The dictator who grew so rich on his country's cocoa crop that he built a 35-storey-high basilica in the jungles of the Ivory Coast. The austere, incorruptible leader who has shut Eritrea off from the world in a permanent state of war and conscripted every adult into the armed forces. In Equatorial Guinea, the paranoid despot who thought Hitler was the saviour of Africa and waged a relentless campaign of terror against his own people. The Libyan army officer who authored a new work of political philosophy, The Green Book, and lived in a tent with a harem of female soldiers, running his country like a mafia family business.
And behind these almost incredible stories of fantastic violence and excess lie the dark secrets of Western greed and complicity, the insatiable taste for chocolate, oil, diamonds and gold that have encouraged dictators to rule with an iron hand, siphoning off their share of the action into mansions in Paris and banks in Zurich and keeping their people in dire poverty.
In this colorful and brutal history, British journalist Kenyon (I Am Justice: A Journey out of Africa) explores the stubborn hold on power of seven kleptocratic postcolonial African leaders: the Democratic Republic of Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko (ruled 1965 1997); Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe (1980 2017); Libya's Moammar Gadhafi (1969 2011); Nigeria's Sani Abacha (1993 1998); Equatorial Guinea's Obiang Nguema (since 1979); Ivory Coast's Felix Houphuet-Boigny (1960 1993); and Eritrea's Isaias Afwerki (since 1993). Kenyon tells how these often tyrannical leaders accumulated and exploited their countries' vast mineral wealth, which partially explains their ability to buy local support and to prevail for as long as they have. The first of four sections focuses on gold and diamonds, the second on oil, and the third on cocoa. Kenyon recounts how multinational corporations desperate for these commodities turned a blind eye to human rights abuses, as did Western governments fearful of Soviet influence during the Cold War. The book's inclusion of Eritrea's president Afwerki in a fourth section subtitled "A Modern Slavery" is puzzling, because no valuable natural resource explains his forceful grip on the country. It is unclear which of these countries Kenyon has visited, but his prose is so artfully descriptive that readers will feel like they are on the ground alongside him. For readers unfamiliar with the ins and outs of African politics, this will be illuminating.