The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith (2005)

Meredith’s big book (770 pages) does what it says on the tin and tells the history of every African country from the run-up to independence, i.e. starting in the mid-1950s, to the time of writing, i.e. about 2004, covering half a century of tumultuous history. It’s a vast subject but Meredith’s book is an easy and pleasurable read. He writes a wonderfully clear, expressive prose which effortlessly conveys a huge amount of information and profiles countries, leaders and events with deceptive ease.

The narrative is chock-a-block with facts and dates, central figures and key events, but a handful of general principles emerge all too clearly.

Imperialism’s mistakenly long-term view

The colonial powers thought they were in it for the very long haul. As the Second World War ended, most thought the colonies they ruled wouldn’t be ready for independence for centuries, certainly not till the end of the twentieth century. This, in retrospect, was never viable. The idea that generations of natives would be happy to live out their entire lives as second class citizens, die, and hand on to their children who would themselves be content to live as second class citizens and so on indefinitely shows a poor grasp pf human nature.

Instead, as we know, the generation who came to maturity after the war insisted on independence now, in their own lifetimes.

Lack of provision

The fact that the colonial powers didn’t expect to hand over independence for a very long time goes some way to explaining why they made so little provision for education, political inclusion and other aspects of statehood. They didn’t think they needed to; they thought they had decades and decades to slowly, incrementally introduce the elements of a modern state, not least an extensive cohort of properly trained professional administrators, engineers, lawyers and so on.

Rush to independence

But instead of resigning themselves to waiting for decades or centuries, and inspired by the independence of India, Pakistan, Burma in 1948, native political leaders began lobbying hard for independence as soon as possible.

Independence became a shibboleth, an indicator of ideological purity, so that rival parties in colonial countries fell over themselves to demand it soon, sooner, soonest. You can see this at work in Congo where the conference called to discuss independence found itself being bounced into bringing the date ever forward, until it was set at barely 4 months after the conference ended (the first part of the conference ended in February 1960 and set the date of independence for June 30, 1960).

The mad scramble for independence, regardless of whether any of the conditions of statehood were actually in place, explains a lot of what came after.

A tiny educated elite

Thus when independence came, the educated and political class which clamoured for it was still small, a tiny elite (‘no more than about 3 per cent of the population’, p.169). This was to have important consequences. In fact it’s staggering to read Meredith explain just how ill-prepared African countries were to manage themselves. Most African societies were predominantly illiterate and innumerate. In all of black Africa, in the late 1950s as independence dawned, the entire population of 200 million produced 8,000 secondary school graduates. No more than 3% of children of secondary school age actually attended a school. Few new states had more than 200 students at university. In the former French colonies there were no universities at all. Hence the pitiful statistics about the handful of graduates available in countries like Congo or Angola at independence.

Utopian dreams of ‘independence’

Another fundamental fact was that no-one involved really understood what ‘independence’ meant or involved: what it actually took to run a) a functioning state b) a functioning economy.

The prophet of African independence, Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah, is quoted as stating that, once independence was granted, everything would flow from that i.e. freedom and prosperity for all; that once they had overthrown the colonial economy, they would create for themselves:

a veritable paradise of abundance and satisfaction (quoted on page 144)

You can tell from the phrasing that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Independence became identified, in every country, with everyone’s hopes and dreams, no matter how utopian. In David van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo, he describes how Congolese peasants and street people were led to believe that, at independence, they would all be given a big house like the Europeans lived in, with a free car and a rich white woman as a wife.

African socialism

Africa gained independence during the height of the Cold War. Many African leaders, such as Tanganyika’s Julius Nyerere, sought to distance themselves from both the capitalist West and the Soviet East, and hoped Africa could carve a middle way, a new way, an African way, but most were also swayed by the utopian rhetoric of socialism. As capitalism was associated with the (often brutal) rule of exploitative imperialists, it was no surprise that, given a choice, leaders rejected ‘capitalism’ for ‘socialism’ but socialism with African characteristics, African socialism. They thought rapid industrialisation of the kind carried out by Stalin in backward Russia, and just about to be carried out by Mao in backward China, would also provide a ‘great leap forward’ for backward Africa. Nkrumah declared:

‘Socialism is the only pattern that can within the shortest possible time bring the good life to the people.’ (quoted page 145)

Meredith quotes several leaders and thinkers who thought that ‘socialism’ was more in line with African traditions, in which there had been communal ownership of land, decisions were taken by consensus, in which members of tribes or kingdoms worked together, without an exploiting class severed from the mass of the population. In old Africa there hadn’t been the flagrant inequalities associated with white western capitalism, everyone was more equal.

You can see how the revival of African traditions, the rejection of white western capitalism, the promotion of new ways of doing things, the hope for a revolution in living standards, and socialist rhetoric about equality and wealth for all, were combined into a heady brew of nationalist and socialist slogans, posters, banners, speeches, books, announcements. In the mid-1960s African leaders and their liberal western supporters were brimful of optimism.

Economic reality

There were, unfortunately, quite a few problems with this millenarian vision, but the obvious one was economic: The majority of the population of most of Africa barely scraped a living by subsistence agriculture. In times of drought or conflict they starved, as their forefathers had. In fact Meredith gives a sober and bleak assessment of the economic state of Africa at independence in 1960:

Africa was the poorest, least developed region on earth. Its climate was harsh and unpredictable. Drought was a constant risk, bringing with it famine. Rainfall in half the continent was inadequate. African soil in many regions was thin, poor in nutrients, producing very poor yields. By far the majority of the population, over 80%, was engaged in subsistence farming, without access to even basic education or health care. Severe disease was common and the blight of tsetse fly, which spread sleeping sickness among animals as well as humans, prevented animals being reared or used as beasts of burden on a huge area exceeding 10 million square kilometers. Poverty and disease ensured death rates for children in Africa, in 1960, were the highest in the world and general life expectancy, at 39 years, was the lowest in the world.

