Africa’s Long Road Since Independence

The Many Histories of a Continent

January 2016 9781849045155 500pp


Over the last half century, sub-Saharan Africa has not had one history, but many — histories that have intertwined, converged and diverged. They have involved a continuing saga of decolonisation and state-building, conflict, economic problems, but also progress. This new account of those histories looks in particular at the relationship between territorial, economic, political and societal structures and human agency in the complex and sometimes confusing development of an independent Africa.

The story starts long before the granting of independence to Ghana in 1957, with pre-colonial societies, slavery and colonial occupation. But the thrust of Keith Somerville’s narrative looks at Africa in the closing decades of the old millennium and the beginning of the new millennium. While this book examines post-colonial conflicts within and between new states, it also considers the history of the peoples of Africa — their struggle for economic development in the context of harsh local environments and the economic straitjacket into which they were strapped by colonial rule is charted in detail. The importance of imposed or inherited structures, whether the global capitalist system, of which Africa is a subordinate part, or the artificial and often inappropriate state borders and political systems set up by colonial powers, will be examined in the light of the exercise of agency by African peoples, political movements and leaders.


‘This important book could not have come at a better time. Its nuanced approach to Africa’s many histories challenges unhelpful stereotypes, which too often have been applied to the entire continent as if it is a single country. It offers a rare and engaging combination of academic rigour and thoughtful, lucid journalism.’ — Mary Harper, Africa Editor, BBC News

‘This unusually accessible study of Africa’s many histories since 1970 owes its distinctiveness to the author’s career. This is, thankfully, not an arid academic tome; it is a thoughtful, passionate account by a senior BBC journalist who spent three decades working on and in Africa. His intimacy with places and people give the book a grittiness that library research never provides.’ — Richard Rathbone, Professor of African History, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

‘This superb book is the product of many decades of close observation of Africa’s past and present by a retired senior BBC World Service journalist. It is genuinely innovative, demonstrating a fine understanding of the role of structure and agency in the continent’s “many histories”. The argument will appeal to an audience seeking a convincing and well-researched account.’ — Jack Spence, OBE, Professor of Diplomacy, King’s College London

‘Keith Somerville has produced a wonderfully complex, compassionate and accessible introductory history of Africa. This book combines the keen eye of a front-line journalist who witnessed some of the continent’s most dramatic contemporary events, with the deep analytical perspective of an academic. It works brilliantly.’ — Joanna Lewis, Assistant Professor in Imperial and African History, London School of Economics and Political Science

‘Providing a fine balance between academic rigour and a journalistic narrative style, [Africa’s Long Road] … is both an informative and engaging read … a top recommendation for anyone curious to understand more about the African continent’ — Africa at LSE blog

‘A provocative and well-argued book, which addresses the importance of continuities as well as change across the vast African continent. In these multiple narratives, African agency is put squarely centre stage. But this is the agency of African elites who, by exploiting inherited structures and weak institutions, have secured and entrenched their own advantage. Given these dynamics, the question remains how far and how fast can broad based socio-economic development be achieved?’ — Sue Onslow, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London

‘Somerville sets about his task with energy and skill. He has worked on the subject for more than three decades and it shows. The material is handled with a sure touch, beginning by briefly sketching the pre-colonial and colonial history before tacking independence and its consequences. It then traces the key questions that have concerned the continent since then: the early days of independence leading to disillusionment, coups and dictators; revolutions and the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s; genocide and good governance; the new millennium, China and ‘Africa rising’. … This is an authoritative, accessible account of Africa’s difficult 50 years since independence written by someone who clearly has the continent’s interests at heart.’ — Martin Plaut, African Arguments

‘This introductory overview of the region’s history by a veteran BBC journalist focuses on broad political and economic trends and eschews simple takeaways. It [performs] its most trenchant analysis on civil conflicts such as the Rwandan genocide and the liberation struggles in southern Africa.’ — Foreign Affairs


Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Honorary Professor of Journalism at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent. His latest book, Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent, has just been published by Hurst.


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