Ever had one of those conversations that goes like this?
"So I saw on CNN.com or something about this bad thing that happened in so-and-so country in Africa. Isn't that horrible?"
"Wow, yeah, that is bad. Why is that whole place so messed up and awful?"
Well, Martin Meredith's book "The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence basically forbids you to answer that second question with a shrug and a head tilt. It's a comprehensive look at post-World War II Africa and the events that shaped every political boundary and demographic challenge on the whole continent. Because of the ground it has to cover it's not ridiculously in-depth for each country, but it's a great summation of the biggest events of Africa's history, starting with the anti-colonial independence movements in the 1960s and moving to the recent past.
To Americans, the 60's can be summed up with thoughts of hippies smoking pot and protesting Vietnam while Civil Rights activists clash with police. For Africa, it was the decade when they began shrugging off European Colonialism and asserting their own sovereignty. It's the radical changes that happened in this period and the next couple of decades that have put the continent in its current shape- revolutions are seldom stable, and the cults of personality and the shameless opportunists who ruled the roosts of different new countries sewed the seeds for a new set of problems that were only exacerbated by old changes the Europeans had made.
It's a big book, and I'm maybe halfway through it. Judging by the Google hits that come up for his work, it seems the history of Africa is his area of expertise, as he's written a few other books about it. It's very easy to read and full of fascinating information. Be prepared for a long ordeal though, considering how thick this thing is. Still, he lays it all out in plain detail so it's not a bumpy ride. You can see how things worked out and where they're going- it's a story of basic human nature and how it works wonders and how the best laid plans go awry.
Probably the most interesting fact for me was discovering that a lot of Marxist movements grew out of this not strictly because of Soviet agitation, as many might want to think, but because of anti-colonialism; Marxism promises egalitarianism and revolution against the powerful, so the motive for its popularity is related less to nefarious Muscovite meddling- though of course there still was plenty of that- but people believed in it because of the promise for a better future. I don't know, I only relatively recently have been expanding my knowledge of history beyond military subjects, so learning about the motivations of ordinary people reminds me that things are more complicated than the old dichotomies rooted in Cold War rivalries.
It's a good book, it just takes some effort to get through it since it's so large. I totally recommend it.