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African Independence: International Politics Analysis


Africa has quintessentially been known to be a continent ravaged by poverty, disease and war. Although their lands and resources are vast enough to provide the needs of its people, it is quite unthinkable why poverty, disease and war have overturned almost all 54 nations in Africa after they had acquired independence in the recent years. Is it the after-effect of foreign colonisation or is it a result of the widespread usurpation of powers and the incidence of corruption in governments within the nations itself that brought down the continent down to its knees? Or is Africa just the sacrificial lamb of developed nations who are virtually controlling the politics in the continent for the last few years?

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Rightfully enough, in the book of Peter Schraeder (1996) entitled African Politics and Society: A Mosaic in Transformation, he clearly argued that rapid changes in the international system have significantly influenced African politics and society. Chabal and Daloz (1999) viewed that the current political and economic climates in Africa are just “normal” because of the “vacuous and ineffectual” governments had emanated unrelenting corruption and neopatrimonialism. Because of their colonial heritage, African states adapted liberal democratic state models and forms of government that are fundamentally incompatible with African culture, where Western notions of civil society are inapplicable and the states had transformed to benefit only the privileged elites. In this research, we will delve deeper on why the democratisation has become a bitter pill for African states to swallow after being bestowed independence from colonial masters. After looking into the history, we will tackle how the present international politics have deprived African nations to enjoy what globalisation and democratisation has to offer. Lastly, we will to offer solutions to absolve the present dilemmas faced by Africa as a continent and try to unravel what the future may bring to this ill-fated continent.

Historical Background

Before colonial rule has embraced most of African states, the continent already has a diverse culture and tradition that they can be proud of. Known as the “dark continent”, Africa has vast landscapes that teem with natural resources as much of its land is still left undiscovered. Recent findings in the continent unravelled that Africa is the “cradle of civilisation”. Yet, upon the entry of 19th century, the civilisation in Africa has been abruptly been dismantled as continent has been eyed for hectic partition by the European powers in the final quarter of this era. Before, Europe had been in direct contact with sub-Saharan Africa from the mid-15th century, following the Portuguese maritime explorations. Commercial contacts gradually became dominated by the massive and destructive trade in slaves carried on by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, British and others. In all, some 14 million Africans are estimated to have been transported to the Caribbean and the Americas or to have lost their lives as a result of the trade (Sanderson 3). Colonising efforts were few before the 19th century, but Portugal maintained a token presence in the areas that much later were extended to become Angola and Mozambique, whilst the Dutch initiated European settlement from Cape Town in 1652. Elsewhere the prolonged trade contacts generated only scattered European footholds along the African coasts.

Havinden and Meredith (1994) recounted that the United Kingdom had been the leading trafficker in slaves in the 18th century, but after 1807, when British subjects were prohibited from further participation in the slave trade, a new era began. The subsequent campaign against the slave trade of other nations; the search for new trade products such as palm oil; the onset of geographical exploration; the outburst of Christian missionary zeal; improved communications (the telegraph and steamships); growing knowledge of tropical medicine; and Europe’s new industrial might all combined to make Africa increasingly vulnerable to European colonial encroachment (Havinden and Meredith 16-18). The discovery of diamonds in southern Africa in 1867, and the opening of the Suez Canal two years later, further focused attention on the continent. Even before the main scramble for colonies began in the 1870s, the United Kingdom and France had been steadily increasing their commercial and political involvement in Africa.

