VII. The Contemporary Period, 1945–2000 > I. Africa, 1941–2000
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Overview)
I. Africa, 1941–2000
AFRICA, 2000 (MAP)
1. Overview
World War II reinforced the importance of colonies to metropolitan economies. Even more than during the previous world war, Africa's reserves of essential minerals—including uranium, magnesium, cobalt, gold, and copper—as well as its agricultural resources, made the colonies crucial to the war effort. The war raised world commodity prices, and Africans actively participated in the expanding colonial economies. After the war, metropolitan governments coveted the huge cash reserves controlled by the colonial commodity marketing boards, which were drawn on for postwar reconstruction in Europe.  1
World War II also spawned the new geopolitical realities of the cold war. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union employed anticolonial rhetoric even as they sought to create informal empires of their own. The Atlantic Charter of 1941 underscored the Allies' commitment to national self-determination. Like Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points following World War I, the Atlantic Charter was not intended for colonial Africans. However, the Chinese revolution, the Malaysian peasant rebellion, and the independence of India provided Africans with important examples of anticolonial and liberation movements.  2
After the war, the British and the French, if not yet the Belgians and the Portuguese, began to think of the eventual decolonization of Africa. Their time horizon was long. Few officials thought of independence for any but the most “advanced” colonies in less than 50 years. As a result, European governments made some important concessions to Africans in terms of representation in the advisory legislative councils, but planning for decolonization was lackadaisical. Central to the European timetable for decolonization was the recognition that colonial powers had not nurtured a managerial middle class prepared to run a modern nation-state. Until the 1940s and 1950s, only a tiny handful of institutions of higher education existed on the African continent. Up to the end of World War II, most primary education and nearly all secondary education was in the hands of missionaries. Whenever they could afford it, Africans sent their children to universities in Europe and the U.S. Thus, the first tangible step on the route of gradual independence was to establish universities in Africa and expand primary education.  3
Planned decolonization hinged on the assumption that European colonial powers would determine the pace of change in Africa; it took no account of the actions of Africans. Instead, the Africans determined the pace of decolonization in Africa. By 1948, waves of strikes by dockworkers, railway workers, and miners swept through Africa. Protests by African veterans and soldiers, who had served the mother country faithfully during the war, shocked colonial administrations. Kwame Nkrumah, a student activist and later an organizer for the Pan-African Congress who had spent half of his life in the U.S. and England, returned home as a political organizer for the United Gold Coast Convention, a moderate nationalist party. In 1949, he led his followers to form a mass political party, Convention People’s Party, which agitated for immediate self-government (although not yet for independence). Mass political parties had also emerged in the postwar period in French West Africa, following the Brazzaville reforms, and in Nigeria, following the Richards Constitution. Mass political parties were slower to emerge in East and Central Africa.  4
Not all African protest and resistance to colonial rule took the form of strikes and mobilization through political parties. The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, which broke out in 1952 and persisted until 1956, reflected the specific outcomes of the economic and political deprivation of Africans within a white settler colony. With economic and political avenues barred to them, Kikuyu took to the forests and launched a peasant revolution informed by ethnic nationalism. The British responded ambivalently at first, then with crushing force. More than 50,000 British troops were needed to contain the small bands of African freedom fighters. The scale of British military involvement worried British strategic planners, who began to understand the high costs of protecting the interests of a handful of white settlers.  5
White settlers were not quiescent during this time of emergent African nationalism. In 1948, the whites of South Africa staged a counterrevolution by electing to power the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party, with a mandate to establish apartheid as a political and economic strategy. The Nationalist victory in South Africa stood in sharp contrast to the postwar imperial policy of gradual implementation of majority rule. The Nationalist victory, however, strengthened the resolve of white settlers in East and Central Africa, in the Belgian Congo, and in Portuguese Africa. Indeed, white immigration to settler colonies actually increased during the years immediately following the war.  6
Black South Africans responded to the Nationalist victory by reviving the African National Congress (ANC). Already in 1944, a number of young intellectuals, including Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Anton Lemebede formed the youth wing of the ANC in an effort to promote more direct action. In 1949, this group had seized control of the ANC and launched it firmly in the direction of civil disobedience, noncooperation, and strikes. The ANC's main tactic was nonviolent direct action, and by 1952 its campaigns had resulted in over 8,000 arrests. By 1955, the leaders were either under arrest and facing a long treason trial, or in exile.  7
