The Skull Beneath the Skin: Africa After the Cold War. Mark Huband.
Boulder, CO.: Westview Press. 2001. 408 pp.
Huband, a British journalist, offers a detailed, if
tendentious, account of Western contributions to the current African
predicament. The author intends to illuminate the role of Western Cold War
foreign policy toward Africa during and after the Cold War as the main cause of
the relative durability of dictatorships across the continent.
divides the book into four parts. In Part I, entitled “Empty Promises,” he elucidates the United States’ Cold War role in
propping up corrupt dictatorships in Zaire and Liberia, and in aiding UNITA, an Angolan insurgent group.
The core of his argument is that the United States overestimated the Soviet Union’s
stake in each of these countries, causing US officials to make erroneous
assumptions about the nature of different political groups in Africa. Therefore, he reasons, the United States’ Cold War policy in these
nations actually amounted to destructive meddling and support of ruthless tyrants and
insurgents of no actual strategic value.
Part II, “Time of the Soldier,” Huband argues that
the military regimes that survived and succeeded in this Cold War politics
purposefully factionalized ethnic groups as a political tool in Burundi,
(then) Zaire, Nigeria, and Liberia. This has
contributed to those countries’ current struggles with transitions to
democracy. In Part III, “Blood of the Ancestors,” Huband
delves deeper into these strategies to show how
political leaders in Rwanda, (then) Zaire, and Kenya reinvented ‘tradition’
to exacerbate ethnic rivalries in order to divide groups whose unity likely
would have threatened the incumbent rulers. Huband
explains that the source of ethnic rivalry, including that between Hutus and
Tutsis in Burundi and Rwanda, springs more from these political strategies than
from deep-rooted indigenous conflict. That is, for Huband,
relations among pre-colonial ethnic groups tended to be less contentious than
those manipulated by the European colonial powers and post-colonial African
Part IV, entitled “New World, Old Order,” Huband’s analysis uncovers interesting questions about
whether the end of the Cold War could foster the end of Western ‘meddling’ in
Africa, whether the West is in fact interested in a
policy that will benefit Africans, and what should be done about failing
states. This is the most useful but also the most limited aspect of the book.
In this analysis of the West’s post-Cold War
policy, Huband largely limits his focus to the
behavior of countries like the United States and France and multilateral organizations like the United
Nations. Based on the post-Cold War policy of these formal actors, Huband offers a cautiously optimistic forecast for 21st
century Africa. More importantly, however, he fails to take into
account new forces whose influence in post-Cold War Africa is pervasive:
international financial institutions (IFIs), such
as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and transnational
conditional loans typically demand political and economic liberalization. But
previous research has found that aid flows from IFIs
to regimes, as in the Cold War politics that Huband
describes in the first part of the book, do not depend on levels of
corruption or human rights abuses. Thus one has reason to question whether or
not conditional loans will yield meaningful reform. Moreover, trade
liberalization has not meant that predatory transnational firms cease dealing
with corrupt African rulers who oligarchically
control resources and commerce while formal state institutions collapse. In
fact, case studies show that Liberia’s Charles
Taylor used partnerships with transnational firms to assert authority in Liberia and West Africa in
lieu of functional institutions. Huband could also
have shown in his case study of Zaire in Part I how Mobutu Sese Seko’s relations with
foreign firms in Zaire even then stood in as a proxy for actually
developing state institutions and instead produced conditions that were a
threat to already-fragile African regimes.
Huband’s prescription for African politics is two-fold:
first, he suggests that Africa needs to become free from foreign influence.
Second, he suggests that continued democratization and democratic
consolidation are necessary to promote political pluralism. Both notions are
idealistic, yet flawed. In spite of the tentative withdrawal of official
foreign government forces from Africa after the
Cold War, economic globalization and foreign firms show no sign of abandoning
the continent. More problematic for Huband is the
fact that the increasing integration of African states into the global
economic system further decentralizes foreign forces that affect African
domestic policy. This makes it still more
difficult to know precisely at whom blame ought to be levied. The blanket
recommendation of democratization and democratic consolidation is wishful,
but also reckless if applied to countries with long histories of instability,
institutional weakness, and simmering ethnic conflict. In fact, elections in
places like Congo-Brazzaville and Cote d’Ivoire
have played significant roles in generating violence and increased state
weakness and instability, even as they help promote reform in countries like
Kenya that already are relatively stable.
The Skull Beneath the Skin
offers neither an innovative theoretical framework nor a rigorously tested
one. Problematically, Huband’s sample of cases is
not random; he carefully selected cases in which Western policy fostered
detrimental effects on the continent. Useful for comparative purposes would
be a section highlighting cases on the post-Cold War fates of African states
that were Cold War clients of the Soviet Union. The
journalistic aspect of Huband’s account of the West’s role in Africa’s
post-Cold War stakes, however, is successful in its descriptive nature.
Academics may find this unsatisfying, but those interested in an accessible
text about Africa's ills will find it useful.
Mark Huband’s The Skull Beneath the Skin
offers a well-compiled set of cases illustrating the consequences of foreign
intervention on Africa. Students of African politics, international
relations, and those with a general interest in Africa will find this to be a useful book. Indeed, Huband’s
careful account of events and circumstances witnessed on the ground during
ten years of study and living on the continent is valuable to better
understanding the realities Africans face today. Future research should build
on Huband’s work by investigating globalization’s marginalization of Africa and ordinary Africans in the global economic order.