The white colonists in all the colonies lived the life of Reilly only because they enjoyed the profit derived from the labour of huge numbers of African workers in plantations, fields and so on, slaving away to produce coffee, tea, rubber, groundnuts and other cash crops, which were gathered, processed, shipped abroad by companies set up and run by Europeans and on whose profits the Europeans lived their fabulous lifestyle, complete with big houses, swimming pools, chauffeur-driven cars, servants and maids and cooks.

That kind of lifestyle, by definition, was only available to a small minority who could benefit from the labour of a huge majority. When independence came, nothing changed in the economic realities of these countries. Instead two things happened:

1. White flight

The Europeans fled, taking their technical and administrative expertise with them. In the two examples I’ve been studying, Congo and Angola, the Belgians and the Portuguese fled in their entirety, leaving the mechanisms of the state but, much more importantly, the management of the economy, to people who had no idea how to do it. Hence, instead of a shangri-la of riches for all, newly independent countries more often than not, found themselves plunged into economic anarchy.

2. Failure of the post-independence elite to live up their promises

The small political/educated elite (a product of the imperialists’ failure to invest in education) found the task of ‘redistributing wealth’ in the socialist sense of the word completely beyond them. a) They found the task of keeping the economic and business models inherited from the Europeans very challenging and, even if they could, b) discovered that the kind of wealth the whites had enjoyed derived from the fact that they were a tiny minority exploiting the labour of an impoverished majority ie there could never be wealth for all.

It was very tempting, then, for the new leaders to abandon any thoughts of redistributing wealth and, instead, fight to keep it for themselves.

Arbitrary nature of African ‘countries’

The whole problem was exacerbated by one of the best known facts about Africa, which is that all the colonies had been arbitrarily carved out on abstract maps which completely cut across the sociological realities on the ground, ignoring the existence of traditional kingdoms or tribal or ethnic groupings.

Very often the imperialists, in their profound ignorance of peoples who lived in the ‘states’ they were creating, either:

  1. broke up homogeneous groupings into separate countries (such as the Bakongo who found themselves carved up between the French Congo, Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola). ‘In all the new boundaries cut through some 190 cultural groups’ p.1)
  2. or forced together antagonistic groups, such as the rival kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro forced to coexist in Uganda or the profoundly different cultures, ethnic groups and religions of north and south Sudan forced into a very uneasy co-existence (p.2).

Secessions and civil wars

This simple fact explains the tendency for almost all the African colonies to experience civil wars, often long running and deeply destructive wars. Some of the wars resulted from two or more parties competing for power in a given state, such as the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique. Others took the form of secessionist movements where entire provinces and ethnic/tribal groups sought independence from a state they felt little or no attachment to, as in the attempt at secession of Biafra in Nigeria, and of Katanga in Congo.

The tendency of these made-up countries with their irrational borders bristling with rival groups to collapse into various types of secession, civil war and anarchy, quickly brought to the fore the only group which could hope to hold the state together, the army.

Inevitable failure of the first generation of independent leaders

So being handed often ridiculously unviable countries almost guaranteed that the idealistic, utopian, often socialist leaders who came to power in the first wave of independence in the early 1960s, would be confronted by a) the collapse of the economy b) the intensification of poverty leading to unrest c) fragmentation, secession and civil war, and so d) would be replaced by military strongmen who a) reimposed order through bloody repression, and b) grasping that the limited amount of wealth generated by their ailing economies would never be enough to lift their countrymen out of poverty c) quickly made the cynical but realistic decision to keep as much of the country’s wealth as possible for themselves and d) for their clients and supporters.

Net effect – military coups, strong men and kleptocracy

In a throwaway sentence, Meredith makes what I think is a major insight, possibly the central point:

The political arena became a contest for scarce resources. (p.156)

There very quickly emerged a dichotomy between the soaring rhetoric of African socialism and African nationalism and African unity on the one hand, and the sordid reality of strong men clambering to power via coups and revolutions, who saw the state not as a vehicle for governing in the best interests of the nation, but as a mechanism to steal as much wealth as they could for themselves, their clients, their hangers on, their clan and their tribe.

Hence unstable countries, characterised by recurring civil wars or civil strife, and recurrent military coups, almost always leading to the rule of Strong Men, Big Men, dictators of one sort or another, who quickly became kleptocrats i.e. stole from the state, creamed off international aid, lived lives of stunning luxury, while abandoning their people to lives of grinding poverty, often falling victim to the random violence of corrupt, generally unpaid, soldiers and police.

All the high-sounding rhetoric about African socialism gave way to a deeper African tradition, that of the chieftain, the king, the emperor, one-man ruler of a one-man state, who encouraged outsize personality cults, playing up the leader’s visionary, even magical, powers.

In practice it turned out that overwhelmingly illiterate populations put their faith not in sophisticated political theories or complex constitutional mechanisms, but in the Great Leader, the Helmsman: the Great Son of Africa, the Scourge of Imperialism, the Doctor of Revolutionary Science, as Sékou Touré, the autocratic ruler of Guinea, called himself (p.64), or the Man of Destiny, Star of Africa, His High Dedication of Redeemer which is how Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah lkiked his state-controlled media to refer to him – just two among the impressive cast of megalomaniacs, tyrants and dictators with which Africa has kept the rest of the world entertained for the past 60 years.

‘System? What system?’ retorted president Bourguiba, when asked about Tunisia’s political system. ‘I am the system!’ (p.169)

Summary

In some countries, such as Rwanda and Burundi, you can throw in vicious ethnic hatred and genocide; in some others, long wars eventually led to independence for seceding states (South Sudan, Eritrea). But the core narrative outlined above applies to most African countries since independence, explains their  troubled histories, and underpins the situation many find themselves in today. As Meredith comments, the odd, almost eerie, thing is how consistently almost all the African colonies followed the same pattern:

Although Africa is a continent of great diversity, African states have much in common, not only their origin as colonial territories, but the similar hazards and difficulties they have faced. Indeed, what is so striking about the fifty-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes. (p.14)


Credit

The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith was published by The Free Press in 2005. All references are to the 2013 paperback edition.

