Chat with Paul Kenyon on his new book, Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa.
“I was a reporter on the BBC programme Panorama for about 15 years, and before that I had my own show on BBC1 called Kenyon Confronts where I used to use secret cameras to expose criminals and then go and confront them. Once I even faked my own funeral in Haiti to catch a gang of insurance fraudsters. They were exciting times, when I was younger and a little more reckless than I am today. It was during my time at Panorama that I developed a passion for Africa, and then three years ago I decided to write “Dictatorland”, a broad overview of the continent and the theft of its resources. I wanted to make it accessible, a combination of contemporary history, personal experiences, and an investigation into the resource‐plundering which has kept so many dictators in power for so long. Friends used to ask “why is Africa so poor?”, and of course it isn’t at all, it’s the richest continent on earth.
“Dictatorland begins in colonial times; when the British, French, Belgians and Portuguese used to govern. I then look into the dictators who followed and explore the links between the two periods. Mobutu, who is on the front cover of the book, ran Congo, but he was actually placed in charge by the CIA. After that, the Americans saw him as their key Cold War ally in Africa and used him to push their foreign policy initiatives, turning a blind eye to his human rights abuses and his ostentatious corruption. He’s a fascinating character, though, and there are aspects to his character one has to admire; he’s clever, visionary in some respects, and he knows how to play the Americans. Less impressive was his treatment of his best friend and political rival, Patrice Lumumba. He helped have him murdered”.
Paul spent 2 years specifically researching for this book as well as recalling from his vast experience of Africa throughout his working life in the BBC. He has direct experience in Congo, Libya, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Niger, Ghana, South Africa and the extremely dangerous Eritrea border.
During his work for the BBC in Africa, he gradually fell in love with it.
Why do you love Africa?
I love the epic nature of the countryside. To be in areas where you can travel for days and days without seeing a single person, immersed in either wild tropical forests or travelling across vast open deserts. I spent a period in the Libyan Sahara. Colonel Gaddafi’s military guides looked after us and showed us regions they said no westerner had seen for generations; towering sand cliffs hundreds of feet high. It was untouched, pristine.
I was brought up near Manchester, but have spent thirty years living in London and staring at concrete. When I walk along Chiswick High Road, the biggest concern is what kind of froth I’m going to have on my cappuccino. It’s in stark contrast with my life on the road in Africa. There it’s all the drama of trying to cross borders, pacifying men with guns, crossing vast spaces without running out of petrol. It feels raw, elemental, high‐octane I suppose. Although I love it, there’s always some relief when I am back on Chiswick High Road facing that Cappuccino dilemma once again.
My wife used to get frustrated that she’d never travelled with me. So, earlier this year we flew to Cape Town. It’s not representative in any way of the rest of the continent, but the wildlife and the beaches are spectacular. When she’s feeling a little more adventurous I might take her to Kinshasa.
What is your living environment like when you’re out there?
When I’m in hostile regions, such as Libya during the civil war, or Congo after delayed elections, I stay in places with high‐visibility security. Sometimes I have body‐guards, but it’s not always a good idea because they can attract attention. It’s good to be discreet, low‐key. I always wear dark nondescript clothes and leave any valuables back in the UK. I usually hide money all over the place, in socks, underpants, notebooks, just so that if I am robbed, there will always be somewhere they didn’t look.
In less challenging places, I like to stay away from chain hotels so I am closer to the local culture. In Burkina Faso I was in such a remote region the only place to stay was an old building that looked like cow stables. There was just an old stained mattress and I cooked outside on a wood fire. It was memorable.
How do you travel around?
Four‐wheel drives or I hire a driver as the roads are just too dangerous. I had a bad experience on the border with Ivory Coast one night when I found a guy sitting in the middle of the road in a forest by himself. It was a remote area. It was dark. I got out of the car to go and see if he was okay, but in the back of my mind I suspected it might be an ambush. As I approached him, another vehicle hurtled around the corner, hit him full on, and continued into the night without stopping. I ran over to the man but his head injuries were horrific and there was no way of saving him. There’s a high death rate on some of these roads, and travelling at night is to be avoided.
How do you approach people? What is their attitude towards you?
It depends on the country, some are very open to Westerners and are very helpful to journalists. Other places know the only reason a reporter is snooping around is to shed light on their corrupt officials. As such, everyone gives you a wide berth. Several of the places I travelled for my book don’t allow independent reporting or newspapers. A foreign reporter can only mean trouble.
My most surprising moment in that regard was when I crossed the border from Sudan into Eritrea on foot. It’s the most secretive country on earth, more so than North Korea. I imagined the border guards would rush over and become threatening pretty quickly. They operate a shoot‐to‐kill policy if they see one of their own trying to flee the country. But they wandered over, and were just curious. They were wearing torn clothes and flip flops. I showed them a pound coin and they were so intrigued – they thought it was a medal and one of them positioned it on his chest and starting marching round with a proud smile on his face.
The most memorable moment I had was in Libya during the civil war for the BBC. I wanted to interview one of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, Saadi. Bizarrely, despite the capital being under siege, he had an American PR woman. I got in touch with her, and spent days persuading her that Saadi would benefit from talking on camera about his presidential ambitions. In truth, we wanted to accuse him of war crimes. We explained that, perhaps, Saadi would be more relaxed if we interviewed him amongst his pet lions. Of course, that would also make for a great shot! He did eventually agree. Every time I asked him, ever so politely, about war crimes, he just grinned nervously and backed away. I had to lighten the mood by chatting to him about football.
We were worried that our tapes would be confiscated at the airport, so we had several copies made and left them with various trusted colleagues. In the event, all was fine, and we flew out of Tripoli in a 300‐seater plane – that was empty apart from four of us.
What about your upcoming projects?
I have just made a Radio 4 documentary about children in the Calais camps and the perilous sea crossing to the UK. There were unaccompanied kids there from Afghanistan, Iran, and Sudan. One boy was just 13 years old and had been trying to hang onto the underside of a cross‐channel lorry. I think it’s so important that their voice is heard, to counter all the toxic misreporting of migration put out by some tabloid newspapers.
I am also working on my next book about Romania, Dracula, and The Ceausescu regime!
Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa is available to buy now.
Paul Kenyon is a BAFTA‐winning journalist and author who has reported from around the world for the BBC.