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Politics and Humanity Discussed at Launch of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

Leading Africanist Richard Dowden suggested that power-sharing may work better than first-past-the-post politics in Africa when he launched his acclaimed book about the continent. He spoke about this alternative and the experiences which he describes in his work Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles during a discussion on 1 October at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), an institutional member of LIDC. The book is based on more than 30 years of travelling throughout the continent and it explores diverse topics including the impact of AIDS, mobile phones, Chinese investment, music and the humanity of Africans.

Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, said the winner-takes-all model of democracy is against the inclusive “spirit of Africa” rooted in the village, and has yielded “mixed results”. He  mooted that opposition parties should secure cabinet seats in national unity governments and that votes should give parties “some power” but “not absolute power”. He said: “Losing parties are supposed to sit back. A more inclusive form of democracy might suit Africa better”.

Dowden explained how his love affair with Africa began when he was a volunteer teacher in Uganda in the early 1970s (he was forced to leave because of Idi Amin’s rule).  He then visited South Africa in 1979 and Angola in 1983 before his journalistic assignments in the continent became more and frequent as Africa Editor of The Independent and then The Economist. However, Dowden explained how he detected a mismatch between the stories he was sent to cover and the attitudes of many of the Africans he met. He said: “Journalists do wars, famines and disasters. You are always visiting the bad places in the bad times, but I wasn’t feeling it was depressing”. Dowden remarked on the music, celebration, optimism and resilience he found in Africa, even during difficult times. For example, in Burundi during a period of racial tensions compared by some to the Rwandan genocide, he found Hutu survivors being protected in a house owned by a Tutsi.  He added: “There is more hopelessness in Highbury [where he lives] than in the whole of Africa”.

Development problems
His talk also offered some explanations for some of Africa’s development problems. He referred to the West’s misplaced priorities and the failure to address political problems, the capture of state resources by African elites and the negative legacy of colonialists drawing lines on maps to create countries which did not reflect existing political units. Dowden added: “Africa is continually offered technical solutions to political problems. Our great belief in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) might not actually be on the agenda of the powerful business elites running countries”.

Reaction to Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles
Professor Stephen Chan, from SOAS, added: “I think it is the most successful book of its kind. It is at its strongest when Richard talks about his own experiences. He is someone in love with the continent. He is most trenchant in his criticism when talking about the elites”. Chan also spoke about  some of the viewpoints in the book making uneasy contrasts, such as pessimism about the Nigerian election and the optimism of the ordinary African.  He also spoke of the West underplaying the search for political pluralism in Africa.

Joel Kibazo, chairman of the panel at the event, added: “Richard  writes without fear, sentimentality or condescension.  He says Africa looks like chaos or madness but there is always an explanation, even if a complex one".
By Guy Collender, Communications Officer, LIDC