Paul Kenyon's survey of modern African tyranny in Dictatorland is a catalogue of horror and sheer looniness.
Second, it’s all the fault of neo-colonialism: international corporations still loot the continent’s resources, and are complicit in sweetheart deals with dictators and strongmen, who enrich only themselves and their cronies while their people starve.
Third, it’s all the fault of African leaders themselves: for the last half-century, since independence came, too much of Africa has been ruled by megalomaniacs, kleptomaniacs and tyrants. In this version, wealth has been squandered, people have been slaughtered, democracy has withered, and only the Swiss bank accounts of the looters have been fattened.
Of course this third explanation could degenerate into the racist assessment that “these Africans can’t rule themselves”, but the horrible fact remains that there is much truth to all three explanations, as British journalist Paul Kenyon is aware.
Dictatorland is his survey of some of the worst examples of modern African tyranny and it is a selection only. You may wonder why such notorious figures as Jean-Bédel Bokassa and Idi Amin are consigned to footnotes, but Kenyon’s method is to follow the way Africa’s natural wealth has been exploited and stolen. His book is in three sections: about gold and diamonds; oil; and chocolate. He looks only at those dictators whose power was built on these commodities.
The writer is careful to preface each section with an account of how the old imperial powers behaved, and never neglects to tell us which multinational corporation signed a deal with which dictator. Even so, the focus is on post-independence dictators. And what a disgusting bunch they are. Mobutu Sese Seko renamed the Congo “Zaire” and ruled by terror. Robert Mugabe turned Zimbabwe, the bread-basket of Africa, into a basket case. Muammar Gaddafi squandered Libya’s oil wealth on self-aggrandising projects. Isaias Afwerki returned slavery to Eritrea with conscription of young men.
Imagine the clinically insane Francisco Macías Nguema of tiny Equatorial Africa having 150 of his opponents hanged in a synchronised execution staged to piped pop music. Imagine Gaddafi’s son, who fancied himself a footballer, bulldozing the national stadium when fans booed his performance.
If you are not sickened by all this, you may at least be moved to cynical laughter at the thought of Mobutu panicking when he sees footage of Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceaușescu being overthrown and shot and suddenly realises that he could get the chop himself.
The exposés of horror alternate with displays of sheer looniness. The sorrow is that independence so often came with bright, idealistic promises – but corruption and cronyism rapidly took over. In the end, you read this book as you would read The Gulag Archipelago or Laurence Rees’ The Holocaust – as a chronicle of how depraved human beings can become.
DICTATORLAND: The Men Who Stole Africa, by Paul Kenyon (Harper-Collins, $37.99)
This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.