HONOURS GEOGRAPHY
Nations of Post-Colonial Africa
 
*The borders drawn at the Berlin conference (with the exception of some in North Africa) were mostly created without regard for the existing cultural, tribal, ethnic, or historical homelands of the African peoples in the new colonies, so that today, many of the nations of Africa have serious problems with ethnic tensions, and also with irredentism (the desire of related people in different countries to be in one united country, which often has diplomatic complications).

*By the start of World War I, Africa belonged to Europe, which was rapidly created an extractive colonial economy there even more pernicious than the old mercantile colonial economies of the Americas.  Africa existed primarily as a source of raw materials to be shipped back to Europe, so most of Africa’s industries were based on getting the most out of Africa’s mineral wealth, forests, and wild game.  Most roads and railroads were designed to run to major seaports, not to link major settlements in the interior.

*Colonialism was seen in Europe (at least in part) as doing a favour for the Africans (and Asians), bringing them technology, civilisation, religion, and a role in the world economy.  Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem, telling Europeans to take up the ‘White Man’s Burden.’  To an extent this was true—Europe did begin modernising Africa, but mostly did so for economic reasons and reasons of national pride, rather than out of altruism.

*Most colonies did not see large numbers of European immigrants, although a few colonies did see significant settlement.

*Algeria was so close to France geographically that France actually planned to eventually incorporate it into France as another province, equal with those on the Continent (much as is theoretically the case with French Guiana today).

*Britain encouraged people to settle in Kenya, Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), and in South Africa, which already had large numbers of European settlers:  the Boers and other Afrikaners.

*After WWI, Germany’s colonies were taken over by other countries, and Europe tightened its control over the African colonies. 

*In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, defeating the armies of Haile Selassie (an emperor famous for his efforts to modernise his country, both for its own sake and to stand up against Europe).  Italy would control Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941.

*Although Europe remained powerful during this period, many Africans began to feel an increased sense of nationalism, a desire to run their own affairs, especially since in most places they were treated like second or third-class citizens, with severe restrictions on their rights and freedoms.

*In many cases this nationalism was possible because colonial modernisation had allowed some native Africans to prosper, forming a small middle class, with the time to study history, philosophy, and politics, and to consider its place in society.  As is so often the case, slowly improving circumstances allowed both the freedom and the desire for more rapid improvement or revolution.

*Both the restrictions on African rights and the growth of an African middle class were particularly visible in the Union of South Africa.  Mostly independent from Great Britain in 1910 (although still recognising the King of Great Britain as their head of state), three of the four provinces of the Union forbade blacks to vote, mostly on the insistence of the Afrikaners.

*In order to maintain their dominance, the white minority rulers of South Africa, especially the Afrikaners, had always had segregation laws, but slowly made them more strict and wide-ranging in the 20th century.  After WWII, beginning in 1948, this segregation was codified as the system of Apartheid (apart-ness), which segregated every aspect of life, even in residential and business zoning—blacks needed passbooks to travel anywhere, even around town.  The white parts of South Africa prospered, while the Black and Coloured (mixed-race) peoples were forced into slums called townships or onto reservations called ‘homelands’ or ‘Bantustans’ where they were not even regarded as South African citizens.

*In the rest of Africa, World War II changed things in the other direction.  As Europe relied more on its African colonies than its Asian ones (which it had temporarily lost to Japan), Africans saw how much they were contributing to the war effort, while also seeing how little they were getting in return.

*After the war, many Africans (and also many Americans) felt that Europe, which had supposedly been fighting for democracy, ought to live up to its ideals, and allow self-government in Africa.  Unfortunately, because Europeans had typically had so little regard for their colonial subjects in Africa, few democratic institutions or traditions had been created, so Africa was not truly ready to govern itself.

*After WWII, Europe was also much poorer than it had been, and while the colonies potentially had a lot of wealth, it also cost a lot of money to maintain and exploit those colonies.  In the 1950s and 1960s, economic pressures at home and growing demands in the colonies for independence (including some outright revolutions) led Britain and France to begin releasing its colonies.

*France fought hard to keep Algeria, which had risen in the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), but lost in the end, and most of the French citizens in Algeria left afterwards.

*In Kenya, some African tribal peoples following traditional African religions, who had lost most of their land and power, began what came to be known as the Mau Mau uprising (1953-1960), which targeted white farmers and Africans thought to be sympathetic to them, especially Christian Africans, killing men, women, and children, often attacking isolated farms and then fleeing.  Eventually the Mau Mau uprising was put down by the British army and by local militia and police, but ultimately it was decided that Kenya was more trouble than it was worth, and it was made independent in 1963.  Jomo Kenyatta was elected the first president of Kenya, and he tried to reconcile the white and black citizens of his country, but in the end, many white people left.

*Northern and Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe, had white populations as well.  Zambia became independent under a black-controlled government in 1964, but for the most part its small white population was treated well. 