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In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong (2000)

Comparing Michela Wrong and David van Reybrouck

David van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s modern history is basically an orthodox chronological account and political analysis interspersed with interviews with the many veterans and eye witnesses he has tracked down and spoken with at length.

Wrong’s account feels completely different, less chronological or, indeed, logical, more thematic. Instead of historical analysis, she brilliantly conveys what it felt like to live in Zaire under Mobutu as she sets about systematically exploring and describing different aspects of Zaire society and culture. Her vividness of approach is demonstrated by the way the book opens with the fall of Mobutu in 1997, going light on political analysis and strong on vivid descriptions of what it felt like to live in a crumbling, corrupt third world country.

Chapter one dwells on the role played in so many African states by key international hotels in their capitals, in Rwanda the Mille Collines, in Zimbabwe the Meikles, in Ethiopia the Hilton, in Uganda the Nile, hotels where presidents mingle with mercenaries, dodgy diamond deals are struck between smartly dressed middlemen, security goons lurked in the background muttering into their lapel mics, and the corridors were cruised by the most expensive hookers in town. And how it felt to be one among the pack of foreign correspondents living in Kinshasa’s Intercontinental Hotel as rumours swirled, troop carriers arrived, the president’s son turned up with a pack of soldiers furiously trying to track down the men who betrayed his father. And then suddenly, overnight, all the military figures switched to wearing tracksuits and casual wear in anticipation of the arrival of the rebel troops.

That’s the kind of picture painting and atmosphere Wrong is ace and conjuring up. How a country’s decline can be measured by the way the expensive carpeting in its hotels starts to smell of mildew, the lifts stop working, the blue paint on the bottom of pools comes off on the swimmers’ feet. Van Reybrouck takes an essentially academic approach spiced with extensive interviews. He is a historian whereas Wrong is a journalist, with a telling eye for detail and snappy one-line quotes.

Obviously, in this 314-page book she tells us an awful lot about the origins, rise and fall of the Mobutu dictatorship which lasted from 1965 to 1997, but it is the fantastically evocative way she conveys what it felt like that makes this book such a classic.

Van Reybrouck gives a detailed explanation of the ethnic tensions in eastern Congo which were exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide and then the constellation of political forces which led the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents to decide to invade eastern Congo and create a military coalition (the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the AFDL) and select as its leader the long-time Maoist guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This is to the good. His account is worth reading and rereading.

But Wrong tells you what it felt like to be in Kinshasa as the rebel army drew ever closer. The panic among Mobutu’s cronies, the so-called mouvanciers up in their gated mansions in the smart Binza district, the rush by the city’s moneyed classes to get visas for foreign destinations, the way the various western embassies practised evacuating their staff across the river Congo to Brazzaville, capital of the once-French colony the Republic of Congo which was unaffected by Mobutu’s fall.

Van Reybrouck gives you high-level analysis, Wrong gives you the sweat and the fear, the paranoia. She tells us everyone knew the game was up when the grizzled old piano player who’d been playing cocktail jazz in the bar of the Intercontinental for as long as anyone could remember one day disappeared.

She describes how the shopkeepers and population prepared for the mass looting which always accompanies regime change, and passes on the advice of an old hand that it’s best to select in advance one and only one item you want to loot and, once the anarchy begins, focus on getting that and only that. Wrong selects a $1,000 leather jacket for when the great pillaging begins.

She describes the way rumours are spread by ‘Radio Trottoir’, Pavement Radio i.e. word on the street. She conveys the mad, feverish atmosphere of a city about to be taken by rebel forces (p.27).

Another difference is that van Reybrouck sees the history of Congo as a tragedy, or series of tragedies, and he affects the reader with his sense of high seriousness. Wrong, on the other hand, has a lively sense of humour and an eye for the absurd detail. She finds almost everything about Zaire farcical, but then she appears to find all of Africa farcical and hopeless.

As for rebuilding the impression given by the scaffolding and myriad work sites dotted around Kinshasa is misleading. The work has never been completed, the scaffolding will probably never be removed. Like the defunct street lamps lining Nairobi’s roads, the tower blocks of Freetown, the faded boardings across Africa which advertise trips to destinations no travel company today services, it recalls another era, when a continent believed its natural trajectory pointed up instead of down. (p.20)

As this quote indicates, another difference is that whereas van Reybrouck’s account is focused with laser-like precision on the history of just the Congo, Wrong’s anecdotes and comparisons freely reference the many other African countries she’s visited and worked in as a foreign correspondent. There’s a lot more international comparison and perspective. Wrong visits places around Congo but also Brussels to interview historians, to visit the Congolese quarter, and Switzerland to track down some of Mobutu’s luxury properties.

And whereas van Reybrouck is optimistic, on the side of Congo’s bloodied but resilient people, Wrong is both more humorous and more pessimistic. According to her, the story is the same all across Africa, one of unstoppable decline and fall.

Talking to the melancholic Colonel, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense of tragic waste, of crippled potential that so often sweeps over one in Africa. (p.178)

In Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist the Belgian colonials who describe the Congolese as ‘children’ who need order, discipline and control and will make a horlicks of their country if granted independence are condemned as racist bigots – so you must never say anything like that. However, Wrong’s book freely refers to African politics as farcical, its politicians as clowns, and that, apparently, wins prizes.

At times, too many times, politics on Congo resembled one of those hysterical farces in which policemen with floppy truncheons and red noses bounce from one outraged prima donna to another. ‘I’m the head of state. Arrest that man!’ ‘No, I’M the head of state. That man is an imposter. Arrrest him!’ (p.66)

So it’s OK to mock Africans as long as you use the correct phraseology and attitude. Calling them children is a no-no; calling their countries farcical, absurd, ludicrous, surreal, Alice in Wonderland – that’s fine.

