The FORBES AFRICA Person of the Year for 1324 could very well have been a certain flamboyantly wealthy King of Mali, says Martin Meredith, the celebrated British historian of Africa.
“The richest man, that the world has ever seen, was Mansa Musa. [He] makes a Hajj to Mecca, arrives in Cairo and literally hands out gold bars to the waiters. He wrecks the money market for ten years or more… that story of his arrival eventually finds its way to Europe… the first European map, the Catalan map of 1376, has a portrait of [him] with a caption that says, ‘this is the richest man that the world has ever known.’”
His gold-dishing arrival in Cairo inspired the first Spanish expedition to the continent, hunting Musa’s gold. The expedition set out for West Africa, searching for the fabled ‘River of Gold’, but the crew got lost and all were presumed dead.
At his death, Musa was worth around $400 billion, which make’s Bill Gate’s $81.8 billion look paltry.
As his empire fell, so did Africa.
“I discovered the extraordinary parallel themes of African history, compared to what is going on now. It has always been that Africa has been this enormously wealthy continent and yet it is the poorest continent. There’s a paradox about it,” says Meredith, who examines this 5,000-year paradox in his latest release, The Fortunes of Africa.
Meredith has had two careers in Africa, far from gold bars; first as a journalist, then as a historian. After fulfilling his boyhood dream of navigating the Nile, when 21, he moved to Lusaka and became a journalist.
“The first president I ever interviewed was Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, at the age of 22. He was a sort of giant intellect. We were sitting out in the State Palace in Dar es Salaam, looking out across the sea and there was Nyerere, hoping for real intellectual debate. Instead, he was faced with a green, inexperienced reporter who wasn’t giving him any argument!”
After 15 years reporting on the continent, he left to become a research fellow at Oxford University which spawned a shelf of books.
“I am essentially a story-teller, which is what journalists are, but the stories I tell have a very large dimension,” he says.
His first book, 1979’s The Past is Another Country, was a story of a soon-to-be independent Zimbabwe. Since then, he has written on everything; from elephants to Nelson Mandela. His most successful was The State of Africa, a contemporary history.
His latest title came after a year’s research. He calls it a standard history of Africa, which picks apart the economic roots of conflict and poverty on the continent, drawing on years as a foreign correspondent.
“This extraordinary World Bank figure [says that] 40% of Africa’s private wealth [is] held outside Africa which [contrasts] with the Asian experience. They have levels of corruption which are pretty high too but what happens there is that wealth is ploughed back into businesses, they might be mafia-type organizations, but they build factories and industries so the money is ploughed back.”
On the other side of the gold coin, Africa has a penchant for vanity projects like the Pyramids of Giza right to Mobutu Sese Seko’s ruined Gbadolite Palace, which had a private concord airstrip so he could fly off shopping.
“The money in Africa is taken out by the ruling elite and the growing middle class, so it’s safe and secure and they can enjoy buying properties in Europe. London is awash with Nigerian millionaires! Corruption happens everywhere, you expect a certain level of it. Where the focus of ambition lies in making as much money as possible, regardless of the circumstances, that is when it becomes dangerous. It affects so many African countries.”
The greed-inspired accidents of history are at the root of Africa’s woes. The Spanish expedition, inspired by Mansa Musa’s riches, led to centuries of extraction of African wealth for foreign gain. Hence, the birth of the infamous resource ‘curse’.
If in the last 5,000 years of this continent, the past has become our country, then, as the old adage goes, those who do not learn, or remember, their history are condemned to repeat it.
Meredith is certain to write it.
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