There was an attempted coup d'etat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 16 May 1989. Fighter jets screamed overhead as we made our way home from school. I recall there were some tanks and machine-gun fire, but then, within two days, it was over - the leaders dead. But during those two days, with the airport shut, international phone lines blocked and government containment propaganda in high gear, the only way to find out what was going on was to listen to foreign radio. That coup was fairly mild compared with what Addis Ababa had seen in the early 1970s, or Dar es Salaam in 1979, or Freetown in 1997. But then the military coup, whether or not it succeeds, is such a common political event in Africa that what you are usually left to talk about is the degree and the details.
Alec Russell, a former Africa correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, is good on detail. He has gone to the places and met the people he talks about in his new book. (Big Men is structured by successive visits to leaders such as Mobutu Sese Seko, Hastings Banda, Daniel arap Moi, Jonas Savimbi of Angola, King Mswati and Nelson Mandela.) He is good, too, on the forces that have pushed and dragged African countries into the kind of hopeless positions that make foreign companies and governments turn away as one might from a panhandler, with discomfort and guilt.
The hope and effervescence of the independence movements of the 1960s were quickly flattened by poor or inappropriate infrastructures, corruption, tribal (not ethnic) clashes, but above all by the "big men", the post-independence dictators themselves. The cold war that maintained many of them is over, and the retreat of the former Soviet Union in particular (the US maintains a strategic presence) has altered the balance of power. But are leaders such as Yoweri Museveni, Jerry Rawlings or Thabo Mbeki really cause for hope, as the west wishes them to be? Can they find ways to make their countries work - perhaps through combining elements of democracy with authoritarianism? Or will they refuse to take responsibility for the failure of those they have succeeded, and often overthrown? Does Mandela have a concrete legacy? Or will the 21st century instead be dominated by mercenary outfits such as Executive Outcomes? These are all good questions, and Russell's answers to them are often perceptive.
And yet this book leaves a trail of unease behind it. Russell fails too often to question his own attitudes and assumptions, or to admit that there are situations he may not be equipped to understand. At a press conference with Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the KwaZulu prime minister and now South Africa's third in command, Russell reports that the chief "became almost inarticulate with rage when I asked him to justify one of his positions. I was apparently guilty of thinking like a white man and failing to understand the African mind." Perhaps. But Russell does not think it worth considering that he might be guilty as charged, and too often he self-righteously assumes the reader's support. Only once does he reluctantly admit that he might be prone to "applying my own values" - and then only when chided by an American.
Africa is notoriously difficult to understand. Africa is big. It has 47 countries and God knows how many languages. The issues that Russell discusses do affect much of it, and some generalisation is in order. But it depends on what kind. South Africa, where he seems to have stayed the longest, elicits his strongest responses and his most nuanced political discussion. But South Africa faces problems radically different from those facing the rest of the continent - and yet it occupies half the volume. There is no mention of north Africa at all. Russell has fallen headlong into the popular presumption that visiting a couple of African countries somehow qualifies you to pontificate about the rest of the continent.