Hirsch (2001) further informed that United Kingdom established a settlement at Freetown (Sierra Leone) as a base for freed slaves from 1808, and subsequently engaged in a series of conflicts with inland Ashanti from its outposts on the Gold Coast (Ghana), whilst steadily increasing its influence in the Niger delta region, in Zanzibar, and in southern Africa (25-27). In the mid-1800s, Gen. Louis Faidherbe began France’s expansion into the West African interior along the River Senegal from its long-held trading settlements at the river’s mouth (Austen 43). Simultan­eously, the interests of both countries grew in Madagascar, but it was France that later annexed the island (1896). During this period of colonial expansion France extended its penetration of West Africa from existing bases in the interior, as well as from enclaves on the coast. It created, too, a second colonial fiefdom in Equatorial Africa, with its administrative base in Libreville, on the Gabonese coast. The result of this strategy was the emergence of two large French colonial federations: Afrique occidentale française (AOF, 1895) eventually included Senegal, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Soudan (Mali), Dahomey (Benin), Guinea, Niger, Mauritania and Côte d’Ivoire; Afrique equatoriale française (AEF, 1910) comprised Gabon, Middle Congo (Republic of the Congo), Oubangui Chari (Central African Republic) and Chad. Meanwhile, in West Africa, the United Kingdom extended its foothold on the Gambian coast into a protectorate, enlarged its territorial holdings in Sierra Leone, created the Gold Coast Colony (1874, later conquering Ashanti and adding territory to the north as the scramble proceeded), and sanctioned the advance of the Royal Niger Co into the heavily populated region that subsequently, as Nigeria, became the United Kingdom’s most important African colony (Kalck 103-104).

The quest for colonies gained momentum as other European powers entered the field. The first of these was Belgium, whose ambitious monarch, Leopold II, created the International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of Central Africa (1876) as a means of establishing and administering a vast personal empire in the Congo basin, which in 1885 was ironic­ally designated the Congo Free State (Stearns 594). The Association’s in­fam­ous regime of exploitation led to international outrage and eventually, in 1908, to the transfer of the territory to the Belgian state. Another late participant in the drive to colonise Africa was Germany, which had newly emerged as a major industrial power. In 1884 its Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, declared German protectorates over Togoland, Kamerun and South West Africa (Namibia). Bismarck then moved swiftly to organise the Berlin West Africa Conference (1884–85), which created a generally agreed framework for colonial expansion in order to avert any major conflict among the European powers. Shortly afterwards Bismarck added German East Africa (Tanganyika, the mainland of modern Tanzania) to Germany’s colonial possessions. After the German defeat in the First World War, the administration of these territories passed to the victors as League of Nations mandates. South Africa obtained Namibia, Tanganyika was awarded to the United Kingdom, and Ruanda-Urundi to Belgium, whilst Kamerun and Togoland were each partitioned between the United Kingdom and France.

Although the United Kingdom, as the leading European economic power, would have preferred to adhere to its traditionally gradual method of empire-building, it emerged from the scramble as the dominant colonial power, both in terms of territory and popu­lation. Apart from its West African possessions, the United Kingdom acquired substantial territorial holdings in eastern and southern Africa. The largest of these was the Sudan, a consequence of British involvement in Egypt and the importance attached to the Suez Canal. Egypt had been employing British soldier-administrators in its efforts to gain control of the Sudan, but in 1881 a Muslim cleric proclaimed himself the Mahdi (supreme spiritual leader) and declared a jihad (holy war). In 1885, the Mahdi’s forces captured Khartoum, killing Gen. Charles Gordon and causing outrage in the United Kingdom. The Mahdist state was destroyed by Anglo-Egyptian forces led by Gen. Horatio Kitchener in 1898, just in time to forestall a parallel French expedition at Fashoda (Rotberg 239). The Sudan officially became an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, but was in effect administered as a British colony, which became highly valued for its cotton production. Fertile Uganda, supposedly a key to control of the Nile valley, had been made a protectorate in 1894, and neighbouring Kenya (as British East Africa) was added by the United Kingdom the following year in order to secure access to the sea. The offshore island of Zanzibar, long a focus of British interest and commercially significant for its cloves, was formally declared a protectorate in 1890. Further to the south, missionaries played an important part in the British acquisition of the land-locked Nyasaland protectorate (Malawi) in 1891.

