The Contemporary History of Africa

In the early 1960s, the vast majority of African countries became independent states. The exceptions were the Portuguese territories and countries in southern Africa that were under white minority rule.

While independent Africa was characterized by developmental optimism, those countries that were not yet independent were the scene of long and brutal liberation wars. This was especially true of the countries with a significant European population. Two countries, South Africa and Rhodesia, became independent but without the majority of the population having political influence.

In the 1970s and beyond in the 1980s, Africa experienced much turmoil and in several countries early attempts at democracy were replaced by military regimes. While the liberation wars in southern Africa continued right up to 1990, wars also erupted in several places on the continent. In Ethiopia, Angola and Sudan, prolonged and bloody civil wars were ongoing. Around the Great Lakes, new unrest broke out, in Rwanda a million people were killed in a genocide, a conflict that also spread to the eastern part of DR Congo.

Kwame Nkrumah

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. He was a key figure in Africa’s struggle for independence from colonial rule. Photo from 1962.

By the early 2000s, most conflicts were over, including the protracted civil wars in Sudan and Angola. In 2002, the Organization of African Unity (OAE) became the African Union (AU). In the period that followed, many African countries experienced strong economic growth.

Developing optimism

1960 was called the Year of Africa. This year, as many as 17 countries became independent, most of them from France, but also Belgian Congo and several British colonies gained their independence.

In October 1960, Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah spoke to the UN General Assembly, requesting that all remaining African countries also become independent. Nkrumah’s appeal was followed by a resolution in the General Assembly that established all colonized peoples’ right to independence.

Three years later, the Organization of African Unity (OAE ) was formed. The main purpose of the organization was for all colonies on the continent to gain their independence. The first years after independence were characterized by a kind of political and economic optimism in many countries. This also inspired the rest of the world, including the civil rights movement in the United States.

However, it soon became clear that the newly independent states were facing major challenges. The colonial powers had to varying degrees developed their colonies, and in many countries only to extract natural resources. These natural resources, whether minerals such as gold, oil and diamonds, or agricultural products such as rubber, cotton, cocoa or palm oil, were not processed locally, but the ship was refined to colonial centers in Europe. This kept the former colonial countries in an addiction to the former colonial powers. Because the colonies were largely based on the utilization of natural resources, there was no effort to educate the population.

With large loans, often from former colonial powers, but also from international organizations such as the World Bank, many countries initiated large and ambitious projects. But the projects did not always go as planned and the large cash flow led to corruption and unrest in many countries. In Ghana, which was considered as a guiding star, this led to a coup d’état in 1966.

Liberation wars

Not all countries gained independence without a fight. During the 1900s, several areas had gained a significant European population, especially those in the south, parts of East Africa and Algeria in North Africa. These countries were settler colonies.

South Africa New Leader Ramaphosa

As ANC chief negotiator, Cyril Ramaphosa (right) was central to South Africa’s transition from white apartheid rule to democracy. Here together with the then ANC leader and President Nelson Mandela (left) and former President Frederik Willem de Klerk.

When the rest of the French colonies gained their independence, a bloody war was still going on in Algeria. The war had been going on since 1954 and although France wanted to give Algeria independence, French settlers in the colony opposed it. Algeria finally gained its independence in 1962.

Portugal was not ready to let go of what it called its overseas territories. Since the end of the 1400s, Portuguese seafarers had taken possession of several archipelagos off the West African coast, as well as Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique on the mainland. Instead of gaining this independence, Portugal sent new Portuguese ships to Africa. War broke out in all colonies on the mainland as a result, liberation wars that would continue until 1974. Then Portuguese officers and soldiers, tired of the long-drawn colonial wars, turned against the Portuguese regime. After the carnival revolution in 1974, the Portuguese colonies gained independence in 1975.

