MUCH OF THE HISTORY of black Africa since independence is depressing, brutal and/or bizarre.

In the past quarter-century, the population of black Africa grew faster than that of any other region of the world. At the same time, on a continent where the lifeblood is farming, food production per capita declined. There was the butchery of the Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who personally killed school children, and of Uganda's Idi Amin, whose henchmen killed tens of thousands. Less horrible, but probably more important, was the routine repression across most of Africa of political opposition and a free press. And there was the buffoonery of megalomaniacal leaders who, while trashing their countries, gave themselves titles such as "Messiah," "Redeemer," and the "Great Maestro of Popular Education, Science and Traditional Culture." Guinea's Sekou Toure interpreted a cholera epidemic as a counter- revolutionary plot. Upper Volta's Maurice Yameogo built a television station to service the nation's 100 television sets. Equatorial Guinea's Macias Nguema stashed the national treasury in suitcases in a bamboo hut next to his house.

The value of Martin Meredith's The First Dance of Freedom is its scrupulous fair-mindedness as it places Africa's failings in context. Meredith neither sensationalizes African leaders' mistakes nor downplays their seriousness. A foreign correspondent with more than 20 years experience in Africa, Meredith is a measured, precise and well-organized historian.

The author could not have picked a more propitious time to release a popular survey of postwar black Africa. The century's worst famine has killed hundreds of thousands of Africans in the past year. Millions of others are in danger of starving to death, in Ethiopia and across the southern rim of the Sahara where a decade of drought and wrongheaded land use is transforming millions of fertile land into desert. Western donors, in recent months, have mounted the largest relief effort in history. Bishop Desmond Tutu's Nobel Peace Prize and continuing demonstrations in Washington have aroused unprecedented concern in the United States about white rule in South Africa.

YET GOOD TIMING is not enough to salvage The First Dance of Freedom. It is not what Meredith, in his introduction, claims it to be: a book that "dwells more on the causes of crisis and change than on the narrative of events." Rather, it is a dry nation-by-nation recitation of post-colonial political history in black Africa. Stylistically, the recitation is hobbled by "stark" realities, by "political activity [that] burst out in wild and hectic profusion," by lame similies in which "the Congo rumbled on like some diseased part of the continent."

Meredith starts promisingly, focusing on the early lives of postwar Africa's key leaders, such as Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah. In trying to write about sub-Saharan Africa, where there are 39 countries, many of them question marks in the minds of even informed Americans, personalizing political history is probably the best technique for holding reader interest. Meredith, however, does not flush out his characters very well. And about one-third of the way through this book, he drops his Africa-through-the-founding-fathers approach and begins the country-by-country history.

These encyclopedia-like chapters are not badly done. They are a good reference for newspaper readers trying to make sense of civil wars in nations such as Ethiopia and Chad. Meredith's treatment of Ethiopia, in particular, is a concise and lucid unraveling of that country's extraordinarily messy recent history. Longer chapters on Zimbabwe, Zaire, Angola and Mozambique are similarly useful and fairly palatable to readers trying to fill in gaps in their understanding of contemporary Africa.

The problem is the why. Why has the first dance of freedom in Africa, after more than two decades, produced a falling standard of living for most Africans? Why don't Western systems of government -- capitalist, socialist or Marxist -- mesh with African culture? Why do many African leaders, openly and without apology, steal their countries blind? Why has there been so much killing of Africans by Africans?

Meredith, by and large, does not even try to answer these questions. His book hardly touches upon the Africa that exists beneath the overlay of arbitrary national boundaries, an overlay imposed by colonialists who ig- nored many existing geographic and ethnic borders. In the few African nations that have been relatively successful, the Ivory Coast and Senegal, for example, Meredith does little to explain how leaders there managed to wed foreign conceptions of the nation-state with ancient values and institutions.

The book ends with a two-page epilogue suggesting there is no hope for black Africa. It quotes a study by the Economic Commission for Africa that, projecting from existing trends, says rural poverty will reach "unimaginable dimensions" in 25 years, and towns will be crippled by crime and poverty. "The picture that emerges is almost a nightmare," the report says. Meredith ends his book with that bleak assessment.

Considering the worlds of Africa not addressed in The First Dance of Freedom, this bleak conclusion seems unsubstantiated and gratuitous.