The Premise: In this powerful account of Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni’s 30 year reign, Helen Epstein chronicles how Western leaders’ single-minded focus on the War on Terror and their naive dealings with strongmen are at the root of much of the turmoil in eastern and central Africa. Museveni’s involvement in the conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, and Somalia has earned him substantial amounts of military and development assistance, as well as near-total impunity. It has also short-circuited the power the people of this region might otherwise have over their destiny.
Thoughts: perhaps a slightly weird choice for my holiday reading, but a really captivating and absorbing one. I have a deeply held fascination with African history and politics, and Another Fine Mess is an extraordinary exploration of both. The combination of the seemingly unbelievable events and Epstein’s vibrant and propulsive style makes this an excellent read.
Prior to reading this, my knowledge of Uganda was limited to recent LGBT oppression, Idi Amin and Joseph Kony’s horrific actions in recruiting child soldiers. Thanks to Epstein, I can now also be outraged and horrified by Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan President since the 1980s and a leader of such low morals and high corruption that it’s supremely awful every time you remember he’s a real person and not an overblown fictional character.
Epstein’s main focus here is the enabling and supportive actions of the US, whose questionable approaches of providing aid without checking where it ended up while doing nothing to ensure the democratic process is followed have allowed Museveni, a leader widely believed to have had rivals murdered and rigged elections, to systematically deprive his citizens while lining his own pockets. It makes for genuinely shocking reading. Additionally, Epstein shows how much of the chaos of modern African history has been influenced by the US, either through action or inaction, firstly as a means of scoring points against the USSR during the Cold War and, more recently, in an effort to stifle radical Islamism in Sudan and beyond. It’s mindblowing. Epstein’s broadening focus also means other nations’ troubled recent histories are discussed, giving the reader a better grasp of Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda and the DRC too. While the fact that any of these awful things is possible makes no ethical sense to me, Another Fine Mess helped me to get my head round some issues which had previously confused me, like the terrible Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the chaotic wars fought in Zaire/DRC.
In Conclusion: a niche book, I suppose, but a fascinating, eye-opening and comprehensive one. Epstein brilliantly guides the reader through some incredibly complex political machinations, always bringing it back to the effects on ‘real’ people. I was enthralled by this book and I highly recommend it to readers with an interest in the history, present and future of the East African region.