Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa
Head of Zeus
Paul Kenyon describes Dictatorland as the story of “how a whole continent has been robbed in broad daylight … and the story of the men who stole Africa”.
As the sensationalist title and description indicate, the book perpetuates generalisations about Africa that have long coloured Western media coverage of the continent. Kenyon, a veteran BBC correspondent, spent years reporting from Africa and boasts of having visited almost every African country in trailing the footsteps of these men. On this basis, he considers himself qualified to claim that some of Africa’s worst dictators singlehandedly plundered an entire continent.
It is a bold assertion, which demonstrates how little such grandiose statements are interrogated when the story is about Africa. Would the same be said about Europe’s dictators – would they be blamed for the entire continent’s woes? Would all European countries be lumped into one convenient narrative that negates their diversity, the nuances in their cultures and politics? I think few would try to get away with oversimplifying the histories of those nations to fit a catchy headline. But why doesn’t that apply to reporting on Africa?
Much Western media coverage about the continent seems fixated on a singular narrative of Africa – that of a place of poverty, disease and conflict. This narrative is reinforced through a series of myths and stereotypes.
One persistent falsehood involves treating an entire continent as a country. Dictatorland briefly details the political environments in the seven countries it focuses on: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Libya, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Eritrea. Yet it connects individual scenarios to a story of a failing continent, suggesting simplistically that a handful of greedy long-serving rulers are to blame for its alleged demise. Africa is made up of some fifty-four countries, each diverse. The case studies Kenyon uses are based in different geographical regions, with unique languages and religious, ethnic, racial and colonial histories, yet the reader rarely gets a sense of this differentiation.
The book also rarely considers the role these factors play in the politics of individual countries. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Libya share commonalities in having endured long-serving leaders – Mobutu Sese Seko and Muammar Gaddafi – but that is where the similarities end. The Congo was for more than seventy years controlled by Belgium, which, under pressure from other European nations, reluctantly handed power to the traditional owners (among whom, according to historians, were only four people with a tertiary education, and minimal experience in managing institutions – the Belgians set the Congo up to fail from the beginning). Libya, meanwhile, was ruled by the Persians, the Greeks and the Egyptians, and eventually became part of the Roman Empire and an early centre of Christianity, before invasions brought Islam to the area.
Dictatorland reinforces another myth about the continent: that it is static, not evolving and developing. In reality, Africa’s population of more than a billion people includes a sizeable and rapidly growing middle class, which is of increasing economic significance. While poverty persists in parts of the continent, that’s not the full picture. The United Nations estimates that the working-age population will triple to 1.3 billion by 2050 in Sub-Saharan Africa; in North Africa, this figure is expected to be more than 1.5 billion. GDP growth in Sub-Saharan African countries in recent years has exceeded the average of emerging and developing countries.
That myth ties into another: that the history of the continent began once the colonisers left. The history of Africa dates back hundreds of thousands of years. The book’s failure to contextualise modern Africa with its pre-colonial past reinforces these other falsehoods. It means that Africans are viewed as “uncivilised” and “primitive” even when history tells us that the oldest civilisations can be traced back to this landmass. It is against this narrative that Africa is cast as the “hopeless” and “helpless” continent. Dictatorland fails to see an Africa in which Africans find solutions to African problems and are not waiting to be “saved”.
Every tragedy needs its villains, and in this story the seven leaders singled out are riddled with all the clichés that have dogged discourse about Africa in the West for decades, at least since Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, casting Africans as brutes and savages who can’t govern on their own. The selected figures – Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (who ruled from 1980 to 2017), Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (1969–2011), Nigeria’s Sani Abacha (1993–1998), the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko (1965–1997), Nigeria’s Sani Abacha (1993–1998), Côte d’Ivoire’s Felix Houphuet-Boigny (1960–1993), Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang Nguema (since 1979) and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki (since 1993) – fit the “colourful” and “exotic” narrative of the stereotypical African dictator. The cover captures the most flamboyant of them: Sese Seko, who is pictured adorned in European-style military attire with a leopard-skin rug at his feet as he stares at the camera.
The book does highlight the complicity of Western governments in supporting these leaders and overlooking human-rights abuses. But this is limited to post-colonial analysis, as though that is the extent of European involvement on the African continent. It glosses over the horrific killings and abuses that European governments have committed on this resource-rich continent, their failure to develop the countries they were pillaging and their reluctant handover of control, without equipping the local populations to manage these countries according to legal, commercial and scientific systems designed by the Europeans themselves. It neglects to examine the impact that the carving up of the continent at the Berlin Conference in 1884 and 1885 had on inter-ethnic relations and how that continues to affect contemporary politics.
To understand the present, we must understand the past. These persistent myths have origins deeply rooted in colonialism and were used by colonial authorities and institutions (including the media) to maintain white supremacy and domination. Despite colonialism ending almost half a century ago, few in contemporary Western media organisations have sought to consider how their coverage of the African continent continues to perpetuate these ideas.
As the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe once proclaimed, “The whole idea of the stereotype is to simplify.” Africa is more than the clichés and stereotypes. The Western media’s failure to see that is a failure to see a modern, diverse continent that continues to thrive and is waiting for the rest of the world’s perceptions to catch up.