And perfectly acceptable to be tired and bored of the absurdity of Africa’s rulers, the comical proliferation of rebels and freedom fighters and guerrilla movements, the bleak iteration of yet another massacre or round of ethnic cleansing somewhere on this blighted continent, like the western media’s news producers and sub-editors ‘shaking their heads over yet another unfathomable African crisis’ (p.7). Africa is for Wrong, ‘a disturbing continent’, ‘Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint’, whose countries brim with ‘anarchy and absurdity’ (p.10).

When the AFDL’s representatives started calling the BBC office in Nairobi in late 1996, claiming they would march all the way to Kinshasa, journalists dismissed them with a weary shrug as yet another unknown guerrilla movement, the length of its constituent acronyms only rivalled by its obscurity, making wild plans and farcical claims. Africa is full of them: they surface, splinter into factions – yet more acronyms – only to disappear with equal suddenness. (p.245)

Several times she mentions Liberia’s drugged freedom fighter who wore wedding dressed and pink lipstick as they mowed down innocent civilians and gang-raped the women. She describes the teenage  FAZ recruits preparing to defend Kinshasa who were so drunk they could barely lift their grenade launchers. When the AFDL rebel soldiers arrive they turn out to be mostly teenagers wearing flip-flops or no shoes at all. Kabila promised to relinquish power once he’d overthrown Mobutu but of course does nothing of the sort. In turn Kabila was himself assassinated (in 2001), replaced by a family member even more corrupt and the whole of East Congo engulfed in a huge, often incomprehensible and seemingly endless war. Farce and tragedy.

The Latin Quarter hit, ‘I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa‘ seems as true when Wrong was writing in 2000 or now, in 2021, as when it was released in 1984.

Chapter by chapter

Introduction

Wrong arrived in Zaire as a foreign correspondent in 1994, found her way around, did features on Mobutu and his corrupt circle, the prostration of the economy (‘a country reverting to the Iron Age’, p.31) the uselessness of the army, the universal vibe of fear and poverty. Less than three years later, in autumn 1996, the AFDL seized eastern Congo and began its systematic assault on the country, seizing the mining centre of Lubumbashi in the south while other forces marched on the capital Kinshasa in the west. Wrong is perfectly placed to report on the paranoia of the last days, to fly out to the hot spots, to interview soldiers, shopkeepers, street traders, as well as army officers and government spokesmen.

So the introduction gives us tasters, snapshots: Wrong flying to the pretty lakeside town of Goma which was pillaged by its own inhabitants when the occupying army left. Wrong wandering through the rooms of Mobutu’s legendary palace at Gbadolite, now ruined and looted, the five black Mercedes, the Ming vases.

And she explains the title which is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness about the madness and barbarism he, personally, encountered, in the Congo Free State in 1890, epitomised by the fictional character of Mr Kurz, the high-minded exponent of civilisation who is sent to man an ivory station up the Congo, far from civilisation, and decays and degrades to become an epitome of barbarism and nihilism. Wrong sees herself literally following in Kurz’s footsteps as she explores all aspects of the absurd rule of Mobutu in the mid-90s, then watches his regime collapse in ruins.

Chapter 1

Plunges us into the endgame with a wonderfully evocative description of the atmosphere in Kinshasa and the Intercontinental Hotel where all the foreign correspondents stayed, during the last few days in 1997 October 1997 before Laurent Kabila’s AFDL took the city and Mobutu and his cronies were forced to flee. Snapshots of a city under siege, with brief explanations of Mobutu’s rule, the character of the AFDL and its leader Kabila, their determination to clean up the pigsty and abolish corruption.

Chapter 2

Gives a brisk but effective summary of Stanley’s exploration of the Congo (with backstory about Stanley’s biography) and King Leopold’s disgustingly barbaric regime of cruelty and exploitation, which he called the Congo Free State, 1885 to 1908 (with backstory explaining why Belgium was a relatively new country – founded in 1830 – and its king wanted a colony so as to be taken seriously by the big boys.)

In Brussels she visits the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal, once a whip-wielding colon himself, who has devoted his life to editing and publishing definitive records of the Congo Free State. She visits the Royal Museum for Central Africa and is shocked by the complete absence of references to the atrocities the Belgians carried out there, and to learn that Belgian colonial history is not taught in Belgian schools (p.55).

She takes a tour of buildings by the noted Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, before pointing out that all the raw materials crafted into these beautiful buildings – the hardwood, onyx, marble, and copper – all came directly from the forced labour of Congolese blacks. Horta was rewarded for his services to Belgian architecture with a barony.

She describes how many of the Free State’s exploitative practices continued after the colony was handed over to Belgian government rule in 1908, including forced labour and use of the dreaded chicotte, the whip made of dried hippopotamus hide. It was only after the Second World War that Congo became less brutally exploitative and a tiny black middle class began to emerge, but if anything the colour bar or informal apartheid against this new breed of évolués or ‘evolved’ blacks grew worse.

Which moves into a description of the appearance, sights and sounds and mentality of the Congolese quarter in Brussels. She ends by making a strong case that Leopold’s atrocities, many of which continued under Belgian colonial rule, acculturated an entire region for 85 long years to abject humiliation, subservience, black market, illegal operations and corruption. Prepared the way, in other words, for just such a dictator as Mobutu.

No malevolent witch doctor could have devised a better preparation for the coming of a second Great Dictator. (p.57)

Chapter 3

Interview with Larry Devlin, the long-retired former CIA station chief in Kinshasa, who emphasises that Wrong only saw the regime at its bitter, pitiful end. She never knew the young, vibrant, charismatic Mobutu or knew the situation of anarchy between elected politicians which his 1965 coup rescued the country from (p.61).

