History of Africa

Tracing the history of Africa has presented a challenge to historians because of the lack of written records for much of the continent’s past. Until recently most information had come from reports of foreign visitors, traders, and invaders over the last several hundred years. Historians of Asia and Europe, by contrast, have been able to use ancient records to construct accounts of societies that existed thousands of years ago.

Modern scholars have begun to employ techniques from fields such as archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics to fill in the gaps in Africa’s historical record. Their efforts have provided insight into the continent’s distant—and not-so-distant—past and allowed historians to trace broad patterns of development. The research reveals a continent that has long been a source of scientific, social, and political innovation. It also shows that interactions with non-Africans have had a profound influence—and in many cases a destructive one—on indigenous African cultures.


Archaeology has revealed that Africa was home to the earliest ancestors of humans more than 4 million years ago. The first modern humans appeared on the continent about 250,000 years ago. Less known and appreciated until recently are the many new developments that emerged in early African civilizations. These societies began domesticating animals, dividing up work among different specialized groups, and developing urban centers.

Early Food Production and Settlements

Africa is the only place on earth where the herding of animals appeared before the development of agriculture. By about 7500 B.C., people in the western desert of EGYPT had domesticated cattle. Pastoralism became an established way of life long before Africans first planted and harvested grains. Over the next 2,000 years, the practice of herding spread into the central SAHARA DESERT. From there it made its way to the Atlantic coast, into the highlands of present-day ETHIOPIA, and south to the border of Africa’s tropical forests.

It may seem surprising that Africans could raise cattle in the Sahara. However, Africa’s climate has changed considerably. At one time many parts of the Sahara region were well watered, supporting forests and other vegetation. About 6000 B.C., the weather began to change and the Sahara became drier. This process continued for about 4,500 years until North Africa had become mostly desert. During the long period of change, a surprising variety of settlements flourished in the central and southern Sahara.

Scholars originally expected that the economy of these settlements would consist of a mix of fishing, HUNTING AND GATHERING, and some cattle herding. Instead, the archaeological sites show an amazing degree of specialization—different groups concentrating on different activities. Some communities depended almost entirely on pastoralism, others on fishing, and still others on hunting and gathering. The communities also adapted to changing climatic conditions. Pastoralists began to rely on wild grain to supplement their diet, and this eventually led to the development of agriculture. People may have begun to experiment with growing grain crops such as sorghum, millet, and rice in response to the dry conditions that threatened their regular food sources.

These early Saharan settlements did not exist in isolation. Scholars suggest that the various communities formed relationships based on the exchange of goods and obligations. There is even evidence that members of different communities gathered together at certain times of the year. By sharing their resources and skills, they had a better chance of surviving difficult environmental conditions. It may have been that these relationships between settlements played a role in making people feel secure enough to experiment with growing grains.

Southerly Migrations

The drying up of the Sahara forced people living in the area to migrate to neighboring savanna regions in the south. After about 2500 B.C., many pastoral groups made their way into central, eastern, and southern Africa. Herding peoples occupied the highlands of Ethiopia more than a thousand years before farmers appeared there. By about 1000 B.C. pastoralists had spread into the Rift Valley in present-day KENYA, and by 400 B.C. they had reached the border of present-day TANZANIA. Pastoralism also had spread to central Africa by 400 B.C. and to southern Africa by A.D. 200. There is no evidence that these herders attempted to grow wild plants before the arrival of farmers from western Africa hundreds of years later.

South of the Sahara, BANTU PEOPLES developed a culture or set of cultures in what is now southeastern NIGERIA and northwestern CAMEROON. Some scholars think that these cultures could have arisen as early as 6000 B.C. By at least 3000 B.C., Bantu cultures were well developed, with stone tools and the manufacture of ceramics. These early Bantu peoples raised crops and supplemented their diet by fishing, hunting and gathering, and with meat from small herds of domesticated animals.

