion they are just another corrosive form of exploitation.

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