For most British colonies, the transition to independence was peaceful. the exception was again countries with a large European population. Kenya had a very special place in the British Empire, and in the 1950s the British defeated the Mau Mau rebellion Kenya. When other British colonies gained their independence in 1960, a conference on Kenya in London was held. Kenya’s European settlers objected to elections being held and independence granted to Kenya. Nevertheless, they eventually had to give in and Kenya became independent in 1962.

A similar development was seen in Rhodesia. Three different areas constituted the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and in 1963 Northern Rhodesia became Zambia, and Nyasaland to Malawi. But in southern Rhodesia there was a large population of European descent. Rhodesia eventually declared self-government led by Ian Smith in 1967, but refused to give the black majority population any political influence.

South Africa had been partly independent since 1910, in 1961 they also gained full independence. But as in Rhodesia, the white minority would not give up power to the majority population. South Africa also controlled South West Africa, today’s Namibia. Here, too, the majority population had no influence. While one country after another gained independence beyond the 1960s and 1970s, the minority regimes in the south of the continent fortified themselves.

After Angola and Mozambique’s independence in 1975, these countries became a kind of front against South Africa and Rhodesia in the south. Towards the end of the 1970s, Ian Smith’s regime ended, and in 1980 Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Now South Africa was left alone, surrounded by a number of more or less hostile states, called the Frontline States, which house guerrilla movements that want to liberate South Africa and Namibia as well. South Africa responded to the threats of meddling in the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, and also militarized Namibia. The superpowers also interfered, the USSR and Cuba supported the frontline states, while the US went in with support for rebels who also received support from South Africa. Thus, the war on southern Africa also became part of the Cold War.

A new and troubled time

During the 1970s and 1980s, much of the optimism that had characterized the first decades of independence disappeared. Despite the fact that large foreign loans were taken up, much of the expected development did not occur. Political unrest and corruption characterized many countries, and in many the military had taken power.

Several places on the continent also suffered long and costly wars. The continent’s borders, stretched by the colonial powers during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, were fixed, but this gave rise to a number of conflicts that threatened to destroy some of the continent’s largest countries. In Sudan, a riot broke out before independence in 1956. Officers from the southern parts of the country feared that elites from the north would dominate the new country. With one stay, between 1973 and 1984, the Sudanese civil war lasted from 1955 to 2005.

In Nigeria, an outbreak of independence broke out in the eastern part of the country, in Biafra. The Biafra War lasted from 1967 to 1970, and was one of the first major separatist wars on the continent. In central Africa, several conflicts broke out in the wake of Congo, which was named Zaïres, independence. East of the country there was an uproar in the resource-rich Katanga, the uprising was followed by a coup in 1965 that brought an officer named Mobutu Sese Seko to power. Both Nigeria and Zaire were ruled by military dictators until the 1990s.

Ethiopia had never been colonized and until 1974 was ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie. By 1974, however, the population had had enough of his ineffective regime. The cause of the revolt against Selassie was a famine, but soon led committees known as Derg an. Inside Dergen, Haile Mengistu Mariam took control. However, after Ethiopia was declared a republic in 1975, dissatisfaction with Dergen grew, not least among its students. The response from the mile-tart committees was purge. At least 2000 were killed during the red terror and many more were tortured. Many Ethiopians fled and later formed a liberation front. a liberation front was also formed in the north of the country, which fought for independence for Eritrea. The latter became independent in 1991, when Mengistu was also overthrown.

Although Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, three different liberation movements continued to fight for power. Angola soon became a battleground in the war on Namibia and South Africa, as the Angolan authorities allowed guerrilla movements from neighboring countries to train and operate from Angola. In the 1980s, international pressure on South Africa grew. The country also suffered a military defeat in Angola, and towards the end of the 1980s talks began with both the Namibian liberation movement Swapo and the South African ANC. In 1989, South Africa agreed to withdraw from Namibia, against the withdrawal of Cubans and Soviets who had participated in Angola’s side in the war there.

After Namibia’s independence, conditions also paved the way for the end of the war in Angola, as well as the end of minority rule in South Africa. The latter succeeded through negotiations that led to South Africa’s first free elections in 1994. In Angola, however, they returned to war after an unsuccessful election in 1992.