By 1500 B.C. Bantu-speaking peoples had migrated into the eastern part of present-day Cameroon, and they eventually spread east and south across central and southern Africa. As they migrated, the Bantu began growing grains and were among the first to produce iron in sub-Saharan Africa. The Bantu often lived side by side with the farmers and hunting and gathering peoples who inhabited areas before the Bantu arrived. The use of iron technology did not change the nature of Bantu settlements. They remained small communities practicing a mix of farming and herding.


Although iron technology had little impact on the Bantu cultures, the widespread rise of metalworking revolutionized social development in Africa. The use of metals sped up the growth of specialization, leading to a more hierarchical society and to new ideas about authority. It also played an important role in the development of trade and cities in Africa.

The Spread of Metals Technology

People in ancient Egypt and NUBIA were smelting bronze as early as 2000 B.C. The Greeks and Carthaginians brought iron and copper technology to North Africa sometime after 1000 B.C. and from there it spread southward down the Nile Valley. However, some scholars also suggest that sub-Saharan peoples were already working with metals at about that same time.

The earliest evidence of ironworking in sub-Saharan Africa, discovered in present-day NIGER, dates to about 700 B.C. Copper smelting seems to have begun in the region of present-day MAURITANIA about a hundred years later, although it may have appeared in Niger even earlier. Dates for the earliest iron smelting in East Africa are less certain. Some scholars suggest that the Bantu were working iron in East Africa shortly after 1000 B.C., while others claim that Bantu ironworking appeared much later.

Iron had an immediate impact on African civilization. In West Africa, for example, the use of iron tools helped in the clearing and settling of land in the valleys along the Senegal and NIGER RIVERS, and iron goods from these areas were probably part of the early trade in this region. People quickly realized the advantages of iron over stone. Iron tools allowed new lands to be settled, which resulted in an increase in population. The artisans who produced iron and the people who controlled it acquired new power and authority in their communities.

By about 300 B.C. ironworking technology was well established in the areas of western Africa settled by the Bantu. From there it spread into central Africa and ultimately to eastern and southeastern Africa. Iron artifacts dating from about A.D. 100 to 400 have been found at Lake Victoria, in southern Tanzania, and in southeastern Africa. In these areas the expanding Bantu settlements began to engage in regional trade that included locally produced metals and products from distant lands, such as salt. As these communities became larger and more densely settled, trade networks grew and the first cities began to appear in sub-Saharan Africa.

Complex Societies

By about A.D. 600 urban settlements featuring a hierarchical society, specialized labor, large-scale production of goods, long-distance trade, and complex political organization were appearing throughout Africa. In West Africa, for example, expanding long-distance trade along the Middle Niger River promoted the growth of early urban areas. Many of these were clusters of settlements inhabited by farmers and artisans. Traces of urban centers from about this time have also been found in present-day MALI and GHANA. Despite their complexity, these centers do not seem to have had the kind of centralized political organization usually seen in urban areas. Instead, evidence suggests that authority was shared among members of society.

The situation was somewhat different in southern Africa. For example, in the areas of present-day BOTSWANA and ZIMBABWE increasing prosperity led to the development of large societies divided into different levels. Investigating the sites of stone-built communities, such as Mapungabwe in Zimbabwe, archaeologists have found signs of social divisions based on wealth, often related to the size of cattle herds. Burial sites in these areas also reveal the existence of a privileged group who controlled access to gold, ivory, and imported goods. Coastal towns developed in Tanzania and Kenya at settlements supported by trade networks with urban centers in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. By the late 700s, large urban centers with hierarchical social structures had appeared in many other areas of Africa as well.


Between the early 600s and late 1400s the most important developments in Africa were the arrival and spread of Islam and the development of distinct social and cultural traditions in different regions of the continent. The rise of these regional traditions stimulated trade between different parts of Africa as well as with the outside world. Some of Africa’s most powerful kingdoms and states arose during this period.

