Op ed

The Betrayal of Africa, by Gerald Caplan,

It is such a small book for such a large continent with such huge issues, but this is no superficial primer for neophyte travellers and liberal do-gooders.

Caplan has been around Africa for, as he writes, more than 40 years, He knows it well and passionately cares for its future. His analysis is spot-on, although it will rub some the wrong way. He does not gloss over the causes of the indignities that hundreds of millions of Africans suffer at the hands of their political and economic masters. Nor does he gloss over the role of outsiders who ensure that “more wealth pours out of Africa to the West than the West transfers to Africa.”

Of course, some things are missing. Africaphiles and academics will want more detail, more studies. The “development” industry will find The Betrayal of Africa scathing in its analysis of the failure of its many programs and projects. Many African leaders and the political elites will feel denuded as Caplan focuses a searing eye on their corruption and ineptitude. The book ignores much of North Africa which Caplan sees as “qualitatively different” from the countries south of the Sahara. Instead – and correctly – the book focuses on the 48 existing nation states of sub-Saharan Africa with its 800, or more, million people, consisting of several thousand ethnic groups and more than 2,000 languages in addition to the “official” English, French and Portuguese of  the colonizers.

The book’s analysis avoids the trap which many experts fall into of treating Africa as a single entity. It is far too complex and diverse for that imperialist and racist view despite the similar predicaments that many countries find themselves in. “Even the uninformed outsider in the rich world is [at least superficially] aware of the African condition: underdevelopment, violent conflict, famine, AIDS, wretched governance.”   Caplan and his publishers have produced a book that is popularly writtten in style, designed with tables and  maps that illustrate superbly the basic context that history does count, that Africa was invaded and conquered about 120 years ago when “European leaders who knew nothing about Africa and cared less, exacerbated [those] natural challenges when their arbitrary division of the continent created 15 landlocked entities.”

The Betrayal of Africa nicely explodes stereotypes that are still used today to justify economic and political  exploitation: glamorizing rural life where 70 percent of Africa’s poor live; ignoring the reality of the underdevelopment of women who have no rights at all despite egalitarian protocols and the number of powerful women in most countries; and the unhealthy disasters of largely preventable diseases that claim 130,000 lives-a-week from AIDS, malaria, TB, unsafe water, respiratory disease and so on.

One of the most controversial – but to my mind wholly accurate – allegations Caplan makes is entitled “the great conspiracy”; but this analysis is no theory. Caplan calls it a “cynical little deal” where  African leaders “pretend” to reform themselves and Western aid and development agencies “pretend” to live up to their promises of help and support..

One could wish that Caplan would explore more deeply the failure of democratic capitalism in poor countries for the same reason it fails the poor, homeless and immigrant populations of Canada and the U.S.

As always, the liberals want hope. Is there any hope for Africa, despite its enormous natural wealth?. Caplan identifies, as do many African analysts, the four major geographical potential power points in the east (Ethiopia), west (Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and south (South Africa). But each has almost insurmountable problems, leaving only South Africa as “the single greatest hope” for the continent.

Some hope, for the last country in the continent to gain independence (1994) with its own deep-seated, and increasingly evident, structural difficulties.

And where do we fit into all this? Not by insisting Africa use the World Trade Organization as a tool of the very richest against the very poorest.

“The truth is not in doubt. It takes little imagination to look at Africa and see a portrait of unparalled hopelessness. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by despair and a sense of futility.”

That’s exactly why the causes of for this condition need to be properly analysed and understood by the West in reversing the situation. Dishonesty and rationalization only makes the crisis worse. For those in the West long committed to Africa, recognizing our complicity is a crucial step towards that reversal.

The Betrayal of Africa, by Gerald Caplan,

Groundwood Books,
House of Anansi,
Toronto, 2008, 144pp.

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