Games without frontiers

The Skull Beneath the Skin: Africa After the Cold War

Mark Huband <em>Westview Press, 408pp, £21.9

Tony Blair worries about people ignoring Africa. The people he has most in mind are those who sit in the White House, the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. US policy-makers, it is felt, have washed their hands of what the Economist calls "the hopeless continent". Their inclination - and that of many in Europe, too - is to leave Africa's numerous failing states to continue collapsing under the weight of war, famine, debt, corruption and Aids. Serious engagement will continue only with the minority of African countries that, because of their relatively healthy economies or valuable mineral reserves, are of some hard-cash value to the west: plus, perhaps, a more destructive engagement with those few that might harbour nests of Islamist militants.

Mark Huband's central argument is that a future American indifference to Africa might be a thoroughly good thing, as the US's record of involvement in the continent's affairs has been almost uniformly disastrous. American leaders hardly ever cared about Africa for itself, still less tried to understand what was really going on there; it was just an arena for fighting out cold war intrigues, and its rulers and peoples mere tools in that war. The end of the cold war thus offered hope that Africa could at last find its own path, becoming truly independent in a way that the formal but often hollow end of colonialism in the 1960s had not made it. Dictators would no longer be propped up by the superpowers; civil society would come into its own.

Yet much of the hope that a wave of democratic renewal would sweep the continent has, Huband believes, already proved illusory. New tyrants have arisen, old ones - Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Daniel arap Moi in Kenya or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe - have been willing to destroy their own countries sooner than surrender power. And the US has continued to interfere, destructively, and with ever-renewed faith in its own virtue. Black Hawk Down, Hollywood's disgracefully dishonest effort to turn the sordid fiasco of Somalia into a tale of American heroism, is the latest ironic confirmation of Huband's position.

The Americans are not his only villains. The old colonial powers, especially the French, played an amoral and ultimately destructive game, not only in their own former possessions, but also in states such as Rwanda. French fixers in Africa waged their own "cold war", continuing their old colonial rivalry with les Anglo-Saxons. (For a more detailed, even more damning depiction of this awful story, see Francois-Xavier Verschave's Francafrique, published in 1998 - which demands to be made available in translation.) Britain's African policies escape relatively lightly in Huband's account, perhaps too much so.

Huband makes his case with verve and a kind of barely suppressed fury. Across the past decade, he has witnessed many of the ensuing catastrophes at close quarters, as a reporter successively for the Guardian, Observer and Financial Times. He has also taken the time and trouble (as far too few of the "disaster correspondents" who roam Africa seem to do) to read seriously about the historical background to present crises, and to interview, in depth, many major participants. There have been too many hastily written, poorly informed, often distastefully self-glorifying books by journalists about African disasters. Conversely, more reflective or analytical writing, mostly by academic Africanists, can seem all too distant and abstracted, with its wariness about making easy moral judgements sliding towards a refusal to judge at all. At worst, there is a sort of covert racism in identifying Africa's politicians and soldiers as somehow less responsible for their own actions than their equivalents elsewhere.

The Skull Beneath the Skin avoids those pitfalls, and works hard on balancing personal observation with wider and deeper analysis. In part, it succeeds, but only in part, because attempting to do such diverse tasks all together is a source of weakness as well as strength. There are three books struggling for space here: a general analysis of the African crisis, a detailed look at the recent histories of particular countries (Angola, Burundi, the Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan) and an eyewitness story of conflict and atrocity. They are intertwined in ways that can be confusing, and none has room to be developed to the full. Huband has been badly let down by Westview Press, whose copy-editors seem to have been asleep on the job. The reader's irritation at finding numerous passages, quotations and references repeated verbatim on different pages distracts badly from what is a powerful book.

Stephen Howe's most recent book is Ireland and Empire (OUP)