The Lowdown Hub

Book review: Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa and its often greedy and rapacious post-colonial

A tyrant’s vanity: the 1977 coronation of the self-styled emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa

These articles were aired on January 07/2018, The Sunday Times study of Africa alongside The Lowdown Hub, and its often greedy and rapacious post-colonial rulers and despots, given that Robert Mugabe’s regime collapsed only a few years ago, after 37 years of grotesque misrule, it is sobering to be reminded in Dictatorland of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s advice to Zimbabwe’s first leader: “You have inherited a jewel, keep it that way.”

But Mugabe and his cronies could not look at any jewels (including the piles of “blood diamonds” mined across central Africa by competing factions in various civil wars) without stealing them for personal profit, or seizing them as a treasure to buy off rivals and cronies.

Even more dispiriting is the recent news that, far from having to account for his misrule in a courtroom, Mugabe now moves into retirement with a reported $10m severance deal. The package comprises all the essential requirements of a toppled dictator, including access to a private jet, foreign health care, paid accommodation, cars, and six-man security detail.

In Africa, most tyrannical kleptocrats who are not killed during their overthrow tend to live out a decadent retirement drawing on their numbered foreign bank accounts. Even Jean-Bedel Bokassa, suspected cannibal, child killer, and self-styled emperor of the Central African Republic, found sanctuary in Ivory Coast when Giscard d’Estaing wearied of his proxy dictator in 1979 and sent in French Special Forces to overthrow him.

Ivory Coast’s fantastically corrupt president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, set Bokassa up in one of the grand villas he owned, where the “emperor” could refine his diet with copious quantities of Camembert and Beaujolais that he would enjoy while listening to martial music.

Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland is not a comprehensive account of post-colonial Africa’s misgovernment, but rather a series of snapshots of how various states fared when the white man went home. The answer, in every case reviewed here, is very bad indeed, and the mystery, which Kenyon never really attempts to unravel, is why Africans so rarely rebel against repression and corruption.

In some cases, the departing colonial masters desperately wanted the new country to succeed. White Rhodesia left Zimbabweans with a rancid political and racial inheritance, but in 1980 it was at least a properly functioning state with a currency, roads, and schools.

Elsewhere, however, the colonists often left in a hurry, without clearing up the mess they left behind, particularly where the Belgians or Portuguese had been in charge. In Congo, Kenyon notes, the Belgians bequeathed precisely 17 university graduates when they lowered their flag in 1960. Thus the incoming civil service was utterly outmaneuvered by the departing overlords, who ensured all the important mining interests remained firmly in the same European hands.

Yet some of the new generations of independence leaders were astute at playing Cold War politics; several of them had learned their craft at British universities, where the wider academic body was already fiercely hostile to colonialism and fuelled their revolutionary zeal. Mobutu Sese Seko managed to destroy the first father of independence in Congo and take total control in 1965. He rebranded his fiefdom as Zaire as it sounded more African, and took to wearing ethnic jackets and conjuring images of pre-colonial times.

What Mobutu called his “authenticity programme”, though, was really, as Kenyon points out, “a cobbled-together African Disneyland animated by Mobutu’s own idiosyncrasies”. By playing upon Washington’s fear of Soviet expansionism in Africa, Mobutu managed to entrench and enrich himself beyond any rational level. By the mid-1980s he owned around 20 homes in Europe, including Chateau Fond’Roy, a famous Brussels landmark that, in a neat turn of history, had been built by the great Congo looter himself, King Leopold of the Belgians. At his death, Mobutu was worth at least $5bn.

Mugabe has moved into retirement with a reported $10m severance deal

But that was small fry compared with the $200 billion or so that Colonel Gaddafi was reckoned to have accumulated by the time Libyan rebels pulled him out of a drainage pipe in 2011 and sodomized him with a bayonet. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Gaddafi — previously a reliable backer of any anti-western terrorist groups — sensed an opportunity and condemned the new terrorism, which Tony Blair and his circle wholeheartedly embraced. Like other Blairite foreign policy initiatives, this one with Gaddafi did not end well.

Dictatorland is well written and sensibly structured, although much of the ground will be familiar to those already interested in Africa. Some of the most revealing passages are based on interviews with retired expatriate executives and diplomats who were witnesses to the excesses of the early post-colonial years.

The curse of Africa, and the root cause of the endemic corruption, is what attracts the colonial overlords: the vast reserves of oil and gas, of diamonds, precious metals, even cocoa, which will grow in narrow bands along the equator and feed the world’s chocolate habit. China now shows it has the very same appetites shared by European adventurers in the 19th century and is moving in to scoop the spoils.

Kenyon roams the continent, to Eritrea, Nigeria, and the particular hell-hole of Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish possession that to this day Madrid closely watches. The dust jacket includes an encomium from Frederick Forsyth (who can be “robust” on the racial question) lauding Kenyon’s success in telling for the first time the “full horror of what happened in Africa from 1960”. But in truth, this is a competent though scarcely original piece of work that eschews controversy and tends to reflect the conventional worldview of the BBC (where the author works) in its assumption that we are all very much to blame for Africa’s ills.

This might be true, but one somehow wishes that Kenyon had tested this premise more rigorously over 432 pages.

Monumental folly One of Africa’s most egregious examples of excess was the monument that Ivory Coast’s long-term president Félix Houphouët-Boigny built to himself, the Our Lady of Peace Basilica. Costing at least $500m, and completed in 1989, this giant marble-clad structure was a copy of St Peter’s in Rome that soared to 35 stories high and had grounds large enough to land a Boeing 747. All this while the country was running up a foreign debt totaling $12bn.