The British Empire Library

Eyes On Africa: A Fifty Year Commentary

by Ronald Watts

Courtesy of OSPA

Laurie Robertson (Hon Treasurer, Tropical Agriculture Association since 1997; worked in Cameroons and Ethiopia, and then elsewhere with FAO/World Bank.)
The book, of some 180 pages, covers 50 years from the mid fifties of the 20th century to the present day. The author, in spite of being 'retired' from the Colonial Service at age 28, remained associated with or in Africa for the next half century. A major aim of the book is to balance the current negative view of Africa with one more positive and balanced. He and his wife, a medical doctor, are Quakers and were much involved in teaching, medical practice and also in peace activities. There is interesting commentary on land alienation as applied to Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya and Zambia, and the different approaches to it - forced occupation, compulsory purchase, nationalisation and leasehold tenancy, all of which are the basis of much present and past turmoil. A benign view is taken of the various religious sects throughout this time, with religion reportedly making major contributions in the fields of teaching and health.

The transition to independence is dealt with at some length. The judgement was that a major mistake made by British Governments of the time was the policy of accelerating the granting of full self-government. With a period between internal selfgovernment and full independence Britain might have retained some responsibilities for foreign affairs, national defence and financial policy, thereby allowing for an orderly progression to full self- government. Most of the collapsed economies in Africa have suffered from poor financial management and a failure to raise taxation with deficits made up by adding to the national debt. Debt was also accumulated after independence for projects which had little chance of success. The lenders bear an even greater responsibility than recipient governments because, in the author's view, local planning departments were unable to rationalise actual need in dealings with highly experienced economists employed by the lenders. The profligacy of the lenders is seriously criticised.

A common characteristic in the early days of independence in virtually all countries was the concentration of power in the hands of a small clique and the installation of one party systems. This led to instability with constant threat of coupsd'etat, especially where there were unnecessarily large standing armies. Over the past 50 years African leaders have not been noted for graceful withdrawal from power. Exceptions include the remarkable conversion of General Gowon from State President of Nigeria to University student. Other graceful withdrawals have been Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and eventually Arap Moi in Kenya. It is interesting to note the relative success of Botswana which only has border guards but no army.

The author is particularly critical of a strident western press which distorts news coming out of Africa. The current Darfur turmoil is a case in point. Coverage of Africa generally is poor and invariably negative. It is also felt that the 'news' is driven by the large Aid Organisations. Darfur, as an example, is the size of France with no all-weather communication and has been in constant turmoil since 1970. It is home to a complex tribal make-up of resident Arab tribes with continuous incursion from Chad and other neighbouring nations.

The book will be of interest to all who have served or visited Africa in the past fifty years. Descriptions of projects and references to personalities and a wide range of countries indicate a broad knowledge of the continent. A little more analysis of aid and technical assistance rather than the vaguely negative attitude to such inputs would have left a better impression of a very readable book.

British Empire Book
Ronald Watts
The Ebor Press
1 85072 327 3