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Topics / Sustainable Peace in Africa

Book Review: Power Trip

A BBC correspondent's new survey of seven African despots makes the case that the continent suffers from a resource curse. He tells his tale vividly, but even despotism deserves a more nuanced, comprehensive, and above all contextual approach.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Or so Lord Acton’s much-invoked truism goes. We have only too many examples of manipulation and corruption from world leaders, but what do we actually know about why some leaders gravitate toward moral depravity as they seek to retain power while others willingly relinquish their reigns?

It would be easier to identify examples of where despotism is happening than where it is not, and Africa offers much low-hanging fruit. Since the wave of independence from European colonial powers concluded in the 1970s, most African countries have experienced some combination of authoritarianism, one-party rule, military coups, and leaders who held office for more than 15 years. At the same time, human development across the continent has stagnated.

The storytelling is engaging, but why did Kenyon write this book, and what’s his point?


Insert Paul Kenyon’s new book, Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa. Elegantly written and entertaining, the book provides historical vignettes of the rise and sometimes fall of seven African strongmen. The book is organized according to the natural resources Kenyon credits for each despot’s wealth. Zimbabwe and Democratic Republic of Congo, aka Zaire, fall under “Gold and Diamonds.” Libya, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea are connected to “Oil.” Côte d’Ivoire and Eritrea are outliers: Côte d’Ivoire is linked to the nonnative cocoa plant, and Eritrea is associated not with any natural resource but with “Modern Slavery.”


Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa

Paul Kenyon | Head of Zeus | 453 pp. 2018 | ISBN: 978-1-78497-213-4 | More about this book


The storytelling is engaging, but why did Kenyon write this book, and what’s his point? We learn some political history of despotic rule in countries we may not have been familiar with previously, but a general conclusion is lacking. Kenyon’s depictions suggest he may be making a circuitous argument for the “resource curse,” the theory of an inverse relationship between a country’s natural resource riches and economic growth and democracy. British economist Richard M. Auty posited in the early 1990s that if you have a lot of oil or mineral wealth, you will usually not have development, but corruption and poverty instead.

Kenyon’s vignettes make it hard to argue against the theory. However, critiques of the resource curse have found its theoretical and empirical framework lacking. One criticism is that it cherry-picks its examples. Norway and its oil wealth, for instance, do not fit the model.

Dictatorland can also be accused of such cherry-picking. Africa has had its fair share of despots, and still does, but some countries also have political systems that are evolving based on local context and histories. Democracy is not entirely a foreign-imposed concept, nor are other political arrangements.

Zimbabwe is highlighted in the book, but its neighbor Botswana is one of the largest diamond exporters in the world, yet is politically stable, managing its resources while being a de facto one-party state. Ghana, the continent’s second-largest cocoa exporter after its neighbor Côte d’Ivoire, has emerged from turbulence and one-party rule to become a stable democracy. While the book details the history of corruption in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana is not discussed.

For those without a background in the history and political economy of the continent, the book could reinforce stereotypes and reaffirm erroneous assumptions. The countries that Kenyon picks to highlight or to exclude raise questions that obscure his likely thesis more than they explain it.


Independence Day President Robert Mugabe inspects the honor guard to mark the 23rd anniversary of Zimbabwe’s independence from white Rhodesian rule, on April 18, 2003. Mugabe hailed the crowds gathered at Harare’s National Sports Stadium: “Dear Zimbabweans, it gives me immense pleasure to be able to tell you that the land that for over a century we yearned to recover has come back to us. It is your land, my land.” Indeed, people gathered in the country’s nine provinces to mark the occasion that year, but as the (London) Times reported the next day, “economic problems and heightened political tensions have cast a shadow over the anniversary.” (Photo: Aaron Ufumeli/AFP/Getty Images)


Kenyon’s choices also beg another question: why focus on Africa? Africa is not the only continent with dictators past, present, and future. To establish a connection between resources and dictators, however tenuous, a broader sight line should include the Middle East, Central Asia, and Latin America — and, arguably, European colonialism as well.

Neither does corruption in Africa or elsewhere require a dictator. Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers investigates corruption during the Jacob Zuma administration in South Africa and makes it clear that democracies are in no way immune to using state mineral resources for private enrichment.

Leadership and the skills required change over time. Africa expert Funmi Olonisakin, speaking of pre-1980 Zimbabwe, said, “[Former president Robert] Mugabe could be considered an effective leader at a particular time in the history of his country when that situation required a particular kind of direction. But that situation then changed. Would you say he’s effective now, today?” Olonisakin’s point is that leadership requires different skills and traits for different situations. Formerly effective leaders are prone to changing dynamics and can, and often do, fail to rise to those occasions.

Kenyon provides background on the path that each of his dictators took to power. Mugabe, for example, fought for majority rule in the former Rhodesia. Does the fact that he went on to terrorize parts of the Zimbabwean population and bankrupt the country negate his leadership in liberating the country from another repressive regime? How does a legacy get judged? To misuse a phrase, maybe Mugabe’s ends justified his means.

In defense of Dictatorland, at no point does Kenyon say his portraits are representative of the entire continent, nor does he compare one leader to another. The varying geographic and historical contexts are enough to take care of that.

Mahmood Mamdani of Makerere University in Uganda has argued against “those who would de-historicize phenomena by lifting them from context, whether in the name of an abstract universalism or an intimate particularism, only to make sense of them by analogy.” That’s Kenyon’s problem: his selection of stories leads the reader to certain conclusions, many of which are either simplistic or debunked.

Dictatorland provides a broad overview of Africa’s despotic landscape, but the short histories can feel sparse and lacking in depth. We already have a surfeit of good writing on the topic. One could point to the book by Herman J. Cohen, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures, or Arthur Agwuncha Nwankwo’s African Dictators: The Logic of Tyranny and Lessons from History.

It would be hard to say that Dictatorland is not a good read. However, one hopes that readers will page through with a critical eye and an understanding that the stories presented are neither comprehensive nor representative.


Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, focuses on Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, while Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo arguably provides a more defined and accurate picture of Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship than Kenyon does while remaining accessible and entertaining.

It would be hard to say that Dictatorland is not a good read. However, one hopes that readers will page through with a critical eye and an understanding that the stories presented are neither comprehensive nor representative. Otherwise, the book will only reinforce existing biases and skewed interpretations.


Read more stories like this in the Carnegie Reporter