The betrayal of Africa was recommended to me awhile ago by a fellow collaborator at the radio programme Amandla. When I came across it, and I saw how small it was, the first thing that came to my mind was: “is it possible to summarize Africa’s difficulties in less than two hundred pages?” It seemed quite a challenge. However, Gerald Caplan manages to give a spot-on analysis of the historical and economic contexts that are responsible for the current state of affairs.
Gerald Caplan is no stranger to Africa. The continent has been his passion and field of study for the past 40 years. The Canadian academic, who has become famous for his work on the Rwandan genocide, deeply cares about Africa’s future, which is reflected in his book.
Africa is in a critical situation. AIDS, incessant wars, extreme poverty show the extent of the challenges the continent is facing. How has such a rich land paradoxically come to such a tragic situation? Who is to be put in the dock? Caplan presents an element of response. He blames, to a large extent, the policy of slavery set up by the West for hundreds of years.
Caplan asserts that the tragedy began in the 15th century with the African slave trade; a crucial point from which the continent has never recovered. The colonisation then confirmed a series of events whose only goal was the intensive exploitation of the land for European countries’ interests. If the decolonisation gave a hint of hope, the writer states that it only brought another disillusion, as it did not significantly turn the tide.
Caplan is indeed very critical towards the current attitude of the former colonisers. He speaks of neo-colonialism to denounce the interferences in Africa’s internal affairs. He also denigrates the damaging role of institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. A sense of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine comes to mind. In her book, she dug into the negative practices of these organisations, confirming some of Caplan’s facts.
It is true that Africa is now a continent where tremendous inequalities prevail. While a few thousand wealthy people have a fortune estimated at more than 400 billion euros, countless slum dwellers have to live amidst open sewers and minimalist sanitary conditions. Furthermore, if a woman in the UK can enjoy a life expectancy of 80 years, African women die at 46 on average.
In that sense, Caplan is right. Africa has been betrayed. Betrayed by the West, but also by local leaders who emphasized their own profit at the expense of the development of their nations. They have demonstrated their chronic inability to govern adequately and eliminate the bad influence of major economic countries.
Some experts would argue the book does not offer an in-depth analysis and they would not be totally wrong. However it is not the purpose here. Far from advancing a simplistic and sterile argument, Caplan focuses on the need for a change of attitude from both sides, so that Africa can one day get out of the plague in which it is trapped. With a clear and concise style, The betrayal of Africa represents an excellent introduction to the difficulties the continent must overcome. A must-read.
The betrayal of Africa, Groundwood Books (4 March 2008), Paperback, 144 pages