07 August 2005

A History of Post-Colonial Lusophone Africa

Yesterday I finished reading A History of Post-Colonial Lusophone Africa, a book that was as informative as it was entertaining to watch people's expressions when they saw its title.

Yes, I chose to read this because I wanted to, not because I had some pressing reason to do so. Africa is a mess. The five former Portuguese (which is what Lusophone means, don't ask me why) colonies in Africa are particularly messy. Here is a book that purports to frame their particular messiness in terms of the colonial legacy and the post-colonial mistakes of their leaders. Lusophone African history is a microcosm of overall African history, and there just aren't many (any?) good African histories. Plus, having been rather smitten with Portugal on my sole trip to that country, I've become keenly interested in Portugal and its legacy.

The rest of the review is after the jump.

The book is divided into two sections and written by a team of six. The first section is written by Patrick Chabal, who has written a number of books on Angola. Angola thus figures fairly prominently in this section, which is a general overview of the history of the Portuguese colonies as a group--what they faced in common, what separated them, and why some succeeded while others failed. Of course, in a very real sense all of them have failed, so this degenerated into a discussion of why they each failed in different ways and at different speeds. Chabal is not a terribly exciting writer, but one needn't know very much about these countries or their history to understand what he's written.

The second section includes pieces on each of the five countries individually, each written by specialists on those countries (and edited by Mr. Chabal). The chapters on Angola and Mozambique--by far the most important and interesting of the five colonies--include much information already discussed in the earlier section, but both contain plenty of new information and are for the most part fairly easy to read, particularly the section on Mozambique.

By far the worst part of the book is the chapter on Guinea-Bissau. This is a shame since I've always felt that if I could become a third-world dictator, Guinea-Bissau is the country I should like to rule. The author, Joshua Forrest, is clearly of this group the one most tainted by academe; his writing is particularly illucid and much that might have been informative and interesting is buried under a layer of jargon. Additionally, the chapter's layout fails to use any even remotely chronological order, which makes it difficult to follow.

The two final chapters are somewhat shorter, being about particularly small and unimportant places (Cape Verde and Sao Tome e Principe). Both chapters are chock full of information you never knew existed about countries you may not have known existed. They are also among the best written parts of the book; I suppose specializing in a place like Sao Tome e Principe presents you with few enough opportunities to publish that you make sure what you do publish is very good.

Sadly, AHOPCLA was published in early 2002, and thus misses out on several frightfully important developments, notably the 2004 coup d'etat in Guinea-Bissau that brought former prime minister Kumba Yalla into the presidency, and the death lat er in 2002 of Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi; Savimbi's death finally put an end to near 30 straight years of civil war.

Overall, however, there is no better book on the subject. There is essentially no other book on the subject, either. Should you ever have a yen to know more about obscure and destitute places, this is all the information you'd ever want to have.

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