In 1956, Sudan, which had been increasing the numbers of Sudanese in the colonial administration, became independent. In 1957, Nkrumah led Ghana to independence (See 1957, March 6). Precisely because Ghana's independence was based on mass political mobilization, it became a model for nationalists across the continent.  8
The 25 years from 1955 to 1980 witnessed the rapid end of European empires in Africa. Only Namibia remained a “trust territory” of South Africa and would become independent only in 1990. Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique became independent in 1975, following 20-year guerrilla wars. Zimbabwe became independent in 1980 in the face of guerrilla advances, the crumbling of white regimes in neighboring colonies, and the economic collapse of Ian Smith's white settler regime, which had unilaterally declared itself independent of Britain in 1965 in an attempt to implement a South African model.  9
Most African nations became independent in the 1960s. Despite the persistence of the recalcitrant white settler colonies still remaining, this was a decade of great enthusiasm and promise. Africans were freed from the shackles of nearly a century of colonialism. They believed that their economies and their cultures would blossom. World commodity prices continued to favor African producers of primary products in the early 1960s. But by the end of the decade, world demand was slowing, and by the 1970s, commodity prices began a gradual descent. The rapid escalation of oil prices drained the little cash reserves remaining in African economies.  10
Independence also ushered in a flourishing of arts and culture. Most dramatic were changes in African music. Of all the arts, music was the most “democratic,” since it was the cheapest and most easily available. The revolution in consumer electronics largely coincided with the independence decades of the 1960s and 1970s and provided African musicians with unique opportunities. Since World War II, West Africa had been the site of important musical innovations involving syntheses of traditional African instruments and idioms with Western ensemble structures and beats. West African Highlife originated in the Gold Coast out of a marriage between local African music and American and British big band sounds. Highlife spread rapidly through the mushrooming cities of the continent. In the 1950s, Nigerian juju music emerged out of a local response to rock 'n' roll. Wide varieties of traditional, history-telling (the art of the West African griot), neotraditional, and modern African music can be heard from the windows or courtyards of houses everywhere.  11
Besides cassette recordings, national radio broadcasting has contributed to the diffusion of both traditional and new forms of African music. Many countries also have annual cultural festivals, which promote both neotraditional and innovative music and dance. Nightlife is often lively in urban Africa, with nightclubs providing opportunities for aspiring musicians.  12
In the nearly complete absence of public transportation in most of Africa, privately owned taxis and vans are the premier form of urban transportation. Elaborate decorations of these taxis are an important popular art form. The exterior walls of shops and kiosks became the canvases of popular representational art, also providing inexpensive commercial advertising. Urban and rural Africans are also consumers of neotraditional African arts. Craftworkers produce objects using traditional tools and techniques, but such art is often used in new ways. Instead of functioning primarily within religious ceremonies, this neotraditional African sculpture is used more widely as decoration. Larger even than the market for neotraditional sculpture is the demand for cloth and clothing. African tailors use locally produced or imported textiles to meet a nearly inexhaustible demand for fashion. Often based on local traditions, these tailors produce couture for the rapidly changing fashion worlds of urban Africa. Weavers, using traditional looms and machine-made yarns, produce cloth for ordinary use and festive occasions. Particularly when incomes are low, cloth provides an inexpensive luxury.  13
The period after World War II also witnessed the flowering of African literature. Most African literature is written in European languages, and the literature in these languages has become widely known throughout Africa and abroad. Written in French, Camara Laye's The Dark Child (1953) fit within the wider négritude traditions celebrating traditional Africa. Some years later, Ousmane Sembene's The Black Docker (1956) and his more widely acclaimed God's Bits of Wood (1960) challenged the romanticism of négritude by depicting the gritty world of urban work. God's Bits of Wood is a historical novel set against the 1947–48 railway strike along the Dakar-Bamako rail line. Sembene also turned to filmmaking as a means of capturing the bitter satires of modern urban life. His early film, Barom Sarett, won a prize at the Tours Film Festival in 1961. Filmmaking in former French West Africa remains a vital form of artistic creativity, and Burkinabe (Burkina Faso) filmmakers are among the avant-garde.  14
A somewhat analogous pattern is discernible among West African anglophone writers. Written on the eve of independence, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1957) reflected on colonialism's rupture of traditional Igbo society. Very quickly, however, the glow of independence faded in the face of the very real difficulties of the 1960s and 1970s. Achebe's satirical A Man of the People (1967) showed politics to be a means of accumulation of personal wealth and a tool for personal vendettas. The Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah's hero in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) represented the impotent rage of independent Africans thrust into a world of sudden, deep decay.  15
