In Africa Since Independence, Paul Nugent traces the trajectories of sub-Saharan African states from their post World War II anti-colonial movements, a time of hope and optimism, through the early twenty-first century, when many of them, with newly created quasi-democratic institutions, were recovering from state collapse and economic crisis. He offers no governing thesis; his talent lies in sensitively steering between the Scylla and Charybdis of every major debate that has put Africans and Africanists on opposing shores. This includes such concerns as the impact of nationalism on decolonization, the roles of chiefs versus politicians in the transition to independence, the socialist as against the capitalist path to development, whether military rule offered any improvement compared to discredited nationalist leaders, the impact of international financial institutions on African economic growth, the staying power of the current wave of democratization, and whether there are any remaining national foundations for reconstituting Africa’s states—a major agenda, by any measure.

The tone for the book is set in an opening chapter that provides an engaging and fair-minded interpretation of African nationalism in the face of the dying embers of European colonialism. Nugent juxtaposes two views: firstly, that African nationalism heroically undermined a racist and anti-development colonial state; and second, that Africa was a wasteful burden on Europe in the postwar years, and the colonialists hastened to shed the responsibility of rule by passing the torch to naive but eager nationalists. Nugent offers a compelling synthesis, sailing smoothly between the reefs of African Heroism and the shoals of European Machiavellianism, by showing that colonial rule involved irreconcilable contradictions. For example, however much Europeans thought about equality, they found it inconceivable to grant their colonial subjects en masse citizenship rights in their own states. Faced with nationalist demands they could not easily fulfil, they had little choice but to retreat from empire—not in any planned way, but by concession atop concession. Nugent provides a useful juxtaposition of the different political forms and relationships to the metropole in each of the six Empires—British, French, Belgian, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish—and the ways in which these played out in their respective decolonization sequences. Contrary to the burden thesis, Nugent demonstrates that the economic returns for the European powers were impressive: Britain’s colonies, for instance, ‘made an invaluable contribution by virtue of the dollars they earned through primary exports to the United States’, accounting for a fifth of the sterling area’s reserves by 1952. However, colonial officials—more so the British than the French—were outmanoeuvred by the not so naive nationalists, and were forced into a rather ungraceful exit from power. Britain, according to Nugent, was ‘rather inept at converting formal empire into informal influence—certainly by comparison with the French’, whose continuing extensive sway over la Françafrique extended to setting the value of the currencies in these nominally independent ex-colonial states.

Nugent provides what he calls a ‘profile of Africa at independence’ in Chapter Two. The fair-minded approach continues, but with less cogency. Regarding the sources of Africa’s predicament of having weak states and fragile economies, for example, Nugent sets out two positions. The first, associated with Ieuan Griffiths, asserts that the balkanization of the continent led to states too undersized to prosper: of a total 47 newly independent states, Griffiths calculates that 15—including such micro-states as Lesotho, Swaziland, Gambia and Equatorial Guinea—took up only 1 per cent of Africa’s surface area, whereas the three biggest, Sudan, Algeria and Zaire, accounted for over a quarter. However, most of the continent nestles between these extremes: ‘medium-sized states with relatively small populations numbering less than ten million at independence’. In Griffiths’s view, they therefore had no basis for a manufacturing industry or even basic services.

The second position, associated with Jeffrey Herbst, holds that the demographics of the continent itself, with pockets of population disconnected from one another, have made it difficult for any state (including colonial regimes) to broadcast power. If anything, size confers a disadvantage—as perhaps demonstrated by the subsequent fortunes of Sudan, Congo and Nigeria. Smaller states with more concentrated populations were in a more favourable situation, according to Herbst. Nugent gives a balanced exposition of both arguments, but finds Griffiths’s to be of greater value because it takes into account a larger set of factors—including the shape of the state, often linked to the degree of the colonial powers’ penetration inland from coastal trading ports.

Leaving aside the issue of whether parsimony has any merit—it is unlikely that the author of a 620-page synthesis would think it did—Nugent does not consider whether a statistical model that had the size of the state and the dispersal of the population as explanatory variables, with state viability as the outcome variable, would provide a compelling resolution to this debate. James Fearon and I have produced data showing that, counter to Nugent’s acceptance of Griffiths’s reasoning, it is the larger states in Africa that have been more prone to civil war. Indeed, recent research by Nathan Nunn, appearing after Nugent’s book was published, shows a statistically and substantively significant negative effect on 20th-century growth for the zones of Africa that lost population due to the slave trade. This finding is consistent with Herbst’s theory of African state weakness. Fair-mindedness is not enough; critical tests can sometimes sort out the stronger interpretation.