Opinion

Why African independence was such a disaster

Colonialism was worse than people think

When Americans pay attention to Africa at all, it's generally because something terrible is happening. Sometimes it's epidemic disease, other times it's famine, or war, or a refugee crisis.

Yet there was a time not too long ago when Africa was viewed with considerable optimism. After World War II, colonial empires quickly became politically untenable, and European powers were forced to grant their African colonies independence, with varying amounts of haste. Relatively well-prepared nations like Ghana were celebrated across the world as auguring a new era of African independence and prosperity, finally free from Western interference.

Yet for the most part, it was not to be. Political and economic collapse were almost universal, across the continent. Leaders hailed as liberators, like Kwame Nkrumah, curdled into corrupt dictators. What went wrong? Some answers can be found in The State of Africa, a recently revised postcolonial history of the continent, by Martin Meredith.

When considering such a question, it is of course not to imply that Africa is all one country. It's a gigantic, diverse continent, with hundreds of languages, ethnic groups, and cultures. What newly independent African states did share, however, was proximity to each other, a similar recent history, and often similar political conditions. Moreover, the extraordinary resemblance between so many different countries' problems is itself strong evidence of similar underlying problems. As Meredith writes: "Indeed, what is so striking about the 50-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes."

Colonialism's authoritarian, Western-centric legacy

European powers did set up governing structures in most of their colonies (some better than others), but these structures were thoroughly dictatorial. The whole point of a colony is to exert control over another place without the natives' consent, so this was basically unavoidable. This made it extremely easy and tempting for leaders of independent states to resort to repression when political dissent cropped up.

What little economic development colonial regimes did manage was also distorted. They tended to connect colonies to the European center, and not to each other — at independence one could make a direct call to Paris from francophone Africa, but it was impossible to find a train that would travel from Ghana to the Ivory Coast.

Tribal division and hatred

European powers carved up Africa with very little regard to the identity of the peoples living there — even using lines of latitude, longitude, or simple geometric shapes in many places, due to the lack of quality maps of the interior. As a result, many ethnic groups were divided between colonies, or crammed in together with many others.

This presented a problem during independence, for there was none of the mutual trust that underpins the modern state. The arbitrariness of state borders also presented a potential source of discrimination and violent conflict. New African polities, composed of dozens of ethnic groups, had little time to develop a substantive political discourse, so often resorted to tribal politics. With the authoritarian tendency already established, it was a quick road for one group to enrich itself at the expense of all the others.

A toxic political legacy

It turns out that Africans, like people everywhere, tend to despise brutal foreign domination. Thus, it's not surprising that African leaders who threw off the colonial yoke were hugely admired, and tended to win gigantic electoral majorities. But this enabled the authoritarian tendency, and greatly hindered the development of competitive, substantive politics. Many early African leaders, like Nkrumah and Touré, became virtual dictators.

Simple bad luck

New African states achieved independence in the 1950s and '60s, right at the peak of the Soviet Union's international credibility — when it seemed like it might really surpass the United States in economic prosperity and output. This, coupled to the well-deserved suspicion of Western economic models, led to a lot of extremely ill-advised attempts at USSR-style planning and socialism. With the exception of education, these mostly failed utterly. Africa's biggest comparative advantage — in farming and raw materials — also proved troublesome, as commodity prices plummeted in the early '70s, right when African states were running into serious difficulties.

Sheer proximity was also a major problem, as instability in one state tended to spill into neighboring ones.

Continued Western meddling

As economic problems mounted for African states, they often turned to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for help. These tended to prescribe neoliberalism — privatizing state-owned enterprises, devaluing the currency, reducing budget deficits, and so forth — as a condition for help. The policies were sometimes appropriate, sometimes not, but the real problem was that they overlooked the major underlying problem — bad political institutions — and again imposed foreign domination.

However, there were exceptions, most notably Botswana. That is the only country in all of Africa to maintain free and fair elections since it achieved independence in 1966. For 20 years it had the highest growth rate in the world. Perhaps the biggest weakness of Meredith's book is that it doesn't contain much discussion of Botswana, and why it managed to escape all the pitfalls.

Nevertheless, Meredith's book is a solid historical overview. Judging by the title alone, the continent's prospects seem to have improved in the last decade — when it was first published in 2005, the book was called Fate of Africa: From Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair. In the updated version, the subtitle is merely A History of the Continent Since Independence.

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