She makes clearer than van Reybrouck or Bennett that Lumumba had actively invited the Soviets to give arms and advisers to crush the secessions. Devlin thinks Lumumba was never a communist, but he was naive. He thought he could invite in thousands of communist advisers at no cost. Devlin says he’d seen that happen in Eastern Europe after the war: your country falls to a communist coup and then Moscow is in charge. So Mobutu’s first coup of September 1960 was not just to bring political peace but to keep the Congo out of Soviet hands – and it worked. Soviet bloc personnel were given 48 hours to leave the country (p.67).

His account emphasises not just that, when the UN and US were slow to respond, Lumumba turned to the Soviets to supply him with arms and strategic advice to put down the secession of two major provinces – but that people of Devlin’s generation had seen this happen before. This was how the Soviets effected their coups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. This is how they established their tyrannies, by taking control of the army and placing personnel in key administrative and political positions. It had never been done in Africa before, but the Americans weren’t about to sit back and watch the Soviets make the experiment. So that’s why the Americans, backed by his political enemies within the country, decided he had to be eliminated. President Eisenhower personally approved CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba (p.77).

Then she backs up to give us the hasty run-up to independence from Belgium in June 1960, the army mutinying for better pay and promotion within days, triggering a mass exodus of the Belgian administrators and technicians who kept the country running, the political rivalry between ‘lethargic’ President Kasavubu (p.66) and passionate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and how the deadlock between them was broken by young Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, previously Lumumba’s personal secretary, who Lumumba himself had put in charge of the army and who, very bravely, faced down the army mutiny and restored order. Mobutu was encouraged then and ever afterwards by America.

A detailed look at the boyhood and young manhood of Joseph Mobutu from the Ngbani tribe, one of the smaller of Congo’s 250 ethnic groups, emphasising his brightness, reasonableness and extraordinary charisma; educated by Belgian priests, expelled for being a trouble-maker, a few years in the Force Publique rising to rank of sergeant, then contributing (anonymous) articles to new magazines set up for the Congolese, before he committed to becoming a journalist and then came to the attention of Lumumba who was looking for a secretary (pages 68 to 76). Devlin, the CIA man explains how Mobutu was really the best man available when he staged his 1965 coup.

Soon after the 1965 coup Devlin was posted to Vietnam. When he returned to Zaire in 1974 he found a drastically changed man and country. Surrounded by yes men, drinking pink champagne in his palaces, Mobutu was ‘already round the bend’ (p.82).

Chapter 4 Economics

In the immediate aftermath of the coup there were hangings, a new secret police was set up and so on. But the fundamental fact about Mobutu’s regime was he was an economic illiterate. Therefore his sole economic policy was to loot and plunder his country’s natural resources (when the going was good in the late 60s and early 70s) and then creaming the top off huge loans from the World bank and aid agencies. In other words, he didn’t know how to create or run a modern economy. He built a few high-profle white elephants, like the Inga dam, but when the builders left Zaire had no technicians to run it and there was never any coherent plan to create the infrastructure to distribute the electricity to where it was needed. Thus Congo has the greatest hydro-electric potential in the world in the shape of its huge and mighty river – and yet is a country whose cities suffer continual power cuts and outages.

He took up the creed of Pan-Africanism pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister of Ghana (who made himself president for life in 1964 and was overthrown by a military coup in 1966 supported by the CIA).

Mobutu promulgated his policies of authenticité, forcing everyone in the country to drop their European Christian names and adopt African names, renaming the state Zaire, renaming Leopoldville Kinshasa and Elizabethville Lubumbashi. He forced everyone to stop wearing European suits and mini skirts and adopt traditional African dress (p.90). He persuaded promoters to hold Miss World and the Ali-Foreman boxing match in Zaire (described in detail in van Reybrouck’s book).

In other words, he demonstrated how facile it is to address ‘cultural’ issues, fuss over ‘identity’ and language and culture. Meanwhile, in the absence of an economic or development plan, the economy tanked and the infrastructure rotted. The first years of his rule were bolstered by the high prices for Zaire’s raw materials created by the Vietnam war, but the end of the war in 1974 combined with the oil crisis to plunge Zaire into an economic hole it never crawled beck out of (p.94).

In 1973 he launched ‘Zaireanisation’ i.e. all foreign held businesses were confiscated by the state with a view to handing them over to ‘the people’ (p.92). The only problem was that ‘the people’ turned out, as when Robert Mugabe did the same thing 20 years later in Zimbabwe, to consist entirely of cronies and clients of Mobutu, who needed to be paid off or kept onside. None of them had a clue how to manage anything and ran businesses large and small into the ground, selling off the assets, living high off the proceeds, then needing further bribes or corruption money when they ran dry. $1 billion of assets were confiscated then squandered. It was gangster economics, ‘Alice in Wonderland finances’ (p.124).

And run on a massive system of cronyism. Mobutu needed so much money because he had to distribute gifts to all his important stakeholders in the manner of a traditional chieftain. Mobutu bought properties for himself around Europe, but he encouraged a system where hundreds of thousands of people scrabbled into the state administration, into the army or civil service, and then used their positions to embezzle, steal, demand bribes and generally be as corrupt as possible. By the mid-1990s Zaire had 600,000 people on the state payroll, doing jobs the World Bank calculated could be done by 50,000 (p.97).

The ambassador to Japan, Cleophas Kamitatu, simply sold the Zairian embassy and pocketed the proceeds. France sold Zaire a fleet of Mirage jets and ten years later, Defence Ministry officials simply sold them and kept the money (p.256). Ministers allotted themselves huge monthly salaries, lavish per diems, and insisted on having two of the very latest Mercedes, and their example was copied all the way down through their ministries, in state-run businesses and onto the street. Everyone stole everything they could, all the time. That’s what a kleptocracy is.

Chapter 5 Congo’s ruined mineral industries

Wrong flies to Katanga to report how nationalisation, corruption and utter mismanagement ran Congo’s mineral industries into the ground, beginning with astonishing stats about the country’s mineral huge wealth, then on to how Mobutu nationalised the Belgian mining corporation, Union Minière, consolidating it into the state-run company Gécamines. Sounds good, doesn’t it, one in the eye for the old imperial power, claiming the nation’s resources for the nation.

