The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence

Martin Meredith sets out to accomplish a daunting task in The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence – to write a fifty-year political history of the African continent, and to hit upon key places, people, and themes in this period. Over the course of 688 pages, the book covers the history of 53 countries (at time of publication – now 54), home of nearly 1 billion people (also at time of publication, now closer to 1.3 billion). A massive undertaking, but Meredith has written in a way that captured and held my attention late into the night on many occasions.

The story is ultimately one of hope and disappointment. Many times over.

The book opens with Kwame Nkrumah and the independence of Ghana. At the time of independence in 1957, it was “one of the richest tropical countries in the world, with an efficient civil service, an impartial judiciary and a prosperous middle class."1 This hope did not last long. In fact, by 1963, “the standard of living for unskilled workers in towns had fallen in real terms to the levels of 1939”.2 After hope, disappointment.

This cycle happened throughout the next fifty years across the continent. Disappointments came in the form of political turmoil, coups, the big man, and corruption. Often it went as far as violence and even genocide. To which point, be warned – many atrocities occurred during this period, and Meredith does not shy away from describing them. Some passages are not for the faint of heart.

Where does this cycle end? As much as I wanted it to end with hope, Meredith has other plans, closing out this long journey of a book with bleakness: “Indeed, far from being able to provide aid and protection to their citizens, African governments and the vampire-like politicians who run them are regarded by the populations they rule as yet another burden they have to bear in the struggle for survival."3

While it sounds bleak, Meredith writes in a way that keeps you reading. Many nights I told my self I would go to bed after finishing the current chapter. Then several pages into the next chapter, I realized I had missed my own self-imposed deadline for sleep.

The Fate of Africa is a whirlwind tour, and as soon as you have the grasp of one event, you are whisked onto the next. It works wonderfully as a quick view of the continent before you dive deeper in. Although, it is focused on the political history, so you will not find much about the art and culture throughout the continent. From here, there are many roads to take for future readings. I expect to follow up on many of the topics included in the book, beginning with:

  • The establishment of Liberia by former slaves from the United States
  • Kwame Nkrumah and Ghanaian independence
  • The Algerian War
  • The Rwandan genocide
  • The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa

This is a book I can highly recommend, and one that I will return to as a reference time and time again.

Reading completion date: 2021-12-30

Citation: Meredith, M., 2006. The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. New York: Public Affairs.

  1. Meredith, 27. ↩︎

  2. Meredith, 187. ↩︎

  3. Meredith, 688. ↩︎