*Southern Rhodesia, however, declared independence from Great Britain in 1965 in order to preserve its white-minority government, and engaged in a series of wars with African guerrilla forces and eventually to its return, in 1979, to status as a British colony.  In 1980, it was granted independence with a black-majority government under Robert Mugabe, but in the 1990s, he began a process of seizing property belonging to white citizens, especially farmers, causing many to flee to South Africa, Britain, or Zambia, and plunging the country into famine and poverty.

*While most of Europe was granting its colonies independence and European colonists in Africa were returning to Europe, Portugal after WWII encouraged settlement in its African colonies, and Angola and Mozambique greatly increased their European populations.  However, both experienced guerrilla warfare in the 1960s and 1970s, which became increasingly expensive for Portugal.  Portugal also had a semi-fascist government in the 1960s and ‘70s that would not recognise the changing world situation.  In 1974, however, Portugal experienced the Carnation Revolution, a (mostly) bloodless revolution in which the military (sometimes with carnations in their gun barrels) overthrew the government, but then created a democracy.  In 1975, Portugal granted independence to its colonies in Africa.  Most of the Portuguese colonists left shortly afterwards, as both Angola and Mozambique collapsed into civil war.

*By the 1980s, only South Africa (and its mandatory colony of Namibia) remained under white dominance.  The United Nations had already declared Apartheid illegal, and many nations had placed embargoes against South Africa (although Japan got along with them:  Japanese in South Africa were legally regarded as ‘honourary Europeans).’  Still, South Africa maintained and tried to strengthen the Apartheid regime through military force and police violence.

*Eventually international and domestic pressure became too great, and in a 1992 referendum, in the last all-white vote in South Africa, the people of South Africa gave the government the authority to negotiate with the leading African nationalist groups, notably the ANC (African National Congress) a major Black political group (although some criticise it for being mostly Xhosa).  In 1994, the first election open to all races was held, and the ANC won about 63% of the vote.  The National Party (the white opposition party, which collapsed in 2005) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (mostly Zulu) also won significant followings, although the ANC has remained in charge ever since.  For the most part, white South Africans have remained in their country, although there has been some emigration.

*Today, most countries in Africa are democracies or republics, at least in name.  However, many of them are, in fact, military dictatorships or one-party states, in which people may vote, but only for one party (typically the party puts forward candidates, and the people may make a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote).  The nations of Africa have frequently suffered from civil wars, with over 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations in the 1970s and 1980s alone.

*Ethnic divisions were often made worse during the colonial period, as ethnic groups were split up or forced together by colonial boundaries, and as some colonial powers tried to classify their subjects by race or tribe. 

*Rwanda and Burundi, for example, had a lengthy period of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, as the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, two groups that had been relatively peaceful before the colonial period but which had grown apart under Belgian rule (when Tutsi were given more prestige), made war upon one another, killing at least 800,000 people (mostly Tutsis and some Hutus who opposed the murder) in 1994 in the Rwandan Genocide.

*In 1993, the coastal region of Eritrea in Ethiopia declared itself independent following a referendum, but between 1998 and 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea engaged in a lengthy war over their border (partly because Ethiopia resents being landlocked).  Even today, the precise border remains in dispute.

*Today, 45 of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa call themselves republics or (in the case of Ehtiopia (since overthrowing Haile Selassie in 1974) and Nigeria) federal republics, although many of them have had the same dictators or strongmen for decades, or have had numerous periods of civil war.

*Swaziland is a monarchy (ruled by the King and the Great She-Elephant (the queen mother), and Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy (in which the king is a ceremonial figure only).

*Mauritania calls itself an Islamic Republic, but is not nearly as fundamentalist as Iran (or the former Taliban-dominated Afghanistan).  Mauritania has a mixed population of White Moors (more or less Arabic peoples), Black Moors (black Moslems who speak the same dialect of Arabic as the White Moors), and non-Moors (mostly black peoples native to the area).  These three groups (especially the non-Moors) have often been in conflict.  Still, Mauritania has had relatively free democratic elections since 1992, although recently there has been a military coup while the president was out of the country, and democracy may be ending in Mauritania.

*Today, many African nations belong to the Commonwealth of Nations, a group consisting of the UK and many former British Colonies (and, as a special case, Mozambique).  Many of these nations still recognise Queen Elizabeth as head of state, and they have common cultural and economic ties from their time as part of the British Empire.  Of course, many former colonies are not part of the Commonwealth.  At one time, the Commonwealth was an important economic bloc, and much of it was a free trade area.  Today it is more of a diplomatic club, whose members mainly benefit from a chance to engage in diplomacy together, and its power is declining.

*All of Africa except Morocco (but including Western Sahara) is part of the African Union.  This is meant to be an African version of the EU, but it works more like an African UN.  It can set diplomatic policies, and has recently sent military forces into areas suffering from civil war, and it aims to promote democracy, human rights, development, and pan-Africanism (in which it is led by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, who has been frustrated by the slow pace of pan-Arabism, and whose nation is relatively wealthy and stable by African standards).

*Today the AU is not yet particularly powerful, but it seems to be growing in importance and in its desire to bring peace and democracy to Africa.



This page last updated 2 November, 2005.