Except the nation never saw any of the profits. By 1978 the central bank had ordered Gécamines to transfer its entire annual profit of $500 million directly into a presidential bank account. By 1980 American researchers discovered that company officials were stealing $240 million  a year from Gécamines. Not only stole but smuggled, with huge amounts of diamonds, gold and other precious metals never reaching the books because they were stolen and smuggled abroad. In such an environment, nobody at any level gave a damn about investing in the company, in its stock and infrastructure, and so everything the Belgians had bequeathed the Congolese slowly rotted, decayed, was stolen, till the entire plants were rusting skeletons.

Wrong tours these sites giving us eerie descriptions of entire towns full of abandoned workings, derelict factories, rusting railways. That’s what she means when she described the entire country as slipping back into the Iron Age.

Wrong testifies to the decrepitude of the Shituri plant, describes the white elephant of Inga dam project built solely so Kinshasa kept control over Katanga. Pays an extended visit to the diamond town of Mbuji Mayi in the neighbouring province of Kasai, and interviews traders who explain the deep-seated corruption at every level of the diamond trade and ‘controlled’ by the Societe Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA). She interviews its long-standing government representative, Jonas Mukamba (p.118) who paid Mobutu a hefty slice of the profits and in exchange was allowed to run Mbuji Mayi as he liked.

Eventually the infrastructure of Mbuji Mayi crumbled and collapsed, as had the mining infrastructure of Katanga. World mineral prices slumped but also, what was being produced was now being almost entirely smuggled. The rake-off from official trade collapsed because official trade collapsed. As the 90s progressed Mobutu lost his power of patronage.

She visits the central bank and the alleyway behind it jokingly referred to as Wall Street because it’s lined with unofficial street money changers. As Mobutu borrowed more and more from abroad and printed more money inflation soared and the currency collapsed. Wheelbarrows full of notes. A 500,000 zaire (the currency) note was printed to general resignation. Printing money led to mind-boggling inflation 9,800% and printing of the 500,000 zaire note. Mobutu had presided over the utter ruination of the economy.

Chapter 6

The collapse in Kinshasa epitomised by 1960s high-rise ministries without functioning lifts. The collapse of public phone system which was replaced by mobile networks, Telecel, for the wealthy. The collapse of the health system exemplified by Mama Yemo hospital which employs guards to prevent patients leaving without paying their bills.

Wrong pays a visit to Kinshasa’s small nuclear reactor, built on sandy soil liable to landslips, hit by a rocket during Kabila’s takeover of power, which had no security at all on the day she visited, and where one or two nuclear rods have recently gone missing.

Chapter 7

An explanation of ‘Article 15’, which is, apparently, the much-quoted ironic dictum by which most Congolese live their lives.

When the province of Kasai seceded soon after independence, it published a 14-article constitution. So many ethnic Luba people returned to the region expecting to become rich that the exasperated secessionist ruler made a speech in which he referred to a fictional, hypothetical 15th article of the constitution, which basically said, in French, ‘Débrouillez-vous!’ meaning ‘get on with it’, ‘figure it out yourself’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘improvise’. Since 1960 has become a universal expression throughout the country to explain ‘the surreal alternative systems invented by ordinary Zaireans to cope with the anarchy’ (p.11) they find themselves living in.

And so Wrong gives an overview of the hundred and one street professions of a people struggling to live in an economy with no jobs and no wages. Wrong gives an extended description of the Mutual Benefit Society run by the disabled street people of Ngobila Beach and the tiny loopholes in the law they exploit to smuggle and sell items.

She meets a fervent Kimbanguist, the religion described by van Reybrouck. Van Reybrouck’s account of Kimbanguism is much more thorough, lucid and logical, but Wrong’s is an in-your-face explanation via one particular believer, Charles, a Zairian who combines high moral principles (‘we are never naked’) with the profession of ‘protocol’ or fixer of bribes at Kinshasa’s notorious N’Djili International Airport.

Chapter 8

Le Sape, Congo’s equivalent of Mods, snappily dressed proles. The origin and purpose of the Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance (SAPE), as explained to Wrong by self-styled ‘Colonel’ Jagger (p.176) as a protest against poverty and the drabness of the constricting African authenticité style demanded by Mobutu.

Then she gives a portrait of the ex-pat community of European idealists and chancers and romantics who came out in the 1950s or 60s and stayed on past independence and into the Mobutu years. This focuses on the example of Daniel Thomas a French construction worker who has repeatedly tried to start small farming businesses only to be repeatedly looted and ruined by his neighbours, and now all of his money is tied up in a farm he can’t sell and who has lost all hope. His wife is exhausted and disillusioned and wants to leave this sick land but they are stuck.

Chapter 9

Wrong details the vast sums loaned or given to Zaire over the years by international banks and especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She interviews insiders who explain that during the 1960s, 70s and 80s very few conditions were attached to vast loans which, predictably, disappeared straight into the bank accounts of Mobutu and cronies.

Chapter 10

Details of the vast palace Mobutu had built for himself at Gbadolite in the jungle in the north of the country, right on the border with Central African Republic. It’s said to have cost $100 million, with an airstrip big enough for Concorde to land on. Musical fountains, ornamental lakes, model farm, gilt, marble. This is what a lot of Western aid paid for. Eventually it came to seem too big and imposing so… he had another one built a few miles away at Kwale, with an olympic size swimming pool,

The story of Pierre Janssen who married Mobutu’s daughter, Yaki, on 4 July 1992, and so became the only white person in Mobutu’s inner circle and a few years later revealed all in a kiss-and-tell memoir. The Moules flown in from Belgium, huge bouquets of flowers flown in from Amsterdam, cakes flown in from Paris along couturiers and barbers.

