Nations of Post-Colonial Africa
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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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