Review: Dictatorland, Paul Kenyon

Rating: 5 out of 5

The scope and detail in this book already give it the highest rating. However, Mr Kenyon’s way with the detail he uncovered in his investigations add so much to what might otherwise be a bland narrative along the lines of ‘Dictator X was bad’. Indeed, I am slightly astounded by the specifics the author managed to include across such a diverse geographical area.

The book is divided into chapters per country, with the structure formed by the main commodity the strongmen are supported by: diamonds, oil, and cocoa. The diamonds story starts with Cecil Rhodes and continues into post-independence Congo. The classic Congolese incident where Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu ordered each others arrest, the President and Prime Minister that is, and Mobutu fulfilled both orders perfectly, thereby gaining his own power is only one of the many incidents that are described in the Congo story.

The book continues with Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe. Mugabe’s rule, and the incidents which led there, really deserve their own treatment for the full story of Smith’s and Wilson’s negotiations to be described—along with Zimbabwe’s effective civil war that took place after that failure. Nevertheless, Mr Kenyon gives a very good overview, and his attempts to focus in on the Rhodesian white population’s views were quite useful for someone unfamiliar with the time and the period.

I was also intrigued by the consideration Nigeria and Libya got. Oil is something I know a very little about, so it was interesting to see how Shell & BP played a major role in the original attempts to find some in Africa. Of course, these came with plenty of corruption, and in many cases the facts behind the deals the oil majors made are very grim (grim enough for there to be plenty of material for more works to be written on those). Mr Kenyon was, however, very keen to dispel any descriptions of Idris having been a benevolent king.

The discussions that follow on Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, and Eritrea are in the same boat. The Eritrean discussions brought into focus something I was very unaware of, namely the Eritrean–Ethiopian wars, though in some ways it felt as if actual detail was missing, perhaps because the dictator in this case, Isaias, is not interested in personal enrichment.

Most compelling, however, was the story of Houphouet-Boigny who comes through as a thrilling character (and, again, one I’d definitely focus more on in the future). His life, including his work in France as a cabinet minister, must have been extraordinary, and the author relishes in bringing out the relatively progressive French stance against the contemporary British and American points of view.

Overall, a strong recommend!

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