The weirdness that after his first wife, Marie Antoinette, generally reckoned to be a restraining influence on him, died in 1977, he married his mistress Bobi Ladawa, and took as a new mistress…her twin sister, Kossia. They socialised together, were seen together. Wrong speculates that there might have been a voodoo, animistic belief that the twins would ward of the nagging spirit of his first wife, for twins are regarded in Africa as having totemic powers (p.223).

Chapter 11

A brisk account of the Rwandan genocide which is in a hurry to explain the longer and more significant consequence, which was the creation of vast camps for Hutu refugees just across the borders in Zaire and how these camps, supported by huge amounts of foreign aid, were reorganised by the thuggish Hutu genocidaires who set about planning their revenge attack on Rwanda. By 1995 there were some 82,000 thriving enterprises in the camps which had become mini-towns (p.239), no surprise when you consider that the UNHCR and aid organisations had pumped at least $336 million into them, more than the Kinshasa government’s total annual operating budget.

In early 1996 the Hutu leadership undertook a mission to ethnically cleanse the North Kivu region of its ethnic Tutsis, massacring those it could find, forcing the rest to flee. In late 1996 it was south Kivu’s turn to be cleansed. The local Tutsis, known as the Banyamulenge had watched the Hutus slowly take control of the region, launch revenge raids into Rwanda, and had called on the UN and Kinshasa to neutralise the Hutu genocidaires but the UN did nothing and Mobutu gave them tacit support.

Which is why in October 1996 four rebel groups, with the backing of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and took the fight to the Hutus, forcing the genocidal Interahamwe to flee west and majority of the refugees to traipse back into Rwanda.

Chapter 12

The main thing about the so-called First Congo War is there was hardly any fighting. The Zairian army, the Forces Armées Zairoises, the FAZ, was a joke and ran away at the first threat of conflict. The only violence came from the FAZ as they looted, burned and raped their way through the villages en route back to Kinshasa. There were a few set-piece battles but for most of the AFDL forces the war consisted of a very long march through jungle, sometimes using Zaire’s decaying roads, mostly using the jungle paths which have replaced tarmacked roads in many areas.

Wrong interviews Honoré Ngbanda Nzambo Ko Arumba, for five years the feared head of Zaire’s security service who explains why the FAZ was so useless. It all stems from Mobutu’s basic management technique which was to keep the army divided between different factions, to create a series if confusingly titled security and military units, to have a multitude of generals and security ministers and to keep them all guessing. To set them in deliberate rivalry, to give them contradictory orders, to create permanent confusion, suspicion and paranoia. Why? Simples: to prevent any single person or unit from becoming a centre of real power and so a threat to his rule.

Also, most of these units were kept down in Bas Congo, close to Kinshasa. Zaire had almost no border guards or forces. Why? Because the army was not designed to fight other countries or protect the country’s security; it was an internal security machine whose sole raison d’etre was protecting the president.

Another reason was simple corruption. The many generals and senior ranks Mobutu created, solely with a view to placating the numerous tribes and/or keeping prominent figures onside, to a man practiced various forms of corruption and graft, the simplest of which was to take the soldiers’ pay for themselves. Which explains why soldiers went without any pay at all for months on end, sometimes half a year. Which was the central reason why they mutinied and not only mutinied but went on great rampages of looting; they were claiming their back pay, taking what they though society owed them. That was the root cause of the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

And then there was greed raised to the level of comic farce. Most officers or army administrators had been selling off stock for cash for years. Thus the FAZ had out of date East European guns, the wrong ammo for their guns. Initially army commanders in Kivu sold the best of their munitions to the AFDL for a quick profit, arms and ammo the AFDL then turned back on the FAZ, who turned and ran.

Lastly, the neighbouring countries turned against Mobutu. Rwanda and Uganda were the AFDL’s main backers, but the Angolan government had for decades resented Mobutu’s support for the UNITA rebels and took the opportunity to send forces into Zaire to crush their base camps. Zambia co-operated by letting the AFDL cross its land to reach the south. Zimbabwe and Eritrea sent the rebels modern arms and Tanzania turned a blind eye to rebel bases on its territory.

By March 1997 the AFDL had taken Kisangani, next came Mbuji Mayi, then Lubumbashi, capital of the mining region in the south. It took just seven months from the launch of their campaign till the first AFDL troops arrived outside Kinshasa prompting the atmosphere of paranoid panic Wrong describes in the first chapter of this book.

Chapter 13

As so often happens with tyrants, Mobutu’s overthrow coincided with his final fatal illness. It’s as if their imminent fall from power triggers a collapse in their bodies. King Leopold II lasted barely a year after he handed the Congo Free State over to the Belgian government (February 1908) and in an eerily parallel way, the AFDL’s seven-month advance on Kinshasa coincided with 66-year-old Mobutu’s diagnosis with prostate cancer.

As the rebel forces relentlessly advanced westwards, Mobutu was in and out of the most expensive private clinics in the world in Switzerland. Thus his personal intervention and decision making was almost entirely absent during the crucial months. When he returned to his capital in March 1997, he could barely walk and had to be supported from the plane.

On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks chaired by President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, Mobutu fled into exile and Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory. Mobutu died in exile in Morocco 3 and a half months later, 7 September 1997.

This is where Wrong places a fascinating interview with Mobutu’s son by his second wife Bobi Ladawa, Nzanga Mobutu. He mourns his father and insists he loved his family and loved his country. Wrong gives her account of the very last few days, especially negotiation with the Americans who tried to broker a deal with Kabila, partly through Nzanga’s eyes, partly through the account of US ambassador Daniel Simpson who took part in the actual discussions, and Bill Richardson, the troubleshooter US President Bill Clinton handed the tricky task of persuading Mobutu to relinquish power and tell his troops not to fight the AFDL as it entered Kinshasa, a confrontation which would have led to a bloodbath, anarchy and another Great Pillaging (p.271).

What comes over is the absolute centrality of the Americans as power brokers in the situation, but the refusal of a very sick Mobutu to formally abdicate and of Kabila to make any concessions. Right at the last his generals abandoned him. The knackered Russian Ilyushin jet Mobutu and his close family flew out of Kinshasa to Gbadolite in was peppered with machine gun fire by his very pissed-off personal guard, the Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP) who he was abandoning to their fates (p.279).

