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How Africa Won Freedom

More than fifty years have passed since the great wave of de-colonialisation in Africa. Bill Bonnar was part of the socialist left in Sudan for many years and in this article he looks at how the continent fought for freedom.

In October this year the famous African historian Basil Davidson died at the age of 93. His writings covered Africa’s pre-colonial achievements, the disastrous effects of the slave trade, the negative impact of European colonialism and arguments that post colonial settlements were designed to maintain African countries in a perpetual state of weakness and dependency. He was a thorn in the side of apologists for colonialism and an unstinting supporter of African liberation. His writings also threw light on the whole experience of post-colonial Africa from a Left perspective arguing that most of Africa’s problems stem from the legacy of colonialism and the post-colonial settlement. Fifty one years after Ghana became the first sub-Saharan state to become independent, most of Africa is still waging a struggle against colonialism and imperialism every bit as fierce as earlier struggles.

A common view held by many and supported by much of the British media is that the ‘Africans’ have made a mess of independence. Behind this is a lingering racism about Africans being unable to govern themselves, itself a legacy of the colonial period when this argument was used to justify colonial rule. It is also an argument which harks back those halcyon days of empire when enlightened Europeans brought stability and civilisation to the dark continent. Of course the reality of colonial rule was somewhat different. At all times based on exploitation and brutality the true legacy of colonialism was economic and social destruction, the promotion of racial and tribal divisions, war and human suffering. Africa is still trying to come to terms with this legacy.

World War Two

The end of the second world war was the beginning of the end of colonialism in Africa. The former colonial powers, most noticeably Britain and France, had become too weak to maintain their overseas possessions and by the beginning of the 1950’s there was a tacit acceptance that de-colonisation take place although it would prove a slow and tortuous process. For the colonial powers independence would only be granted to ‘responsible’ African governments. The term ‘responsible’ here meant three things. Firstly, that the economic and strategic interests of the former colonial powers should be protected. Secondly that where there were substantial white settler populations; their wealth and privilege was also to be protected. Finally that in the era of the cold war power should not be handed to liberation movements with dangerous notions of socialism or who would seek alliances with the Soviet Union.


This led to a new era of western intervention in the affairs of Africa; actively trying to shape the future governments of the continent. Wars, sometimes open sometimes covert were waged against genuine liberation movements while compliant ‘pro-western’ forces where encouraged and in many cases simply created. An example of this can be seen in the former Portuguese colony of Angola. A genuine and legitimate mass liberation movement, the MPLA, emerged in the 1960’s to challenge and ultimately overthrow Portuguese rule. The MPLA were a left-of centre political movement supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba. The response of the West was to build up alternative movements; in the North, the NFLA and in the South, Unita. Both these movements had the same character. They were tribally based building on a policy of tribal division and divide and rule first practiced by the Portuguese. They were created by and completely dependent on outside forces; the NFLA by United States through its stooge regime in Zaire and Unita by South Africa. There was little pretence that they saw their role as future ‘nation-builders’, instead, simply to stop the MPLA coming to power. Even after the MPLA emerged victorious and the NFLA was completely routed; Unita continued with a campaign of terror and disruption aimed at making the country ungovernable. This strategy was taken to even more extreme levels in the other former Portuguese colony of Mozambique by the Renamo Movement created and supported by South Africa and the United States. This movement expressed no interests in taking power but instead launched a campaign of terror and economic disruption with attacks on the civilian population and economic and social targets such as power lines, schools and health clinics. Its aim was simply to prevent the political, economic and social development of the country. This same process happened to a greater or lesser extend across Africa severely damaging the de-colonisation process.

Problems of Post-Colonial Governments

The mess left by the colonial powers created immense problems for post colonial governments and included the following;

Economic disruption and under development — Colonialism, while of great economic advantage to the imperial power brought few economic benefits to Africa. Where major development did take place it was only to service the occupying powers. e.g. the development of key ports and transport links to these ports. When African countries achieved independence they inherited economies which were highly distorted with pockets of industry such as mining existing like islands in a sea of underdevelopment. Most lacked the most basic economic infrastructures and communications and needed to build these infrastructures as a pre-condition of economic development.

Irrational borders — A casual glance of any map of Africa reveals the following; a series of very straight lines forming the borders of immensely large countries. Of course, these boundaries where drawn by the former colonial powers with scant knowledge or concern for what was actually happening on the ground. Many of the conflicts which have plagued post-independence Africa have revolved round border disputes which often cross traditional and tribal territories.

