Long wait for freedom - (Neo)colonialism in Africa
The exploitation of Africa’s resources by its former colonial powers, which still continues in a different manner, can never be forgotten or forgiven by the African people. To understand how these countries have been successful in ensuring the supply of Africa’s money and resources even after its independence, we need to have a brief look at history.
Despite having 30% of the world’s natural resources and being a leading producer of precious minerals like gold and diamond, the continent of Africa is perceived to be the poorest continent in terms of development. This means that the abundance of Africa has failed to translate into support for its citizens with nutrition, employment and a decent quality of life. Although some sub-Saharan African countries have performed well economically over the years, a significant population of the continent still lives below the poverty line and fights for basic necessities.
The Dark Colonial Years
The colonial history of Africa is rooted in Europe’s greed, exploitation and dehumanization through slave trade. In the late 15th century, the first maritime trading posts were set up by Portugal in West Africa and it soon gained power in the Indian Ocean, dominating the spice trade. However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the country had to face stiff competition from several European countries like Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, France and England, which began settling along the African coast. In the following years, these countries enjoyed control of their trading routes and profited the most from the flourishing slave trade.
Anti-slavery movements began gaining momentum in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century and later in the United States. This led to a fall in human trafficking and slavery. Meanwhile, the colonial powers started moving into the interior parts of Africa in search of arable land to ensure the production of agricultural products for the European Markets. It was during their search when the colonists realized that Africa was blessed with a bounty of natural resources, which they could exploit to fulfill their economic and political aspirations in the middle of industrialization.
The ambition of colonial powers to get control of more and more parts of the continent led to increasing competition and tensions between them. Who should be the master of Africa? To address this pertinent question, the Berlin Conference was held in 1884 under the chairmanship of the then German chancellor Otto Van Bismarck. After rigorous discussion and debate between the 14 nations present at the conference, the partition of Africa was finalized. By 1900, a significant part of Africa had been colonized by mainly seven European powers—Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
This started an era of brutal oppression of indigenous Africans by the colonizers and the quest to bring more territory under control, to drain the continent’s wealth to Europe and consequently, decide the fate of Africa.
Way to a ‘Formal Decolonisation’
The rise of African nationalism, coupled with the Second World War and the Cold War, gave impetus to the decolonization of African colonies. Most Africans were against their colonial overlords for a variety of reasons. They were deprived of political and economic power and subjected to taxes. Their lands were being settled with an influx of foreigners, who further went on to rule and oppress them. They were dehumanized and treated as second-class citizens in their own countries. Moreover, the infamous policy of ‘Apartheid’ which institutionalized racism in South Africa was another reason which motivated Africans to demand self-governance.
In the wake of World War II, when all the European countries had faced severe damages and were trying to rebuild themselves, they were not in a position to hold on to all their colonies. Several Italian colonies gained independence as a consequence. The stage was set for the other colonies undergoing oppression to struggle for Independence.
Under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast), establishes itself as a strong example of how effective resistance under strong leadership can pave the way for a revolution. The Britishers were forced to grant independence to Ghana in1957.
The decolonization of Africa acquired a swift pace in the 1960s. The ‘Cold War’ also played a significant role in this process. In their bid to become a supreme power, both the USA and the USSR tried to weaken Western Europe by funding Africa’s independence struggle. This put more pressure on Europe to give up its colonies. By 1980, almost all African colonies were granted independence.
But was Africa completely free from the shackles of colonial rule? Were African people free to govern themselves in all aspects without any European intervention? Was the continent able to rebuild its economy and ensure its development like other decolonized countries? Apparently, the answers to all these questions are negative.
A New Face of Colonialism
Post-colonial Africa did not suffer a decline in natural resources. Rather, it was in the middle of a ‘human resource crisis’. Europeans never focused on the education and skill development of indigenous Africans. As a result, Africans were far behind in manufacturing skills, let alone leadership and managerial skills. This led to a weakened foundation of industrialization. Corruption levels soared high, especially in politics. All of this was made even worse by the diverse ethnicity and cultures the Africans were divided into.
