Since the first European discoveries of Africa in the 16th century, the continent has been caught in a tug-of-war between the great powers, primarily European. Even after it gained independence in the middle decades of the last century, it found itself facing international superpowers such as the US and the former Soviet Union. It was not until the rise of China towards the end of the last century that Africans managed to emerge from beneath the white man’s domination.
Africa became a “global” question, from the Western perspective, in the late 19th century when the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) divided up the continent among the European colonial powers. The partition process was a European bid to alleviate tensions between the European countries, but to the Africans colonialists are colonialists wherever they come from.
At that time, there was no major international power that could help the Africans to free themselves from European colonial rule. Ethiopia was spared because of its difficult mountainous terrain, and so was Liberia in West Africa, founded in 1847 by African-American former slaves in realisation of their dreams to return to their African roots.
Barely had the European powers come to terms with each other over the question of the African continent than the Boer War erupted in South Africa in 1899. This marked the beginning of the drive for South African independence from Britain, which ultimately succeeded in 1910 but led to a racist apartheid system that excluded and oppressed the indigenous inhabitants of the country.
Just over a decade later, in 1922 Egypt obtained formal independence from British rule. However, its attempts to acquire greater leeway by playing on Franco-British differences were of little benefit to it, and it did not attempt to play on differences between the British and the German or to side with the Nazi government in Germany when this rose to power. It did not approach the former Soviet Union either, apart from concluding a limited number of bilateral trade agreements, meaning that in the period before the July 1952 Revolution Egypt accomplished little in generating serious change in the balance of power.
In order for this to happen, Africa had to wait until the early 1950s when the Egyptian Free Officers Movement launched the 1952 Revolution. There soon followed the beginnings of an even larger transformation with the creation of the group of Non-Aligned Nations (Egypt, India, China, Yugoslavia and Indonesia) and the Czechoslovak (in reality, Soviet) arms deal with Egypt. Now it was not only Egypt that wanted change. Ghana under president Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea under president Ahmed Sékou Touré also turned to the former Soviet Union for economic assistance and arms in 1957 and 1958, respectively.
Egypt, Ghana and Guinea had no choice but to reorient themselves towards the Soviet Union. The western, in particular American, door had been slammed in their faces with regard to the economic assistance they needed in order to overcome the problems of the first years after independence. Perhaps the West wanted to discipline them after they had attained their independence or to deter other countries from pursuing liberation projects.
If so, this failed to work, and by 1960 one African country after another had attained its independence. In 1960 alone, 17 newly independent states emerged, of which 13 were former French colonies, one was a former British colony (Nigeria), and another was previously Belgian (the Democratic Republic of Congo or Congo-Kinshasa). Also among these 17 were Cameroon, formerly divided between the French and the British, and Somalia, divided between the British and Italians.
Many of these countries were also attracted towards orientation to the former Soviet Union, though as things turned out economic and cultural ties with the former colonial powers proved stronger than high hopes or inclinations.
By the end of the 1960s, 15 more countries in Africa had gained independence, leaving only 12 under colonial rule. Most of these were island states or southern African countries ruled by Portugal or Spain or countries under apartheid rule, such as Rhodesia and South Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese colonies won their independence in the 1970s after the collapse of the fascist regimes of Francisco Franco (1976) and Antonio Salazar (1978) in Spain and Portugal, respectively.
It took Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) until 1980, and Namibia and Eritrea until the 1990s (1990 and 1993, respectively) to gain their independence. South Sudan acquired independent statehood in 2011.
Africa and the world
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Although dozens of African nations had left-wing or socialist outlooks in the years after independence, most swung between left and right during the Cold War period. Military coups, civil wars and famines were the prime causes of the shifts, and these could propel political leaderships to abandon allies and ally with adversaries virtually overnight.
Ethiopia under its emperor Haile Selassie was the cornerstone of the Western presence in East Africa in the 1950s and 1960s in order to counter Egypt’s pro-USSR orientation. Accordingly, Siad Barre, the leader of the military junta that came to power following a coup in Somalia in 1969, felt it appropriate to turn towards Moscow. But when Selassie was overthrown by a communist-leaning officer, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in 1974, Barre had no choice but to reorient his country westwards towards Washington in order to counterbalance the new regime in Ethiopia.
Uganda was another East African nation that swung back and forth between Moscow and Washington. Under president Idi Amin in the 1970s, Kampala was vehemently anti-western, whereas under its current president, Yoweri Museveni, it became an ally of Washington in spite of the early socialist outlook of Museveni’s regime.
By contrast, Tanzania and its ally Zambia remained close to Moscow and Beijing for decades, and Kenya remained firmly in the Western camp from the day it won independence to the last days of the Cold War.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Belgium, the former European colonial power, was determined to prevent the country from turning eastwards under its post-independence president Patrice Lumumba. A coup was hatched, Lumumba was overthrown and executed, and Kinshasa was enlisted as a close ally of the West.
