A renaissance of American interest in contemporary Africa has been stimulated by media blitzes on famine-ridden Ethiopia and politically volatile South Africa, and by an award- winning film about a Norwegian adulteress’s African farm. Among the current crop of books is David Lamb’s The Africans, an update of a 1983 book. Lamb, who spent four years in Nairobi as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, provides an introduction to the 46 political entities—few have earned the exalted title of “nation”—of sub- Saharan Africa.

Lamb’s description reveals that the dominant political reality of Africa is tribalism. In this sense, the much-publicized but comparatively peaceful racial conflict in South Africa is microcosmic of a continental reality. In tiny Burundi, for example, the Watusi, a dominant majority, set out in 1972 to massacre the educated members of the majority Hutu tribe. In only three months, 200,000 Hutus were killed. Since independence, similar horrors have erupted throughout black Africa, as tribes vie with one another in bloody struggles for political hegemony, while much of the bloodshed remains unreported in the Western (and African) press. Tribes lacking political power inaugurate revolutions; paranoia leads dominant tribes to genocide. Politically, tribal Africa is a scene of unbelievable Hobbesian turmoil, of revolving-door regimes—an oversized Italy with guns and knives and cannibalism.

The answer to Africa’s many problems, Lamb argues, is economic, not political. This is certainly sage advice, but he unfortunately undermines it in several ways. He calls for continued Western, state-to-state aid to black Africa because, in spite of the evident self-serving corruption of many African governments, “the concept of international aid remains a good one.” Perhaps the problem is that aid is more than a “concept.” In any case, Lamb seems ignorant of the work of P.T. Bauer and others, who have shown even the concept of international aid to be fatally and fundamentally flawed.

Similarly, Lamb recognizes that Africa’s few capitalist countries are consistently superior to Marxist or socialist experiments, not only economically but politically and culturally, yet he advocates the development of “mixed economies,” He insists that African countries need not “rush out and abandon socialism in favor of American-style capitalism,” though the whole thrust of his observations suggests some such conclusion. Lamb urges an economic revolution but hesitates to encourage a capitalist revolution.

Despite these flaws, Lamb has been able to maintain balance in a book about the “Third World,” which is no mean feat. While he believes that European colonization provided no enduring benefit to Africa, he also charges Africans with creating many of their own problems, so much so that the original edition of the book was banned in some African countries. Memorable, often firsthand portrayals of Africa’s brutal comic-strip presidents and its one erstwhile emperor, finally, make The Africans a gripping read.


[The Africans, by David Lamb (New York: Vintage Books) $8.95]