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)

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis