My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Date read: December 15th, 2017
Published by Head of Zeus, January 11th, 2018
The dictator who grew so rich on his country’s cocoa crop that he built a 35-storey-high basilica in the jungles of the Ivory Coast. The austere, incorruptible leader who has shut Eritrea off from the world in a permanent state of war and conscripted every adult into the armed forces. In Equatorial Guinea, the paranoid despot who thought Hitler was the saviour of Africa and waged a relentless campaign of terror against his own people. The Libyan army officer who authored a new work of political philosophy, The Green Book, and lived in a tent with a harem of female soldiers, running his country like a mafia family business.
And behind these almost incredible stories of fantastic violence and excess lie the dark secrets of Western greed and complicity, the insatiable taste for chocolate, oil, diamonds and gold that have encouraged dictators to rule with an iron hand, siphoning off their share of the action into mansions in Paris and banks in Zurich and keeping their people in dire poverty.
My knowledge of 20th Century history is spotty at best. There are things I am reasonably well-informed about but large parts of history I have cursory knowledge of. The history of Africa is one of those areas (and even typing this makes me cringe – I have to admit to not knowing a lot about a whole fricking continent) and I was very eager to remedy this. As a starting point this book is absolutely perfect. Paul Kenyon manages to give enough of an overview to situate me to then give enough details to keep my interest.
The book is a reasonably comprehensive history of several countries and manages to also connect these parts to a greater whole that gave me a greater understanding how these different dictatorships happened (or are still happening is some cases). We get a greater look into such varied countries as Zimbabwe, Congo, Libya, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea. Paul Kenyon structures his book by way of resources the countries own and how these influenced the histories. Starting with diamonds and gold, continuing with oil, talking about cocoa to then show the weird, tragic case of Eritrea where it is not even known what resources might be found there.
There are some things these countries all have in common: the way in which colonialism wrecked them, the way in which other powers influenced them (often in the way of proxy wars in the Cold War era), and the way in which power corrupted people who could were considered heroes beforehand. It is an endlessly bleak and frustrating history and one that made me think more than once how much people can suck. It is due to Paul Kenyon’s wonderful storytelling sensibilities that I managed to keep reading despite the bleak subject matter.
The things that did not quite work for me are probably not fair: for one I sometimes struggled with the structure of the chapters, the timeline was not always very clear and I did not always find the thread connecting these different scenes. However, it is near impossible to tell of history in a neat narrative because history is not neat but rather messy. I would also have liked the sources to be clearer and more extensive. I work in academia and as such I am more used to academic writing which this is not.
Overall, impeccably researched, super readable, important book.
I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Head of Zeus in exchange for an honest review.