Also elsewhere in the continent, old regimes fell at this time. In 1991, the military dictator Siad Barre, who had been in power since 1969., fell in Somalia in 1991, the same year the northern part of the country, Somaliland, declared itself independent. For the rest of the decade, Somalia was at war.

In Rwanda there was also a civil war, and in April 1994 a pressurized regime initiated a genocide. Over 100 days, about one million people were killed, most of them from the Tutsi people group. Those responsible for the genocide fled into the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, driving civilians from the Hutu ethnic group. This again led to unrest in Congo, and three years after the genocide, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed by rebels from the east. However, this did not stop the war in the Congo where there was now a fragmentation of the belligerent parties. New rebels in the east eventually had support from Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda,while rebel general Laurent Kabila, who now had power in Kinshasa, had support from Angola, Namibia, Chad and Zimbabwe. Sudanese militia was also involved in the war known as Africa’s First World War abbreviated by as AFWW.

In West Africa too, the 1990s were troubled. In Liberia, dictator Samuel Doe, who himself had taken power in a coup in 1980, was overthrown in 1989. Doe was overthrown by Charles Taylor, who was immediately challenged by Prince Johnson. The war lasted, with a stay between 1996 and 1999, until 2003. Taylor was also involved in the war in neighboring Sierra Leon e that raged during the same period. The war had erupted in 1991, and lasted until 2002

Many of the conflicts during the 1990s continued because the warring parties had access to large natural resources. In some cases, the wars were also about control of these resources. While warring parties in Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone made money on diamonds, the parties to the war in the Congo supplied minerals such as cobalt and gold. The government of Angola also had access to oil.

While in the 1970s and 1980s Africa was still characterized by military coups and military regimes, many countries introduced multi-party systems during the 1990s. In some countries, as some of the above mentioned, the transition was brutal. In others, the transition was more peaceful.

Africa’s millennium

At the start of a new millennium, optimism was back. In 2002, the Organization of African Unity (OAE) became the African Union (AU). The idea was to create a more dynamic and better integrated political unit on the continent, not unlike the European Union in Europe. While the main objective of the OAE had been full independence for the entire continent, the goal of AU was economic and political development.

This development was envisaged through financial plans such as the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad) and the establishment of its own peacekeeping forces and conflict management mechanisms. Many of the wars that characterized the 1990s also ended in the early years of the new millennium. There was peace in Sierra Leone in 2001, in Liberia and Angola in 2002, the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo took a break in 2003 and a peace treaty was signed in Sudan in 2005. Contributing to stabilizing the situation in Sierra Leone, Liberia, among others. and Somalia were regional peacekeeping forces from Ecowas and the AU. They talked about African solutions to African problems. And in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa a new large headquarters for AU was built.

The optimism was accompanied by strong economic growth in many African countries. In many countries, especially those with large resources, growth was between seven and fifteen per cent during the first decade after 2000. Gradually, some countries without large commodity resources also experienced growth.

At the same time, the continent also experienced a boom of Islamist extremism. Several terrorist groups have operated in Africa, al-Qaeda targeted its first attack on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and al-Qaeda in Maghreb (AQIM) has been behind actions in several countries. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram terrorist group has been behind a series of attacks against the civilian population; in Somalia, al-Shabaab has also attacked targets in Kenya, including a shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013. In North Africa, the Islamic State (IS) has gained a foothold especially in Libya. The collapse in Libya also sparked civil war in Mali in 2013. In Northern Uganda, southern South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the Christian fundamentalist Lord’s army, led by Joseph Kony, ravaged the use of child soldiers, abductions and sexual violence.

Other unrest also continues. In 2011, Africa’s youngest country was created, South Sudan. Two years later, however, in 2013, a new civil war broke out. The civil war also continues in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Somalia. In all these areas and Mali, African forces constitute the main constituent of peacekeeping forces that are in place to stabilize these countries.