A beginner's guide to Africa

Two cheers for the new Franco-British entente cordiale in Abidjan, for it will make little difference on the ground

WHERE should the novice to Africa begin his journey of discovery? Johannesburg? Nairobi? Kampala, they say, is delightful. But, thanks to Robin Cook's trip last week to West Africa, I get Lagos. And even at that seen-it-all age of 53, nothing has prepared me for the shock.

By day, but above all by night, the city is a bombardment of the senses. There are streetlights, but they are dead. The congested highway into town is illuminated by the myriad flickers of lanterns, candles and tiny fires of roadside hawkers. The air is heavy, humid, scented by smoke, spice and excrement. The place pullulates with anarchy and vague menace. This, surely, is what civilisation looks like in the instant before its disintegration.

I search for parallels. Russia, that other nearly failed state, a melange of shoddiness and corruption, where no one trusts anyone else, comes closest. But it lacks the teeming vitality of Nigeria, the place's inventive improvisation, even in its scams. Next day, we drive from Lagos to the farm of Olusegun Obasanjo, the president-elect, at Ota. This, too, is a journey of the soul - 15, maybe 20 miles along a road that is a slowly eddying river of cars, yellow taxi-buses, animals and people. It is lined by advertising hoardings that could have come from 1950s Britain, featuring anything from gripewater and Guinness to God.

Beyond stretch vendors, kiosks, shops, and small factories, a panorama of every economic activity known to man. Some of the side roads are open sewers. There are great fields of trash, levelled and picked over by the poorest of the poor. Obasanjo, they say, rarely ventures into Lagos - one can see why. Democracy has brought a buzz of hope. But the drive to Ota has you wondering how anyone could even think of reforming the place. In that sense too, Nigeria resembles Russia. Its problems seem so vast; just where do you even start?

That evening, an hour's flight west, I find another former British colony - and another Africa. This is Africa for beginners. There are computers at hotel check-in desks. You can use a credit card without fear of financing the local mafia for a fortnight. Accra is neat, tidy and utterly unthreatening. Not only are there traffic lights and street lights: they work.

And Ghana has Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings - surely the only African president to take power in a coup, hand it back to the politicians a few months later, then seize it back again in disgust at all the corruption. Eighteen years later he's still there. He holds court in his residence at Osu Castle, the fortress the Danes built in the 1670s to secure their slice of the trading and slaving action on the Gold Coast.

The castle is blinding white, the lawn outside brilliant green, studded with flame trees, hibiscus and frangipani. By now Robin Cook has been joined by his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, but the double dose of VIPs doesn't stop Rawlings from turning up 30 minutes late. It's worth the wait, though.

He has the magnetic presence and the easy charm of Bill Clinton, but twice the dignity and natural sense of command. As the press is ushered out, he starts to lecture his guests about the evils of big foreign corporations, perverting local democracy with their bribes and kickbacks. Maybe Ghana is a little like Nigeria after all.

Another hour's flight and it's the Cote d'Ivoire, the proclaimed showcase of French Africa. The notorious Gallic omnipresence is less visible than I expected. The road direction signs are the classic French blue/black on cream, but Abidjan seems infinitely more Africa than France.

This is the high point of the trip, where France and Britain are to make their African peace after 150 years of feuding. The French embassy exudes entente cordiale, with President Chirac's portrait to the right of the entrance to the conference hall, and the Queen's to the left. But has anything really changed? Cover your mind's eye with a sepia veil, and the facing rows of middle-aged, white and mostly male ambassadors of the two countries could be plotting a carve-up of the continent, not ending one. For one British envoy in attendance, fortified by a decent French lunch, it's deja vu all over again: "Place smells of High Commission. Bloody viceroy's palace, if you ask me."

But the meeting seems to get off to a easy, post-prandial start. At his parting press conference, our Foreign Secretary sums up the occasion as "Farewell to Fashoda", an allusion to what the French believe to this day was a dastardly piece of British treachery in 1898, at the height of the Scramble for Africa, which cost them control of the upper White Nile.

As he sits there in a West African airport, Mr Cook looks like a slightly self-important but well-meaning District Commissioner presenting his annual report to the governor; an orderly man in charge of a small orderly world. But then I think back to Lagos, to the road to Ota, and all I see is disorder. And I wonder, with the enchanted despair of every newcomer to Africa, whether anything can save Africa from itself.

Suggested Topics
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment