Keywords: Africa, development, politics

Title: Shackled Continent

Author: Robert Guest

Publisher: Pan

ISBN: 0330419722


'Shackled Continent', by Robert Guest - former Africa editor for the Economist - is a lively, engaging and ultimately hopeful book about sub-Saharan Africa. While the depressing litany of problems - poverty, disease, war, corruption - is familiar enough to anyone who watches the news, it is enlivened by the stories and encounters that Guest recites, and by the idea, however tenuous, that things need not be this way forever.

From South Africa to Cameroon, Rwanda and Zimbabwe via Nigeria and Uganda, Guest's travels across the continent provide a vivid picture of life across the continent. There are differences of culture and history in these different countries, but again and again there are similarities of experience that marks out much of the post-colonial period. Corruption is endemic, poverty everywhere, wars are brutal and never-ending, and AIDS daily saps at the lives of individuals, their families and their communities.

Where many in the West are happy to blame their own governments, or corporate capitalism or the legacy of colonialism, Guest takes an altogether different view. Africa, he argues, suffers from a surfeit of statism. Governments are corrupt, bureaucracies stifling, cronyism and tribalism endemic. Africa has received trillions in aid and yet it limps along. Where Asian countries have, on the whole, prospered since independence, African countries have become poorer and more wretched. Why is this?

Guest argues it is because African governments have been either rigidly authoritarian or riven by corruption and tribalism. Governments have been wedded to central planning and consequently have failed to develop. Freedom, political and economic, has been denied to millions, and local elites have prospered as their populations have suffered. This isn't to deny the history of colonialism, only to point out that Africa's rulers have destroyed what little they had to begin with.

There are some saving graces, Botswana and South Africa, for example. Though Guest makes the point that there are seeds of doubt about some of Mandela's successors.

Can things improve? Guest clearly believes they can. His encounters with taxi drivers, lorry drivers and other everyday folk show that there is a tremendous willingness to make things better, to work hard to improve things for themselves and their families. It is the basic things that need fixing - reducing bureaucracy, improving access to primary education, giving people ownership of their homes and the land they till. Throwing more aid money at governments who waste no time in buying guns and Mercedes cars is no answer.

Guest writes in a straight-forward manner, carrying the argument with plenty of footnotes and facts and figures, but there is also a narrative at work. The descriptions of time and place, of people from all parts of Africa and from all walks of life serve to bring the book to life as well.

As an antidote to the guilt-ridden breast-beating that characterises much of our modern discourse on Africa, this is a perfect read.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published April 04 2006