The situations in West and Central Africa were little different. In spite of the presence of Nkrumah in Ghana and Sékou Touré in Guinea, Soviet influence in the region fluctuated, and its actual presence was limited to only a few countries such as Guinea and Benin. Western influence predominated and remained constant in Senegal, and, with British and US support of its generals, it also remained constant in Nigeria throughout the Cold War.
To the south, Angola joined the Soviet camp after its independence from Portugal in the 1970s, but the rest of the Southern African countries were not inclined to the left as a general rule. In North Africa, Egyptian influence was strong in Libya throughout the period of the late Muammar Gaddafi, as it was in Algeria after its independence from France. Tunisia and Morocco remained close to the West.
For the most part, political and economic influences governed the fluctuations in the eastern versus Western orientations of the African countries. With the rise of military juntas coming to power through coups in the late 1960s, relations with the superpowers were often determined by governmental crises. Even left-wing governments often hastened to reconcile themselves with the Western powers when they faced economic straits, civil wars or famines.
In Sudan, Jaafar Nimeiry (1969-1985) swung from the political left to the political right and then to Islamism over the course of various crises. When he faced a communist rebellion, he appealed to Egypt for help after the latter had reoriented itself from Moscow to Washington.
When Nimeiry’s economic programme in Sudan collapsed in the mid-1970s, he mended fences with traditional forces in the country that he had long branded as “reactionary.” After civil war broke out in the south of the country, he found his main source of support in the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, which through its leader Hassan Al-Turabi imposed Islamic law in Sudan in September 1983.
Other countries similarly shifted course for pragmatic political reasons. This became a predominant characteristic of Mali under Moussa Traoré, and even Algeria largely abandoned its socialist outlook following the end of the Cold War.
But in spite of such fluctuations, almost all the African countries adopted leftist or socialist social policies in the years after independence, including free education, free healthcare, large-scale government and public-sector employment, social insurance and other such initiatives. In part this was due to popular pressures and in part to the influence of such leaders of the continent as Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Egypt, Nkrumah, Sékou Touré and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania.
Yet, the Africans themselves remained often divided between governments, socio-economic elites and the vast majorities of their countries that strained beneath enormous difficulties. Governments in these countries needed help, but they wanted the kind of help that would not impose conditions, especially pertaining to democracy, human rights and transparency.
Africa and the world
ENTER CHINA: This has opened the door to large-scale Chinese investment in Africa in recent years.
Since the construction of the so-called “Copperbelt” Railway, or the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA) Railway linking Zambia to the port of Dar Al-Salam in Tanzania, China has been very present in African development politics. Beijing helps for economic reasons that do not include the desire to improve the democratic climate on the continent, and Beijing itself has come under Western pressure in this regard.
Some members of the African socio-economic elite, accustomed to cultural and economic relations with the West, are uncomfortable with the new orientation to China that does not exact a price for the aid it offers because they had previously benefited from Western pressures on African governments. As for the broader segments of the population, they want their governments to meet their demands for social services and employment opportunities, many of which are available in the Chinese projects.
The Chinese presence in Africa has also attracted India, Brazil, South Korea and Russia to the continent, these offering many African governments the prospect of more favourable contracts, its elites greater diversity in economic interests, and its popular classes more extensive services. At the same time, the greater involvement in Africa of the emergent powers has driven the former colonial powers, among them France, to resume projects that had been shelved since African independence in the 1950s, including railroad projects.
The experience of inter-African tensions and warfare against the backdrop of left-wing versus right-wing political orientations has also given rise to a desire to unify in the face of the major powers. This trend began to be seen in African support for single candidates at the UN, for example, and in collective stances against attempts to blockade any single African nation, as occurred in the case of Libya in the 1990s.
However, African unity is far from complete, and there have been sharp divisions over the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC), most of whose current cases have to do with African countries, for example, including investigations in Darfour in Sudan, in Uganda, and in Liberia. While some African countries have called for the continent to withdraw from the ICC Protocol, the majority of African nations have rejected this call.
Morocco’s return to the African Union also occasioned some discord when it took place, but in spite of some strong opposition the majority voted in favour of renewing Morocco’s membership.
These examples, both of which demonstrate how the desire for consensus can be turned into action in accordance with a majority vote, raise the possibility of two scenarios in future — either a stronger African union or a disintegrative trend, especially on the part of countries that stand to lose by any majority vote.
But Africa remains generally homogeneous with respect to economic circumstances, even if the spectre of disintegration or even collapse still looms over many African countries. The dream of African unity still remains out of reach, and even on the economic front there is no pan-African rail network in sight or other major collective projects. Politically, few expectations can be pinned on prospects for a genuinely pan-African parliament or a continental court that would have a jurisdiction transcending that of member states.
The orientation towards China economically and to the West politically and culturally prevails as the preferred approach for most African countries. However, this formula still remains untested in certain crucial respects, making its sustainability open to question.