Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat (2009) is easily one of the best books on contemporary African politics I’ve read: gripping and vivid, it uses the specificity of a Kenyan anticorruption chief’s persecution to explore wider themes of governance and development. With her other nonfiction works having received great acclaim too, I therefore had high hopes for Borderlines, the former FT correspondent’s debut novel.  

Its protagonist is Paula Shackleton, a lawyer mourning a deceased lover, who ditches her high-flying job in the US to join the legal team of North Darrar. The tiny country in the Horn of Africa (based, very obviously, on Eritrea) is 
involved in a border dispute with its much larger neighbour, Darrar (clearly Ethiopia). The longer Shackleton spends in the capital prepping arguments for arbitration at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the harder it becomes for her to ignore the regime’s brutal and paranoid repression.  

Does Borderlines deliver? It’s competent, for sure,well-written and suspenseful (with The Hague hearings forming the novel’s most absorbing kernel). The book raises important issues – about the strengths and limitations of international justice, and the ominous, self-interested machinations of foreign powers that can undermine it.  I raced through it, captivated, and yet felt disappointed when I reached the last page: it didn’t seem to have the weight or the magic of Wrong’s nonfi ction work. It’s good – its crime is not being brilliant. 


In her detailed examination of Africa’s manifold facets, Dayo Olopade observes a common hallmark – kanju, or grit. It is this which she believes makes this continent bright.

She looks at the small and the big institutions that keep Africa functioning and finds hope in surprising places, from empty plots in big cities, to rural towns. In a bid to wrest Africa from the media image of hopeless dysfunction,  Olopade serves up examples of gumption and perseverance: an Africa that is down but fighting its way back in some of the most unique and 
innovative ways imaginable, planting farms on open land in the middle of an urban sprawl, or creating apps for phones that weren’t even built for apps. 

The Bright Continent is at times scattered, often reducing complex problems to overly simple solutions. For Olopade, the kanju spirit alone is enough, and Africans have all the power they need to remake their future by taking the little they have and making it work – even in seemingly extreme examples, like Nigerian e-mail scams, which are a lucrative business. Although the reduction of success to a single factor is narrowminded, this doesn’t fully detract from the book’s charm. It is a great read for the interested African, or the hardened sceptic. Olopade shows us the possibilities that flow from determination. That, at the very least, is an inspiration. 


The trope of the travelling journalist is a familiar one – Western critic goes to darkest Africa and what does he find? Problems. But in The Rift, former Time Africa correspondent Alex Perry sees more than a blanket descriptor of Africa as “troubled” and tries to see beyond what is immediately apparent. This is a lengthy examination of a continent in flux and the
issues bedevilling it – from corrupt politicians to warring tribes and clans, to the inherent flaws in a failing UN aid system.

 The title comes from the idea of two tectonic plates that carve their way down the middle of Africa and which, if shifted enough, could cause terrible earthquakes . In Perry’s mind, the continent as a whole is on the same precipice, awaiting its moment of tectonic catastrophe that will bring about the great change it needs. While despairing about Africa’s homegrown problems, Perry is clear-eyed enough to see Western complicity in some of them. He offers some solutions, such as innovative ways of farming in the desert or changing the way aid is governed and distributed, but these aren’t grounded in credible policy and sometimes fail to take into account the nuances he so often chastises the West for ignoring.


Bad News is so stomach-wrenchingly distressing that I couldn’t wait to get to the end of its less-than-200 pages. Don’t let that put you off, though: this is a very important book. An account of the period in which Anjan Sundaram ran a programme to train independent- minded journalists in Kigali, it exposes the psychopathic tyranny of President Paul Kagame – who has ruled Rwanda since the aftermath of the country’s 
1994 genocide in which Hutus murdered 
nearly 1-million Tutsis. 

We learn of Kagame’s methods to stifle dissent, crush free thought and stymie the
flow of information. And how brutal those methods are: threats, abduction, torture and murder. As the months pass, Sundaram’s students are forced into exile; some are lured into cushy progovernment jobs; while the stubborn truth-mongers are persecuted – and in some cases, killed. 

With blunt, unshowy, sometimes inelegant prose, Sundaram rips away the shiny, tranquil façade of this “Switzerland of Africa” that so beguiles Western donors and aid agencies. He exposes a regime more interested in the appearance of development than in its actual implementation.

The most heartrending example of this is a little-reported policy of rural villagers being forced to pull down their grass roofs because Kagame deemed these “primitive” – leaving people to sleep out in the open, at risk of contracting malaria and other maladies. Sundaram shows how the European 
Union and the West have turned a blind eye to Kagame’s excesses, all the while supplying him with billions in barelystrings-attached aid. And that perhaps is the ultimate betrayal – Rwanda’s people yet again suffer as a result of outsiders’ indifference to brutality.


“Every time you try to say ‘Africa is …’ the words crumble and break. From every generalisation you must exclude at least five countries. And just as you think you’ve nailed down a certainty,
you find the opposite is also true.” So says Richard Dowden in his introduction to this memoir-meets-potted history of the continent. While such a caveat is true, it doesn’t stop him from serving up a bunch of generalisations himself.  

Dowden is at his strongest when writing about his adventures on the frontline – such as in Mogadishu, where his nerve-wracking depictions of a nation at war with itself ensures you can almost smell the cordite. Notwith-standing his confident pronouncements, he is on shakier ground when dissecting politics, relying more on hunch than fact for his analysis. His chapter on Zimbabwe is a case in point – where he suggests Robert Mugabe turned on white farmers because he felt “unloved” by the British. 

War veterans’ disgruntlement and growing support for the Movement for Democratic Change are more likely motives.  I spotted three inaccuracies before I’d reached page 100: the Union of SA formed in 1910, not 1909; Mobutu 
Sese Seko was an erstwhile soldier, not policeman; and Muammar Gaddafi died in October 2011, not – as Dowden claims – in 2010. Given that this is a revised and expanded edition of an original book by a journalist who has served as Africa editor for both the Independent and the Economist, one would’ve hoped for a more rigorous approach to the facts. 

Veteran South African journos Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak have certainly done their homework. For Continental Shift, they travelled to 16 African countries (as well as China and India for good measure) conducting more than 600  interviews while on the road. The result is 10 essays that weave together anecdote and analysis to capture a continent in transition. - AM

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