When Europeans scrambled for Africa, they didn’t pay heed to the numerous ethnicities which existed across the continent. Thousands of ethnic communities, with separate cultures, were clubbed together to form a colony. As a result, there were frequent clashes between different ethnic groups. Politics was also centered around ethnicity when it needed to be focused on development. It can be said that although Africans got independence, they were incompetent and divided to the extent that they found it difficult to govern themselves. Lacking manufacturing and other industrial skills, the people of Africa failed to generate wealth from the ample natural resources still abounding in the continent.
Hence, political instability followed independence in many African countries. After independence, most African countries adopted socialism to revive their economy. But they could not sustain it and the hopes of a better future were immediately shattered. By the mid-1980s, 60% of Africa’s countries had come under military rule. The citizens started to protest against their own leaders for resorting to bad policies and corruption.
The weakened state of affairs in the continent set the perfect stage for the western powers (Europe and the USA) to once again control the continent, this time indirectly. Moreover, several instances indicate how the western powers have played an active role in destabilizing the political systems in Africa to further their vested interests. One prominent example of this is how the United States sponsored a coup in Ghana to overthrow Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah was deposed on February 24, 1966 by the National Liberation Council, which was supported by the CIA. Apparently, the US was keen to remove him from power because of his vision to unite all African countries under the Pan-African Movement.
The increasing Western intervention in African countries was observed by Nkrumah at a very early stage. This is reflected by his use of the word ‘neo-colonialism’ for the first time in his book ‘Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism’. He wrote, ‘The essence of neocolonialism is that the State which is the subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality, its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.’ This definition starts to make sense when we observe the economies of the African countries.
Let’s try to understand how France still receives ‘heavy tax’ from its former colonies in Africa. France had the control of 14 African countries. To enable greater economic integration and administration of its colonies, France created the ‘CFA Franc system’ in 1945, where CFA stood for French Colonies in Africa. The currency of all these colonies was pegged to Franc. However, this began to cause tensions when the countries were left with no option except to continue this system even after independence.
France was in no mood to compromise with the immense resources Africa was supplying to its treasury. So, during independence, it compelled all its colonies to get into a ‘colonial pact’ in lieu of getting the economic backing of the French government to maintain their financial stability. According to the provisions of the pact, the eight West African and six Central African countries were divided into separate monetary units. Both these units would use CFA Franc as their currency and have separate central banks.
Now, both the central banks are obliged to hold half of their foreign exchange reserves with the French Central Bank. Moreover, the currency of these countries has been pegged to the Euro since 1991. So, the countries lying in the ‘Franc Zone’ cannot devalue their own currency, which makes them less competitive for exports. They have to face huge losses and often get into colossal debts.
At the expense of the failing economies of African countries, France has been making great economic profits. This fact was acknowledged by former French President Jacques Chirac in 2008, when he said, “Without Africa, France will slide down into the rank of a third [world] power”.
In recent times, this colonial arrangement has faced severe criticism. The West African countries have now come up with a new currency ‘Eco’, to assert their sovereignty. Although it will remain pegged to the Euro, these countries will no longer require keeping their reserves in the French treasury. Also, the requirement to keep a French Representative as a member of the currency union’s board will end. However, the successful implementation of this initiative still seems questionable.
Lastly, Africa is being looted at the hands of several multinational companies and corporations operating in the continent. They do so by avoiding taxes by shifting their profits to ‘tax havens’ – places with reduced tax rates. All these tactics by MNCs make the African treasury lose billions of dollars every year.
Colonialism has not really left Africa till date. It has continued in a different form and hindered development and welfare across the continent. The continent not only faced a grave economic loss but also faced a loss of its culture and languages. The official language in most African countries is the language of their colonizers – French, English or Portugal etc.
Decolonization of Africa is a testimony to the fact that ‘Independence’ is very broad in its meaning. The indomitable struggle by Africa to gain independence was successful in driving out the colonist forces, but the impressions and influence of colonialism didn’t wash away. Economic stability and ensuring equitable distribution should be the primary goal of these countries. Africa has a long way to go in order to realize freedom in its true sense.
By Hardik Narayan Shukla