Chapter 14 Ill-gotten gains

A few months after Kabila took power, he set up the quaintly named Office of Ill Gotten Gains (OBMA) to identify Mobutu’s looted assets, including his multiple properties abroad (p.286). Wrong meets the first director of OBMA, former nightclub owner turned rebel soldier Jean-Baptise Mulemba lists and visits some. Three years after his fall, Wrong visits his large Swiss mansion at Les Miguettes, now falling into neglect.

Epilogue

The epilogue reminds us that this book was published in 2000, when Congo was still in the toils of what became known as the Second Congo War and Kabila was still president. She was not to know Kabila would be assassinated in 2001 and the war drag on for years.

Wrong shows us the dispiriting process whereby the initial high hopes about him and his crusade to undo corruption soon faded, as he found himself having to resort to all Mobutu’s old techniques for trying to hold his wartorn country together, namely creaming money off foreign loans, the mining companies, and even introducing tougher taxes on ordinary Congolese, in order to keep the regional governors and all manner of fractious stakeholders onboard.

Anyway, as Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 it ends with a survey of the many depressing tokens which indicated that Kabila was falling into Mobutu’s old ways, only without the dictator’s charisma or shrewdness. Blunter. Cruder. She calls Kabila a ‘thug’ (p.300).

And she ends with an assessment of whether Mobutu’s missing billions will ever be recovered. The short answer is No, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. All the evidence is that millions went through his hands but en route to the key stakeholders, political rivals, regional warlords, he needed to pay to follow him.

At a deep structural level, the corruption and gangster economy run by Mobutu and then Kabila may be the only way to keep such a huge country, divided into starkly different regions, populated by some 250 different ethnic groups, together.

God, what a thought. The population of Congo in the 1920s when the first estimates about how many died during Leopold’s rule, was said to be 10 million. By the date of independence 1960 described in Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist it had only risen to 15 million or so. When Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 she gives Congo’s population as 45 million. And now, in 2021? It is 90 million! Good grief. What future for a ruined country overrun by its own exploding population?

France

The French come out of this account, as usual, as scumbags. France was ‘Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend’ (p.287), ‘always the most loyal’ of his Western supporters (p.258). From the 1960s Zaire came to be regarded by the French government as part of its ‘chasse gardée’:

that ‘private hunting ground’ of African allies whose existence allowed France to punch above its weight in the international arena. (p.196)

The French believed they understood the African psyche better than the Anglo-Saxon British or Americans. They clung on to belief in their mission civilisatrice despite their not-too-impressive record in Vietnam and Algeria. Since the 1960s the French government has promoted la francophonie “the global community of French-speaking peoples, comprising a network of private and public organizations promoting equal ties among countries where French people or France played a significant historical role, culturally, militarily, or politically.” (Wikipedia)

The practical upshot of this high-sounding policy was that the French government promised Mobutu their undying support, no matter how corrupt and evil he became. The French government funded schools and media – so long as they promoted the French language. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, French president from 1974 to 1981, was a great friend of African dictators and secured them many loans which just happened to coincide with a building firm run by Valery’s cousin winning quite a few contracts to build Zairean ministries and bank buildings and so on (p.131). Very handy.

It meant military aid, too. When rebels invaded Shaba from Angola, France parachuted legionnaires in to fight them. During the First Pillaging of 1991 France flew in troops to police the streets.

After his downfall, when the OBMA set out to track down the billions of dollars Mobutu had sequestered abroad, the lack of co-operation from the French government stood out.

Confronted with the AFDL’s legal and moral crusade, the silence from France, Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend, was deafening. (p.287)

But France’s standout achievement in the region was to protect the Hutu instigators of the great genocide of Rwanda. This is a hugely controversial subject, which I’ll cover in reviews of specifically about the Rwanda genocide, but in brief: the French government supported the Hutu government. The French president was personal friends with the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, so when his plane was shot down and the Hutu government went into panic mode, the French government’s first response was to support them and to carry on supporting them even as they carried out the 100-day genocide. When the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda to put an end to the genocide, France continued to support the Hutus and helped the genocidaires escape, along with millions of other Hutu refugees into eastern Congo, where they continued to support them, even after the evidence was long in the public domain that they had just carried out the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Because for the French government, all that matters is the glory of France, the prestige of France, the strength of the Francophonie. Morality, justice, human rights, all come a poor second to France’s unwavering commitment to its own magnificence.

Hence France’s unwavering support for the evil kleptocratic dictator Mobutu right up till his last days; hence France’s support of the Hutu government, even after it became clear they were carrying out a genocide. A guilt France has taken a long time to face up to, has finally admitted, albeit hedged with reservations and caveats.

Repeated stories

Stories, gossip and educational facts are learned through repetition. Wrong repeats the description of big statue of Henry Morton Stanley, long ago torn down and lying rusting outside a warehouse in Kinshasa. Several times she refers to the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

She repeats the story about the Congo’s store of uranium dug from the mines of Shinkolobwe being sent by a foresightful colonial administrator to New York where it was discovered by scientists from the Manhattan Project and refined to become the core of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima (p.140).

Her chapter about King Leopold’s rape of Congo under hypocritical claims of freeing it from slavery and barbarism repeats much of the material I’ve read in Hochschild and van Reybrouck. She repeats Hochschild’s mentions of Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem’s estimate that 13 million died or fled the region during Leopold’s rule.

Van Reybrouck thought the tragic story of Lumumba betrayed by his secretary and friend Mobutu was like a Shakespearian tragedy. Wrong thinks it is Biblical like Cain and Abel, two beloved brothers who end up betraying each other. It certainly haunts the imagination of novelists and historians and commentators in a way the later, long rule of Mobutu rarely did, and the rule of Laurent Kabila not at all.

Credit

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. All references are to the 2001 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

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