South African writers, particularly black writers, could not escape the realities of apartheid. The poet Dennis Brutus wrote lyrical verse juxtaposed with themes of apartheid's oppressiveness. Peter Abrahams and Alex La Guma reflect the thematic shifts over the late 1940s to the 1960s as apartheid more deeply penetrated daily life. Abrahams's Mine Boy (1946) dramatized the harsh world of the South African mines, but closed with an optimistic expectation of nonracial worker solidarity. In the mid-1950s, Abrahams's A Wreath for Udomo (1956) extolled revolutionary struggles. By the time of Alex La Guma's A Walk in the Night (1962), a deep despair had set in. La Guma's South Africa was an urban world of vagabonds, beggars, prostitutes, and delinquents. Even white South Africans could not escape the negative realities of apartheid. Nadine Gordimer's July's People (1981) captured the very real dependency of privileged white society upon impoverished black South Africa.  16
In this world of Europhone literature, the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who had produced major novels in English in the 1970s, made a dramatic anti-neocolonial gesture in the 1980s by writing in Kikuyu, his native language. Claiming that writing in Kikuyu reached a wider audience in Kenya than writing in English, Ngugi wrote both a play and a novel in Kikuyu. Literature in Swahili and in Hausa, for example, have deep precolonial roots. Particularly after independence, significant efforts have been made to produce phonetic alphabets for many African languages. A considerable literature in African languages—including newspapers, magazines, poetry, and school primers—now exists. Plays and local television shows are often produced in local languages as well as in the national European language. Aspiring novelists, however, will continue to grapple with the choice about the language in which they write and the audience they wish to address. In independent Africa, language has a politics of its own.  17
Independent Africans emerged into a world where managed political economies were favored and most initiated ambitious economic development programs designed to modernize their economies as rapidly as possible. Declining world commodity prices played havoc with these plans. Economic mismanagement and ill-advised international loans led to profound balance-of-payments problems. Even for oil-rich Nigeria, mismanagement, corruption, and overly ambitious and poorly designed economic and social development led to the squandering of national wealth. Through much of the West African Sahel, ecological crises in the late 1960s and early 1970s yielded a massive refugee problem, devastated the livestock economies, and added to the general economic woes of the new states.  18
Newly independent African states also proved remarkably prone to political instability. Between 1966 and 1970, waves of military coups and the emergence of one-party political systems firmly ended the early experiments in political democracy. Political instability in Africa owed much to the legacy of the colonial period. Under colonial rule, Africans had few opportunities for training in democratic political processes; they had limited opportunities to pursue higher education; and few had well-developed commitments to the idea of a “nation.”  19
Other factors contributed to Africa's political and economic troubles. Many African politicians saw state institutions as a means for accumulation of personal wealth, which had been closed to most of them under colonial rule. It is not surprising, then, that the military emerged as the most stable “national” institution during this period. Military regimes are rarely noted for their commitment to democratic processes.  20
The Nigerian Civil War of 1967–70 (See 1967–70) represented the prominence of the military in the independence period, the legacy of the ethnic politics of the colonial era, and the remarkable efforts to forge a new federal community in the aftermath of the war. Nigeria, the most populous country of sub-Saharan Africa, came to independence in 1960, administrated by an awkward system of federal and regional governments. The three regional governments reflected the most important ethnic groups: the Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the west, and the Igbo in the southeast. The system was unstable, and federal leadership weak and corrupt. In 1966, a coup instituted a military regime, which appeared to be dominated by Igbo officers. Another coup sought to balance the ethnic composition of the military regime and to divide the three regions into 12 states. These actions infuriated the Igbo of the eastern region, who began a movement for secession. The region's leader, Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, was motivated to secede by the presence of offshore oil reserves in the eastern region. The secessionists called their new state Biafra. When war broke out in May 1967, it pitted two factions of the best-trained military in Africa against each other.  21
The war lasted for two and a half years, perhaps longer than militarily justified because of the role of various competing international groups, including international aid charities, supporting one or the other side. By 1970, about 1 million Biafrans had died, and the Biafran secession was over. The reintegration of the Igbo back into the federal fold of Nigeria was the one shining success of this story. Although Nigeria survived this secession intact, its future as a unified country remains doubtful in the context of growing religious intolerance, persistent economic decline, and the military's refusal to yield to popular democratic sentiments.  22