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In Africa’s extreme south, the United Kingdom had obtained the Cape Colony by treaty at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1814), and soon found itself in conflict both with its white settlers of mainly Dutch origin (Afrikaners, or Boers), as well as with the area’s many indigenous kingdoms and chieftaincies. In 1843, the British coastal colony of Natal was founded, principally as a means of containing the Afrikaners in the interior, where they established the Orange Free State and Transvaal republics. Fatefully, these developments coincided with the discoveries of immense reserves of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886). The ensuing upheavals and an insatiable demand for ‘cheap native labour’ brought about the final conquest of the African peoples (most notably in the Zulu War, 1879). Acting on behalf of the United Kingdom, the mining magnate Cecil Rhodes organised from the Cape the further northward conquest and occupation of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), beginning in 1890: in 1884 Rhodes had been instrumental in the British acquisition of Bechuanaland (Botswana) as a protectorate, to safeguard the land route from the Cape into the interior, which had been threatened by German activity in South West Africa. The United Kingdom had also obtained Basutoland (Lesotho) in 1868, and formally established a protectorate over Swaziland in 1903. However, British claims to supremacy throughout southern Africa were challenged by the two Afrikaner republics in the Boer War (1899–1902). The United Kingdom overcame the republics only with great difficulty, and then left the Afrikaners, who formed the main element of the privileged white minority, in political control of a newly fashioned Union of South Africa, which was then granted virtual independence (1910). Known as the high commission territories, Bechuanaland, Basutoland and Swaziland, however, remained under British rule. Subsequent South African ambitions to annex them were thwarted, and they eventually proceeded to independence in the 1960s.

Despite its economic weakness relative to the other European powers, Portugal obtained a major share of the colonial division of southern Africa. British diplomatic support helped Portugal to secure the vast colonies of Angola (including Portuguese Congo, later known as Cabinda) and Mozambique; in West Africa Portugal had long been in control of mainland (Portuguese) Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), the Cape Verde archi­pel­ago and the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. Spain, meanwhile, acquired the islands of Fernando Póo (Bioko) and Annobón (Pagalu), together with the mainland enclave of Río Muni, which now form the Republic of Equatorial Guinea (Havinden and Meredith, pp. 115-117).

Some African states themselves participated in the scramble: the kingdoms of Buganda and Ethiopia both seized opportunities to expand. Indeed, Ethiopia successfully defended itself against Italian aggression by winning a famous victory at the battle of Adowa (1896). Italy had to content itself with Eritrea and the major part of Somalia, until Benito Mussolini’s armies overran Ethiopia in 1935. Italian occupation was ended by an Anglo-Ethiopian military expedition in 1941. Eritrea, however, was not to emerge as an independent state until 1993. Liberia, a US-inspired republic founded in 1847 and politically dominated by descendants of former slaves, remained nominally independent throughout the colonial era, but in practice became an economic dependency of US rubber-growing interests.

Colonial Rule under Fire

Falola (2002) deemed that the primary “aim of the European powers was to exploit the resources of Africa in various ways: using Africa as a supplier of minerals and cash crops, consumer of finished imported products, and provider of revenues to make the colonies financially self-sufficient”. Although when important improvements were made in African states, the changes were connected to the colonial economic objectives of generating a massive transfer of wealth from Africa to Europe. To attain the colonial objectives, a new infrastructure had to be built. Roads and railways appeared in areas with exportable resources in order to facilitate the movement of goods from production centres to port cities, thence to be transported by ships to Europe. The building of the new roads and railways brought hardships to the Africans who were compelled to perform construction work. New and efficient for their purpose, the communication facilities contributed to the massive expansion of the export economy, the penetration of imported items into cities and villages, the mobility of people, the unease in urbanisation, and the spread of ideas and religions. Africans participated in the colonial economy in various ways. The majority were producers, working on their farms. Many others were forced to work for the government or for European ventures. Taxes were imposed, and the need to raise cash in order to pay them compelled many people to seek wage incomes, even as labourers.

