Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Book Review: “Africa Emerges” by Robert I. Rotberg

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa, Reviews by ruben eberlein on August 5, 2013

Read my review of Robert I. Rotberg’s new book Africa Emerges which appeared in the latest issue of the Frankfurt-based journal Welt-Sichten.

As sure as an ebb is followed by a flow, a certain rule prevails in political science focusing on Africa: A wave of optimistic assessments of the situation and development of the continent will be succeeded by an upsurge of Afro-pessimism. At present, it seems to be en vogue in parts of the media and science to foster a certain kind of Afro-optimism. Especially rising gross domestic products in a number of African countries (which are often based on high prices for raw commodities) support an almost euphoric sentiment within these circles.
Robert I. Rotberg, longtime political scientist and an adviser of the US government on  African issues, is one of the protagonist of this trend. His latest book – Africa Emerges – states a dramatic change after the ‘”lost decades” following the independence of many African states in the 1960s. For a start, Rotberg addresses a number of problems which are in his opinion the most crucial: Wars and violence, diseases, demographic developments, missing infrastructure and other factors described by Rotberg could also have caused a book with the title Africa Stagnates or Africa Declines.
But the author is almost obsessed with a reputed rising middle class which is said to be able to claim its own demands. For Rotberg, there are particularly two factors closely related to each other that will decide the fate of the continent: Firstly, he emphasises the imperative of good governance; secondly, he calls for an enlightened leadership obligated to the public good in order to guide Africa into modernity. Role models mentioned repeatedly are Botswana and Mauritius. As visionary leaders he presents Nelson Mandela (South Africa) and Seretse Khama (Botswana).
Bad governance, according to Rotberg, is rooted mainly in the ignorance of leaders about what dividents a democracy according to the western model could entail. He even advocates instructions for the political elite supported by the international community in relation to good governance. This view of an author with many years of experience in Africa really astonishes the reader. Especially the potentates of so-called bad performers cherish the virtues of a parliamentarian democracy and became aquainted with them in course of their academic education, during hospitalisations or numerous private visits to the US or Europe. It is not missing knowledge, but a rational and conscious decision, not to rule according to western standards in their own countries but rather invest into the fostering of clientelistic networks.
Africa Emerges gets along without an explicit theoretical coordination but is written in a tradition of modernisation and development. It is deplorable that Rotberg still links modernity in Africa with a vision of (economic) development as it happened mainly in the west and parts of Asia. Within the last decades, the critique of the western paradigm of development became more vocal, but this current is completely ignored in Africa Emerges.
Those who believe that the days of grand and all-encompassing explanations are over, must think twice after reading Rotberg’s publication. Entirely dedicated to classical modernisation theory and undazzled by the research of two decades, the author advocates the forces of a free market and „good governance“. It would have been instructive to read about, for example, the role of religious practices, the exact character of the middle class, about the actual shape of so-called civil society or how legitimacy can be established at a local level. But one has to look for other books in order to learn something about issues like these.
Robert I. Rotberg 2013. Africa Emerges. Consummate Challenges, Abundant Opportunities. Polity Press: Cambridge. 269 pp. PDF of the original article here.

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