Civil wars and attendant ecological crises stalked the continent in the decade of the 1980s and continue into the 1990s. Old enmities, fostered by colonial policies, were fueled by mendacious African rulers of independent states. Regional aspirations of neighboring countries and rival superpowers seeking narrowly conceived geopolitical advantages fed civil wars in Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, Angola, Mozambique, Chad, Liberia, and the Western Sahara. Civil wars yielded both refugees and declining agricultural and livestock production, thus creating a huge need for international humanitarian assistance and contributing to the crisis of state power.  23
The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the sustained crisis of inadequate state institutions in Africa, most of which were inherited from the colonial era. Africans voraciously sought higher education, but universities in Africa were badly overcrowded and underfunded. Yet investment in human capital remains crucial for Africa's future.  24
Despite significant advances in public health since independence, poverty and inequality have been on the rise. Increased public health has contributed to long-term decline in African infant mortality rates. Contrary to widely accepted assumptions, African birthrates have not declined as rapidly as expected, thus contributing to severe food shortages and poverty. As African populations have increased, inequalities between classes and between sexes have grown. The gaps in income between urban and rural areas and between high-level government employees and successful entrepreneurs, and the mass of poorly educated, underemployed urban dwellers has increased over the past two decades. Especially in rural areas of Central and southern Africa where male migration is prevalent, women, children, and the elderly have borne the brunt of increased labor and declining standards of living. Women, who have had fewer educational and employment options than men, have been doubly burdened by having to support larger surviving families and increased labor obligations. In regions where clitoridectomy (female circumcision) is practiced, women have significantly increased medical problems.  25
To further complicate the current situation of poverty and inequality, an epidemic of AIDS swept through East and Central Africa. There was intense speculation concerning the origins of the virus, and much more research will be required before any definite conclusion can emerge. AIDS was identified in Africa only in the early 1980s, where it was commonly referred to as “slim” because of the general wasting away of the infected person. Spread largely by heterosexual intercourse, AIDS has spread unevenly throughout the continent, even in the most seriously affected regions. HIV-1 was concentrated in Central, eastern, and southern Africa; HIV-2 was limited to West Africa. It was largely an urban disease. In Lusaka, Zambia, one in four male and female adults had been infected by the 1990s. However, in certain rural areas, including the Rakai District of southwestern Uganda, even higher rates of infection have been documented. Unlike most other diseases on the continent, which affect mostly the very young or the very old, AIDS struck sexually active young and middle-aged adults. There is no doubt that AIDS will have a significant impact on the human capital of the continent. In the Rakai District, the epidemic left a large pool of orphaned children to the care of aged grandparents and eventually to the state. Although AIDS has been found in all socioeconomic groups, the AIDS infection rate among the Rwandan elite and middle class has been disproportionately high. Most African nations have mounted energetic public health campaigns to combat the spread of the infection. Nonetheless, the impact of AIDS on Africa will be felt for generations to come.  26
Despite this bleak situation, Africans have engaged in exciting experiments in political and economic liberalization. The end of white minority rule in Namibia in 1990 and the transition to majority rule in South Africa held out great promise for equity and opportunity for all Africans. The end of the civil wars in Ethiopia (leading to the creation of the new state of Eritrea) and the promised end of civil wars in Mozambique and in Angola were hopeful signs that Africans might turn to political processes to resolve their grievances and that new investment might flow not to the military, but to economic and social development.  27
Despite the anemic world economy of the early 1990s, Africans engaged in shedding state-managed policies, and expensive state enterprises embarked on economic liberalization programs. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund devised programs called “structural adjustment,” which promised long-term benefits but called for devastating cuts in social spending in the short term. A poor economic performer for the past two decades, Ghana emerged as an example of the economic benefits of such programs. On the other hand, studies of Africa's informal economies showed them to be robust, dynamic sectors. Urban areas, which had grown dramatically since independence, have been crucibles for new, informal, smaller-scale enterprises catering to local and regional demand. These informal economies were often many times larger than the formal sectors. Despite the problems caused by lack of services, urban areas also have been sites for experimentation in new forms of community, providing opportunities for changing economic, social, and political processes.  28
The final years of the 20th century saw additional gains for democracy in several regions, but also a proliferation of civil wars in a number of nations. Concerns about poverty and disease continued, particularly in the regions of the AIDS epidemic. United Nations efforts, often in combination with the Organization for African Unity (OAU), persisted, with mixed results.  29
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.