The State of Africa by Martin Meredith

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The Independent Culture

More aid will only encourage the trend, established by rich countries, that relieves African governments of their responsibility to provide healthcare and education. As Meredith says, aid has already discredited itself. Since independence, Africa has received $300bn of Western aid - more than any other region - with no discernible results.

Meredith makes excuses for no one. Western governments do not really intend to amend trade and agriculture rules for the benefit of Africa; and the continent's leaders, steeped in patrimonial practices and hell-bent on self-enrichment, have hardly proved themselves worthy of the slightest gesture. So the sum of Africa's misfortunes "presents a crisis of such magnitude that it goes beyond the reach of foreseeable solutions".

But if Meredith's conclusion is depressing, his dispassionate analysis does more than perhaps he realises to set the past 50 African years in a continuum. In the 15th century, Africa did not have the wheel. In a relatively short period of a few hundred years, Europeans colonised it, took its slaves, scrambled to own it and scrambled to get out. Now, 48 years after Ghana set the independence example on 6 March 1957, we expect the continent to have embraced ideas of democracy and good governance that took us thousands of years (and millions of European lives) to work out.

Meredith's analysis establishes that since 1963, when its leaders rejected Ghanain president Kwame Nkrumah's idea of a Union of African States, the continent has been through a rapid series of cycles of change. It is impossible to assert that nothing has changed in Africa when you trace the ages that have succeeded one another since independence. The period of dreams was followed by delusion, corruption, coups, the advent and decline of tyrants, and the current era of Aids and economic disappointments.

As early as 1967, Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere - perhaps the most visionary of all Africa's post-independence leaders - suggested that "independence means self-reliance" and that it "cannot be real if a nation depends on gifts and loans". Nyerere executed his plan hurriedly and badly, sending Tanzania into a debt cycle from which it is only now recovering. But his idea matured into the founding principles of the African Union, inaugurated by 53 African leaders in July 2002.

It is often forgotten that the rich world has experienced its own cyclical convulsions in its relationship with the continent. Colonisation led to the 19th century "Scramble", then de-colonisation (French, Belgian, British and Portuguese), the tensions of the Cold War, the invention of the aid industry, the fear of Islam and, currently, to the hint that we are beginning to listen to the continent's own ideas - or at least those of South African president Thabo Mbeki. Africa has changed in the past 50 years, and rich countries' visions of it have evolved. As a world, despite regular wrong turns, we are getting somewhere.

Meredith falls into the classic Western trap of over-using statistics. Figures are important, but it would have been nice if he had conceded that the statistics that obsess us about Africa tell only tell part of the story. Because of census fraud, regional rivalries and the aid agencies' own tendency to overstatement, we still do not even know if the population figure we use for Africa - 800 million - is accurate.

It would also have been exciting if Meredith had concluded with a ground-breaking suggestion. He stops short of making the politically-incorrect call for the poorest, worst-governed countries in Africa to be recolonised - as Britain, in some respects, has done in Sierra Leone. But, in effect, he provides arguments for it: 40 years ago, life expectancy for many Africans was higher than today and, relatively, countries received better deals for their commodities.

Today, of course, we would not call it colonisation, nor proceed in the same way. We would invent a new term, such as "enhanced trade partnerships", in which the playing-field would be levelled and the rules mutually beneficial rather than set by rich countries according to their moods.

Africa's immense natural and human resources would be exchanged for know-how, wells, irrigation, roads, classrooms, hospital beds and salaries for teachers and nurses. But such a move would require a leap of faith, commitment and humility that neither the arrogant politicians of rich countries, nor the pompous leaders of Africa, seem ready to explore.

Alex Duval Smith is an Africa specialist for 'The Independent' and other European media