Besides the economic progress being introduced by the Europeans, socio-cultural advances that promote Western thought has emerged in Africa. Falola (2001) mentioned that new cities were created, (e.g., Enugu and Port Harcourt in Nigeria, Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, Takoradi in Ghana, and Nairobi in Kenya), and some older ones rapidly expanded, because they served as centers of commerce and administration. Although services tended to be inadequate, the cities enjoyed far better facilities than the rural areas in terms of medical services, leisure facilities, and schools. Western education spread in many areas, as colonial governments and foreign firms needed clerks and other literate people to work for them. Interest was concentrated on elementary education. Where missionaries were allowed to operate, as in British colonies, they established elementary schools and a few secondary schools. Governments saw the participation of missionaries as saving them money. The missionaries were able to use the school system to convert many Africans to Christianity. The size of the educated elite increased, and they increasingly dominated the economy and politics of the continent. European languages spread among the elite (Falola 194).

Because of the unwelcome changes being made within Africa, European intrusion was met with much resistance by many of the Islamised, as well as the indigenous, cultures of Africa. Inevitably, there were also major rebellions against the Germans in South West Africa and Tanganyika, and against the British in Southern Rhodesia. Yet, divisions within and between African ethnic groups, superior European weaponry and the widespread use of African troops enabled the colonial powers generally to secure control of their territorial acquisitions without great difficulty. Boundaries were, in the main, effectively settled by 1900 or soon afterwards. Most colonies enclosed a varied assortment of societies, but many African groupings found themselves divided by the new frontiers (the Somali, for example, were split among British, French, Italian and Ethiopian administrations). Although in the long run colonialism did much to undermine previous patterns of life, its administrative policies and the development of written languages (mainly by missionaries) fostered ethnic identity, helping to replace pre-colonial cultural and political fluidity by modern tribalism. African reactions to colonialism also contributed to the growing sense of ethnic self-awareness.

Where settlers monopolised land and resources, colonialism tended to bear harshly on traditional African life. Elsewhere, however, the direct European impact was more muted. The very small number of European colonial officials in non-settler colonies necessitated reliance on African intermediaries to sustain rule. Such administrations had to limit their interventions in African life and rely on traditional and created chiefs to carry out day-to-day administration (often in arbitrary and non-traditional ways), although military power was never far away in the event of any breakdown in control. By the 1920s, air power could be used to transport troops quickly to suppress uprisings. The British, in particular, favoured the policy of ‘indirect rule’, bolstering traditional authorities as subordinate allies, but often with new powers and resources unavailable to their predecessors. The British colonial doctrine emphasised the separateness of its colonies from the imperial power and theoretically envisaged eventual political independence. Some degree of freedom of expression was allowed (many African newspapers flourished in British West Africa), and a limited political outlet for a circumscribed few was eventually provided through the establishment of legislative councils. In contrast, the French doctrine of assimilation theoretically envisaged Africans as citizens of a greater France, but little was done to make this a reality until after the Second World War. These contrasting British and French principles were not without influence on policy, for example in the educational sphere, and they also helped to shape the later patterns of decolonisation and post-colonial relationships. Whatever the theory, all colonial regimes were deeply influenced by the racist outlook that had taken hold of the European mind in the 19th century and in practice treated their colonial subjects as inferior beings.