Tribalism — Tribalism is the dominant form of societal organisation in most African countries. This doesn’t mean that political, social and economic issues are not important, rather they are often expressed along tribal lines. Most post-independence movements and governments, particularly those led by the Left, aimed to build modern nation states which would rise above tribal allegiances. They faced a formidable task. Encouraging tribal differences, promoting the interests of one tribe over another and ruling in alliance with a particular tribe was one of the key ways in which colonial powers maintained their control. Even, as stated earlier, when the principle of independence was conceded the colonial power often promoted tribally based movements in opposition to genuine liberation movements sowing the seeds of future conflicts.

Cold War — It was the misfortune of Africa that most countries gained their independence against the background of the cold war between America and the Soviet Union. Many liberation movements were left-wing in nature and saw the Soviet Union as a natural ally although they also tended to be fiercely independent and wary of alienating potential good will in the west. This made little difference to the United States who tended to brand all such movements as communist and Soviet stooges and who engaged in a process of intervention which included assassination, economic sabotage, diplomatic isolation and support for pro- western alternatives. This in turn forced some African states to seek alliances with the Soviet Union as a means of off-setting these moves. This was highlighted by the first President of newly independent Ghana, Kwame Nkruma after signing a trade deal with the Soviet Union. ‘At first we approached Britain and America with this deal. They refused because they saw us as communists. Then we approached the Soviet Union who agreed the deal. The response from Britain and America was; ‘see they are communists’. We couldn’t win.’

Intervention and War — Many post-colonial countries have been beset by internal conflicts which have effectively wrecked their plans for political, social and economic development. Some of these wars have been sponsored by the West as in the aforementioned Angola. Others have come about as a result of tribal, land and border disputes themselves often a by-product of colonial rule from the way borders were often drawn and from the tribal alliances forged. When conflict has broken out it usually ended up as a field day for western arms manufacturers, supported by their respected governments. This can be seen from the war in the Congo over the past ten years where billions of dollars of western arms have turned tribal and regional conflicts into a slaughter of World War One proportions.

White Settler Regimes — In almost all colonies the imperial power settled some of its own population to help them run the country. These formed white elites with wealth, position and lifestyle unmatched by anything they could have achieved at home. Invariably racist they believed that they were superior to the natives and would bring civilisation to the dark continent. How they managed to square this with the open brutality and exploitation of colonial rule is worth a study in itself. When the process of de-colonisation took place these elites often became bastions of reaction resisting this process, often violently. In some cases such as in French occupied Algeria they went on a campaign of destruction even attempting to burn down the capital Algiers before they left. In others such as Rhodesia they seized power and continued to misrule the country for another 16 years. The irony is that most post-colonial regimes such as in Kenya came to an accommodation with these elites and allowed them to live their lifestyles very much as before.

Given all these problems it is no wonder that the post-colonial period has been littered with problems. It is also clear that some of the problems have been self-inflicted. A by-product of the need to accommodate the economic interests of the west is that many countries became corrupted by the emergence of black elites happy to serve the interests of their former colonial masters as long as they became enriched in the process. Ambitious plans for modern nation building often descended into regional and tribal conflicts as governments clung to power in the face of the of the multi-layered problems outlined above. Plans to turn the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) into an effective buffer against what the late Tanzanian President, Julius Nyere called, ‘the predatory west’ never came to much. And yet within the programmes of almost all the early national liberation movements is the road map to take Africa forward to a much more prosperous and stable future and ultimately to socialism.

Those ideas which informed much of the thinking of early independent states such as Ghana and Tanzania, the programmes of the MPLA and Frelimo and the Freedom Charter of the ANC all had common themes. These could be summed up as follows;

1. That the aim would be to build strong, modern, secular nation states which would rise above tribal, regional and religious differences.

2. A commitment to Pan-Africanism; strengthening the economic and political links between African states for the mutual benefit of all.

3. An economic strategy that puts the welfare of people first and has at its heart the bringing into public ownership of the natural resources of the country.

4. A policy to bring health and education to all citizens with a particular emphasis on improving the lives of women.

5. A belief that all the above were the essential building blocks for a new socialist society.

It has been the failure to effectively implement this kind of programme which has led to the demise of many African states and the problems which are today so common. Yet programmes and policies along these lines are more valid today than ever. There needs to be the emergence and growth of political movements that can recapture that combination of radicalism and idealism which so informed these earlier movements. Only through them will African states shake off the legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism which has so blighted the continent.