Review published on February 17, 2018.
Paul Kenyon is a renowned BBC journalist who’s worked on various hard-hitting current affairs strands, not least the BBC’s Panorama. He’s someone whose work I’ve long admired. When I saw he had written a book on the dictators who’ve wreaked havoc throughout Africa, I was keen to read it.
Dictatorland is certainly well written and split into four parts, each corresponding to the “resource curses” which allowed brutal thugs to seize and keep power – gold, oil, chocolate and modern slavery – he troops out a succession of tyrants and their horrific idiosyncrasies for his readership to gawp at.
One of the strengths of Dictatorland is how the author demonstrates that Africa, a continent rich in natural resources, was uniquely placed for such misrule. First the colonial empires, and later those who replaced them, had untold wealth at their fingertips and thus had no need to consider the wishes, or even the needs, of the populace. The world’s thirst for gold, diamonds and cocoa ensured that brutal misrule was tolerated at best, actively facilitated at worst, by the international community.
That said, there are a number of flaws to this book. While the author does give the background of colonialism and does demonstrate how the colonial rulers abused their colonies, the lion’s share of the narrative focuses on the dictators that came after. I felt that the link between the two was missing somewhat. The brutalism of colonialism and how it stunted civic and political development; the arbitrary division of the continent into artificial states which often lumped hostile ethnic groups together; just how actively the Western powers turned a blind eye to the dictators’ behaviour, was not fully fleshed out.
It is also unclear just how the author selected dictators to appear in the book. As The Economist pointed out in their review, some like Mobutu of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Gaddafi of Libya and Mugabe of Zimbabwe are obvious choices. But why Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first President of Ivory Coast, and not the far more brutal Idi Amin of Uganda or Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic? On can only presume that Houphouët-Boigny was chosen as he based his rule on the cocoa trade.
A final issue is that while this is a fascinating read, it can also be a little tiring. Reading of the wickedness of dictator after dictator, with no real prognosis for change, is a bit repetitive and blunts the reader’s outrage. Reading Dictatorland, one might be forgiven the temptation to write Africa off as hopeless, a continent uniquely susceptible to misrule and oppression.
That all said, this is a very well written book. Despite my misgivings outlined above, it did keep me turning the page. If you’re interested in dictators, what colonialism has reaped, the damaging legacy the European empires left the continent and the misrule that more often than not results when a country’s rulers have untold riches at their disposal, then this is an enlightening, if depressing, read.
James Pierson 3/3
Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa by Paul Kenyon
Head of Zeus 9781784972134 hbk Jan 2018
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