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Another problem emerged such as racial discrimination, which was deeply resented by the Western-educated elite. In coastal West Africa and in South Africa the existence of these elites actually pre-dated the scramble, and soon lawyers, clergy, teachers and merchants founded moderate protest associations, such as the Aborigines’ Protection Society (1897) in the Gold Coast and the Native National Congress (1912), later the African National Congress, in South Africa. By the 1920s, clerks and traders in Tanganyika were able to form an African Association on a territory-wide basis. In other social strata religious associations were often the chief vehicles for African assertion. These could be traditional, Christian, Islamic or syncretic in inspiration, and often aroused mass enthusiasm, to the concern of the colonial authorities. Occasionally there were violent clashes. For example, Rev. John Chilembwe led an armed uprising in 1915, protesting at the recruitment of Africans for service in the First World War and at conditions for tenants on European-owned estates in Nyasaland (Abbink et al. 1). Worker protest appeared early in towns, and on the railways and in mines. Rural protest was often about taxation (as in the 1929 riots by women in Eastern Nigeria) or commodity prices (as in the Gold Coast cocoa boycotts of the 1930s). Yet, whatever the level of discontent, prior to the Second World War the colonial grip remained unshaken.

After the end of the Second World War, everything changed as most Africans demanded to be freed from colonial chains. Falola (2002) suggested that it was the Pan-Africanists who fervently demanded an end to European rule in Africa. Perhaps the most notable Pan-Africanist Congress was held in 1945 in Manchester, England. Africans attended in large numbers, trade unions were represented, and a socialist ideology was espoused as the best for Africa. The resolutions were radical, including support for the use of force to dislodge Europeans. The Manchester Congress condemned the continuation of European rule in Africa, demanded freedom for the continent, and believed that rapid economic development would accompany the end of colonial rule. Among the radical generation of Africans who attended the conference was Kwame Nkrumah, who later became the first president of Ghana. In fact, Ghana became the first West African Nation to become free (Falola 215-216).

Other African states followed suit: In 1964 Nyasaland became independent as Malawi and Northern Rhodesia as Zambia. When the United Kingdom then refused white-minority rule independence to Southern Rhodesia, its settler-dominated government, led by Ian Smith, unilaterally declared independence (1965). This was resisted by the United Kingdom and condemned by the UN, but an ineffectual campaign of economic sanctions was defeated by support for the Smith regime from neighbouring South Africa and Portugal. African nationalists eventually succeeded in organising the guerrilla war that, in the 1970s, paved the way for a negotiated settlement. With Robert Mugabe as its leader, the country became independent as Zimbabwe (1980), a development that owed much to the collapse of Portuguese rule in Africa after 1974. During the lengthy dictatorship of Dr António de Oliveira Salazar Portugal regarded its African colonial possessions as inalienable, and in 1951 they were declared to be overseas provinces. However, intense political repression failed to prevent the emergence of armed resistance movements in Angola (1961), Guinea-Bissau (1963) and Mozambique (1964). Most successfully in Guinea-Bissau, under the leadership of Amílcar Cabral, these guerrilla movements succeeded in mobilising rural support. Eventually, in 1974, following the military overthrow of the Portuguese regime, progress towards internal democratisation was accompanied by a determination to implement an accelerated policy of decolonisation. In Angola, where the divided nationalist movement provided opportunities for external intervention on opposite sides by South African and Cuban forces, independence proved difficult to consolidate. Mozambique also suffered greatly from South Africa’s policy of destabilising its newly independent neighbours.

Pains of Democratisation

Although the African continent rejoiced over the independence that they attained in the 1960s, problems with regards to their stability as states began to pull them down. Falola (2002) mentioned human and natural disasters made the life of most African people miserable. Another factor was that the population increased faster than economic growth. Also, the execution of all the good programs called for a committed leadership, enduring political institutions, a stable political system, a united country, and hardworking citizens, yet some of conditions were lacking that made nations fail to attain their goals. In addition, as both leaders and people realised, Africa was part of the world system existing at the time of the Cold War. Foreign countries wanted to sell goods and ideologies, even when this was not in the best interest of Africa. What’s worse is that African politics became unstable right from the very beginning. Without the mechanisms with which to build a united country out of an agglomeration of different ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture, and history, society and politics became prone to conflicts. Military coups became endemic and the transfer of power posed a problem, as whoever was able to gain power refused to relinquish it. Among the causes of political instability in the 1960s were the following: the fear of domination by one ethnic group; the use of power to make money, which made it rewarding to hang on to power; the bitter rivalries among competing members of the political class; and the failure to give an opportunity to opposition groups to express themselves.

