The best books about rulers behaving badly in Africa

Who am I?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith are professors of politics at New York University. They use the mathematical approach of game theory to understand the incentives of leaders in different settings. The Dictator’s Handbook distills decades of academic work into a few essential rules that encapsulate how leaders come to power and remain there.

We wrote...

Book cover of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics

What is our book about?

Our cynical, but we believe accurate, view of politics examines how leaders come to power, stay in power, and rule for their benefit rather than that for the people. No leader rules alone. Everyone needs essential supporters to implement policy, collect taxes and keep the people under control. Whether we consider dictators, democrats or corporate bosses, political success requires that leaders must always take care of their coalition of supporters first and foremost. In such diverse settings as public policy, tax collection, corruption, revolution, foreign aid, and fighting wars, the handbook shows that the good of the people is always a secondary concern, at best. However, the book contains a hopeful message. By understanding politics through the lens of what is best for the leader, we can constraint leader rapacity.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita And Alastair Smith Why did I love this book?

All of Kapuscinski’s books are gems. He traveled Africa and other parts of the developing world as a Soviet journalist. The Emperor describes the rule and decline of the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie. The dry day-to-dry accounts of the emperor’s benign neglect for his people is chilling. Haile Selassie knew to keep those around him happy and not to worry about the people: “A man starved all his life will never rebel…. No one raised his voice or hand there. But just let the subject start to eat his fill and then try to take the bowl away, and immediately he rises in rebellion. The usefulness of hunger is that a hungry man thinks only of bread.”.

By Ryszard Kapuściński,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Emperor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A "sensitive, powerful ... history" (The New York Review of Books) of a man living amidst nearly unimaginable pomp and luxury while his people teetered netween hunger and starvation.

Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia, reigned from 1930 until he was overthrown by the army in 1974. While the fighting still raged, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Poland's leading foreign correspondent, traveled to Ethiopia to seek out and interview Selassie's servants and closest associates on how the Emperor had ruled and why he fell. This is Kapuscinski's…

Book cover of I Didn't Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita And Alastair Smith Why did I love this book?

Wrong’s account of Eritrea’s bid for independence from Ethiopia highlights the conflict between the needs of the people and the wants of leaders. The title of her book is taken from what a soldier liberating Ethiopia from Italian rule told a local and sets the tone of the book. Time and again Wrong describes how leaders will starve their own people or bomb their own soldiers provide it help keep them in power.

By Michela Wrong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I Didn't Do It for You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One small East African country embodies the battered history of the continent: patronised by colonialists, riven by civil war, confused by Cold War manoeuvring, proud, colorful, with Africa's best espresso and worst rail service. Michela Wrong brilliantly reveals the contradictions and comedy, past and present, of Eritrea.

Just as the beat of a butterfly's wings is said to cause hurricanes on the other side of the world, so the affairs of tiny Eritrea reverberate onto the agenda of superpower strategists. This new book on Africa is from the author of the critically acclaimed In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz.


Book cover of The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita And Alastair Smith Why did I love this book?

The breadth of Meredith’s book makes it a true masterpiece. He covers the political history of virtually every African state from independence through the end of the century. Each chapter is as compelling as it is brutal.

By Martin Meredith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fate of Africa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 2005, The Fate of Africa was hailed by reviewers as "A masterpiece....The nonfiction book of the year" ( The New York Post ) "a magnificent achievement" ( Weekly Standard ) "a joy," ( Wall Street Journal ) and "one of the decade's most important works on Africa" ( Publishers Weekly , starred review). Now Martin Meredith has revised this classic history to incorporate important recent developments, including the Darfur crisis in Sudan, Robert Mugabe's continued destructive rule in Zimbabwe, controversies over Western aid and exploitation of Africa's resources, the growing importance and influence of China, and the…

Book cover of Congo: The Epic History of a People

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita And Alastair Smith Why did I love this book?

Rarely has a nation been subject to such brutal leaders and the history of the Congo is not for the faint-hearted. Van Reybrouck describes the policies of leaders who never took their eyes of the goal: ruling and exploiting the wealth of a nation. Belgium King Leopold II acquired the Congo territory as his private fiefdom at the Berlin Conference in 1885. He ruled it with the sole aim of extracting its mineral wealth and if his colonial army, the Force Publique, had to maim and kill swaths of the population to do so, then so be it. He set a precedence that post-colonial rulers did little to change.

By David Van Reybrouck,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Congo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Not only deserves the description "epic", in its true sense, but the term "masterpiece" as well' Independent

This gripping epic tells the story of one of the world's most critical failed nation-states: the Democratic Republic of Congo. Interweaving his own family's history with the voices of a diverse range of individuals - charismatic dictators, feuding warlords, child soldiers, and many in the African diaspora of Europe and China - Van Reybrouck offers a deeply humane approach to political history, focusing squarely on the Congolese perspective and returning a nation's history to its people.

Book cover of Multi-party Politics in Kenya

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita And Alastair Smith Why did I love this book?

By far the most academic of our recommendations, Throup and Hornsby describe the constraints that having to hold an election imposes on leaders and, most tellingly, how easy leaders find it to flaunt these binds.

By David Throup, Charles Hornsby,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Multi-party Politics in Kenya as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book uses the Kenyan political system to address issues relevant to recent political developments throughout Africa. The authors analyze the construction of the Moi state since 1978. They show the marginalization of Kikuyu interests as the political economy of Kenya has been reconstructed to benefit President Moi's Kalenjin people and their allies. Mounting Kikuyu dissatisfaction led to the growth of demands for multi-party democracy. The book places contemporary Kenyan politics and the 1992 election in their historical context, contrasting the present multi-party era with the previous one during the sixties. The authors question the hopes for a \u201csecond independence\u201d…

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Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

By Michael Ruse,

Book cover of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

Michael Ruse Author Of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Teacher (professor) Author Darwin specialist Charles Dickens fanatic

Michael's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Why We Hate asks why a social animal like Homo sapiens shows such hostility to fellow species members. The invasion of the Ukraine by Russia? The antisemitism found on US campuses in the last year? The answer and solution lies in the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection.

Being social is biology’s way of ensuring survival and reproduction. With the coming of agriculture 10,000 years ago, new conditions – primarily much-increased population numbers – meant that sociality broke down as we battled for our share of much-reduced resources. But, as cultural change brought about our troubles, so culture offers prospects of a future where our social natures can emerge and thrive again.

Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

By Michael Ruse,

What is this book about?

An insightful and probing exploration of the contradiction between humans' enormous capacity for hatred and their evolutionary development as a social species

Why We Hate tackles a pressing issue of both longstanding interest and fresh relevance: why a social species like Homo sapiens should nevertheless be so hateful to itself. We go to war and are prejudiced against our fellow human beings. We discriminate on the basis of nationality, class, race, sexual orientation, religion, and gender. Why are humans at once so social and so hateful to each other? In this book, prominent philosopher Michael Ruse looks at scientific

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Interested in Ethiopia, Africa, and Kenya?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Ethiopia, Africa, and Kenya.

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