The Islamic Invasion

In A.D. 639 Muslim Arabs invaded Egypt, and in less than 100 years they had conquered virtually all of North Africa. It would be some time, however, before Islamic influence spread south of the Sahara. In West Africa, for example, the rulers of Mali converted to Islam just before 1100. From Mali and other kingdoms in the SAHEL region, Muslim merchants and religious leaders carried Islam farther south and set up trading posts. During the golden age of the Mali Empire, which lasted from about 1250 to 1450, much of West Africa came under Muslim political and cultural domination.

Islamic invaders had less success in eastern Africa, where Christian kingdoms in SUDAN successfully resisted Arab conquest until after 1300. However, Arab nomads from Egypt had begun migrating into the northern Sudan before that time, and by 1317 the region was under Muslim rule. Muslim trading networks also spread into eastern and southern Ethiopia, and small states arose throughout the region. By the 800s the Christian kingdom of AKSUM in Ethiopia began a gradual decline, although monasteries continued to spread the Christian faith farther southward. By the early 1300s, Ethiopia’s Christian rulers had created an efficient army and organized a confederation, or alliance, of many smaller kingdoms in the area. This confederation dominated the region until the late 1400s.

Throughout much of eastern Africa, Muslim traders accomplished what soldiers were unable to do—spread their influence and establish outposts of Islamic culture. By 750 the merchants had set up a trading network between the Arabian peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and the East African coast. Sometime after 1000, several Islamic kingdoms arose, and Muslim influence and religion spread throughout the coastal towns. By 1100 an urban SWAHILI culture, consisting of a mixture of African and Islamic traditions, was well established in the region.

Developments in West Africa

Farming populations in western Africa grew rapidly after about A.D. 500, and this had a major impact on the economy of the region. Increased production was accompanied by growing specialization of labor. An extensive commercial network developed for exchanging goods both within the region and with other areas. Food, iron, salt, textiles, and luxury products such as copper, pepper, and gold were traded from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sahara and even as far north as TUNISIA in North Africa.

Accompanying these economic changes were social innovations and political developments. Kingdoms such as Ghana and Kanem appeared in the Sahel region, and independent cities ruled by groups of powerful citizens arose along the Niger River. Within these cities and states, the work people did determined their level in society. In many places this eventually led to a system of fixed castes based on occupation.

Around 750 Muslim merchants from North Africa came to West Africa searching for gold. After their arrival, trade networks in the region expanded and the volume of trade increased. By 1000 all the major centers of West Africa were linked by trade routes, and new cities appeared near goldfields, along the Atlantic coast near present-day ACCRA and BENIN, and in the areas of Hausaland and Yorubaland in present-day Nigeria. Several of these urban centers developed into political capitals, which had a significant influence on the surrounding rural areas. From these urban centers emerged a handful of cultural traditions that eventually came to dominate all of western Africa.

Climate change also had an impact on society in western Africa during this period. The region’s climate became much drier between 1100 and 1500. The change led to the northward spread of the dreaded tsetse fly, which carried diseases affecting both humans and cattle. In response, herders in Senegal began to move eastward to the delta area of the Middle Niger River and then to the kingdom of BORNU near Lake Chad. As the Middle Niger region dried up, many groups headed south, and the seat of political power shifted southward as well. The kingdom of Ghana gave way to the kingdom of Mali, and Bornu emerged as a successor to the much drier state of Kanem.

Eastern, Southern, and Central Africa

Population growth also led to the emergence of newer, more complex societies in eastern, southern, and central Africa between 750 and 1100. These included kingdoms, city-states, states ruled by councils made up of the heads of large households, and communities headed by people of the same age group or clan. The social structure of these kingdoms and states varied. Ritual associations were important in some societies, while others had a hierarchical system based on ethnic groups and social classes. About a dozen distinct cultural traditions developed that flourished in the centuries that followed.