Another thing that emerged is that Africa has never been at the top table when it comes to decision-making in world affairs. For the first sixty years of this century, Fawcett and Sayigh (2000) voiced out that Africa’s decisions were made for it by its colonial masters—even the two independent states of Ethiopia and Liberia were subject to the tutelage of the great powers. At independence, African states were bequeathed economies dependent on the export of agricultural produce, unprocessed minerals, and other primary commodities to Western Europe and North America, political systems drawn up in London, Paris, or Brussels, and borders which generally bore little or no relation to historical, cultural, or ethnic entities which had existed before colonisation. Not surprisingly, Africa struggled to cope with independence and was accorded a peripheral status in international institutions. Thus, from the very start of the post-independence era, African states experienced persistent problems in finding a coherent continental strategy in dealings with major international actors. One of the driving forces behind the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had been the Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, the most vocal proponent of pan-Africanism as a means of unifying Africa politically. His pan-African vision was not just of concerted African action to achieve common goals, but of eventual federation of all African states. Nkrumah and his supporters saw this as a long-term goal and the OAU as the first step towards it. But this path was too radical for many leaders—notably Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, President Houphouet-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire, and President Banda of Malawi. If they saw the OAU as having a major role to play (and Banda certainly doubted this), it was as a continental forum for discussion of common political, social, and economic problems and as a means of aggregating African energies to increase the diplomatic influence of African states. They did not see the OAU as a step on the road towards political integration or the gradual withering away of borders. They argued bitterly with the radicals such as Nkrumah, Modibo Keita of Mali, and Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea. The differences undercut the ability of the OAU to act as an international voice for Africa and enabled external powers to use the obvious cleavages to their own advantage (Fawcett and Sayigh 135-146).

Lastly, Africa’s global economic weakness is magnified by the consistent failure of African governments (with honourable exceptions such as Botswana) to establish a reputation for probity, transparency, and good governance. The failure of the 1990s wave of democratisation truly to change the course of African political development has not only meant that the majority of Africans are still ruled arbitrarily in most states, but also that there has not been the hoped-for accountability around management of the economies. The new rulers of the 1990s (Soglo, Chiluba, Muluzi, etc.) all inherited the government structures, well-entrenched networks of nepotism and corruption, unfair terms of trade, and huge debt burdens of their predecessors. Some of these factors were and still are beyond their powers of influence, others—the lack of government control and accountability and the fight against corruption—are within their competence but have not been tackled. So Africa, whether under old or new leaders, retains the international image of an economic pariah, a sinkhole for aid, and a basket case of bribery and bad debts.


Faced by its ghosts of colonisation and now it is faced with various political and economic problem, it seems Africa’s struggle for independence did more harm than good. Although in analysing the outcome of the current condition of African states, it seems to be victimised by international politics that undermined the representation of Africa in world affairs. African leadership appeared uninterested or unable to change course because policies of structural adjustment in Africa have been introduced by outside agencies, notably the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. As the world’s fiscal police, IMF has been particularly harsh in its criticism of the financial practices in sub-Saharan Africa. Together with the bilateral donors (European states, the United States, etc.), these agencies have since the early 1980s insisted on far-reaching economic reforms that involve devaluation of the local currency, downsizing the public sector, and introducing measures of cost sharing.

Thus, Africa’s future lies mainly in helping the continent, not by giving them dole-outs, but assisting them to create socio-political and economic changes that will enable them to thrive in the present global system. Education is also a problem in most states and this is essential to establish well-meaning Africans that can be instrumental in shaping Africa’s future. Numerous challenges are hampering Africa’s development goals, but this is not impossible if international politics will gear their focus towards helping this afflicted continent.

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