A Perspective on Africa

The problems of Africa are hard to quantify but that they exist are undeniable. Since independence in the twentieth century at least some of these countries have either descended into civil war based on tribal conflict or have returned to being suborned by the West. Africa’s salvation might precisely lie in that its problems are so numerous that it cannot be solved by any external agency. Having said that it has been Africa’s bad luck to have missed out on such momentous happenings as the Industrial revolution or the enlightenment as indeed did much of Asia for that matter. It’s pertinent to point this out as though we mightn’t agree on the solutions to African problems we can be pretty clear as to how they came about vis-a-vis their historical underpinnings.

It was to trace such origins that I stumbled upon by happenstance in the most unlikely of places, a lending library, a book by called ‘Armies of God’ by Dominic Green. To the uninitiated ‘Armies of God’ by Dominic Green might appear to be a theological work or even one of fantasy. In fact this book seeks to trace British colonial policy in the Nile valley between 1867 to 1899, a defining period in world history as it also set the scene for the great conflagration of the First World War.

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Happenings in the region in what has become Egypt and Sudan began first as a reaction against Ottoman rule in the former country and a religious revolt led by the Mahdi in the latter. As Sudan was Egypt’s ‘informal empire’ happenings in one could not be divorced from another. Matters were further complicated by Egypt itself being under the nominal domination of a decaying but still potent Ottoman empire. It’s hard to understand such convoluted relationships as these which were as much determined by local exigency as geography and yet at the same time they fall into the pattern of history being as much dominated by individuals as well as circumstances. In that context we come across a fairly rich tableaux of individuals who determined events starting from the maverick ‘Chinese’ Gordon and his antagonist the Mahdi to Kitchener. Even the young Winston Churchill had a stint in the Sudan as a junior British military officer, a fact I was unaware of till reading this book.

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Dominic Green’s book poses numerous issues for contemplation such as the relationship between rulers and ruled, the phenomenon of fanaticism as a rallying force and last but not the least of how colonial powers can jockey one another to promote vested interests. It’s of course a world that no longer exists but in the depth in which some of these issues are examined we cannot but deny that some of those underpinnings continue to have a contemporary resonance.


by Siddhartha S. Bhadrakumar