Book Review — The Shackled Continent by Robert Guest

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In October 2019, I finished reading The Shackled Continent — Power, Corruption and African Lives. It’s a book written by Robert Guest, the foreign editor for the Economist.

This is a provocative book about African countries and their leaders. Oozing out from the pages is a deep compassion about the elements that have kept Africans in poverty.

He touched on salient factors like dependency on mineral resources and the lack of sustained efforts to diversify, property rights issues, the threat of HIV/AIDS, free trade vs aid, and corruption as an impediment to infrastructural development.

Brace up for some hard truth about your favorite African leaders. Hint: Kwame Nkrumah. Hint: Nelson Mandela.

Some of the issues bedeviling Africa are outrightly barbaric. Tribalism is one. For political gains, some African leaders turn one tribe against the other. Laurent Kabila used the state radio to announce for Congolese to chase down Rwandan Tutsis and kill them. Robert Mugabe asked that territories which had not voted for him be deprived of food during a period of famine.

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The economic recklessly of African leaders is in a class of its own. The Nigerian government awarded a $8 billion contract to a Russian company to build a Steel company without having the feasibility study of the project translated to English. Zambia, like most African countries spend 135 times more public money on each university student than on each primary school pupil despite the university students typically coming from affluent families.

Even the foreign aid organizations are not exempt from these reckless decisions. Westerners typically talk about how the Marshall plan, the generous American aid program, helped Western Europe to recover after the Second World War and advocate for same for Africa. Yet, studies reveal that Africa has already received aid equivalent to six Marshall Plans. But whereas the original Marshall Plan was a triumph, aid to Africa has spectacularly failed to alleviate the continent’s poverty.

Most of these aids go into the private pockets of those in government. And it is on this premise that Guest argues that the best way the West can help Africans is to open up its borders. He makes a compelling argument on how trade tariffs do not just harm the African poor but also the Western poor. Subsidy regimes benefit the rich in rich countries and continue to harm the poor in the poorest regions in the world. According to him, allowing much more goods produced in Africa to reach Western customers is one of the best ways to lift Africans from poverty

One of the most chilling parts is the analysis of the South African nation. A book written in 2004 correctly predicted happenings in 2019. How affirmative action and the quota system for blacks in South Africa will not only hurt their economy in the long run but also lead to high unemployment, which could lead to xenophobia. See how it’s playing out in the Rainbow nation?

In all these, is Africa doomed? Robert says not quite. But everyone is in on this game of success for the African continent. There are those in the West whose actions continue to embolden authoritarian rule in Africa. Among other things, he posits that democracy is still a virtue; that even though there’s no guarantee that a new leader will do better than the current incompetent regime, it is a risk worth taking. And that power in the hands of the electorates can only put fear in the hearts of the newly elected leaders to serve the people.

While reading, I could already see why the book is considered controversial. However, the truth is the truth. For instance, he treats Africa as a country. In his defence, can we honestly say that leadership in Liberia is not similar to that in Malawi? Is Congo not as poor as Togo? Chart African countries and indices to measure citizens wellbeing, and the dots will clutter.

Like a Yoruba adage says, he who mud gets splash on should not be angry, instead he should simply clean himself up.

Robert Guest’s harsh truth is needed at this time.

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