Long-distance trade in eastern Africa, organized by Muslim traders, began in towns along the coast. Gold was the main item in this commerce, which also included slaves, ivory, timber, iron, ceramics, and other luxury goods. By 900 the goldfields of Zimbabwe had become the most important part of the trading network. They were connected to coastal stations farther north and then to Swahili coastal towns in Kenya and Tanzania. By 1200 trade routes had reached into the interior at Great Zimbabwe, the monumental capital city of the kingdom of Zimbabwe. Within 100 years trade started flowing from the coast up the Zambezi River, and trading routes soon reached all parts of southeastern Africa. Although much of the commerce was directed and controlled by Muslims, Islam made no significant impact on the culture of Zimbabwe.

The items exchanged in this growing trade revolutionized agriculture in eastern and central Africa. New crops brought from Asia included sugarcane, taro, cotton, eggplants, plantains, and bananas. The last two had a major impact on social and economic conditions. Introduced to the rain forests of central Africa by 1000, plantains soon became the region’s main staple crop. They provided farmers with food surpluses, allowed them to settle anywhere in the region, and served as the basis for developing trade relations with local people who lived by fishing and hunting and gathering. They had a similar effect in east Africa. The ability to grow groves of plantains led to permanent agricultural settlements, and an abundance of food allowed those settlements to expand and prosper.


The Portuguese were the first Europeans to make extensive contact with the people of sub-Saharan Africa. They visited the Atlantic coast of West Africa as early as the 1440s, seeking gold and spices. At the time most slaves in the Mediterranean region came from eastern Europe. But in 1453, when the city of Constantinople fell to the Turks, this source was cut off. Africa then became central to the SLAVE TRADE.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

The establishment of sugar plantations around the Mediterranean and on islands in the Atlantic Ocean fueled the European demand for African slaves. This demand increased dramatically with the development of plantations in the Americas. West Africa, where local kings had kept slaves for centuries, soon became the center of slaving activity, with Europeans buying slaves from African or mixed-race agents. During the early years, very few Europeans settled in Africa. They conducted most of their business from ships or trading posts on the coast.

The level of interaction between Africans and Europeans varied greatly from one place to another. The kingdom of Kongo, for example, welcomed the Portuguese, adopted Christianity, and even allowed slave traders to live at the royal court. The Kongo kings were major suppliers of slaves until the late 1500s. In contrast, the kingdom of Benin refused to let foreign slavers live in the capital city. They were restricted to a licensed trading center on the coast. During the 1600s Kongo disintegrated into civil war and never regained its former power. Benin, meanwhile, remained an important regional power until almost 1900.

The slave trade had a significant impact not only on African coastal states but also on people far inland. Slaves came from as far away as the central Congo River basin and the BAMBARA states along the Middle Niger River, more than 600 miles from the coast. In all areas touched by the trade, slave raids reduced the number of farmers and displaced rural populations. People who were targets of slave raids often retreated from farmlands to more defensible areas or moved into walled villages for protection. Some scholars suggest that the slave trade contributed to the famines that struck West Africa in the 1700s.

The Arab Role

As the European slave trade developed along the Atlantic coast of sub-Saharan Africa, an Arab slave trade flourished in North Africa, the Sahara, and East Africa. All the Islamic states of North Africa brought slaves across the Sahara from the south, perhaps as many as Europeans exported from the Atlantic coast. The Arab-controlled slave trade to Arabia and India lasted until the end of the 1800s. The economic strength of many of the Islamic states depended on this commerce. However, while many Muslim merchants participated in the trade, Islamic religious leaders gained support among Africans by opposing it.

Elsewhere in Africa the slave trade had less effect on local populations. In southern Africa the arrival of the Dutch in the mid-1600s led to the decline of the region’s indigenous KHOISAN peoples through disease and warfare. Dutch settlers came to rely on slave labor imported from eastern Africa and Asia, but Khoisan people who survived and did not retreat into the interior were also enslaved.

Internal Developments

The period from 1500 to the late 1800s saw major developments take place in Africa that were not related to European or Arab influence. The most important of these was the formation of a number of new states as older ones declined. In 1702 the ASANTE state in what is now Ghana emerged victorious from a power struggle with Denkyera, its main rival. Asante would remain a leading force in West Africa until well into the 1800s. Also in West Africa, the Segu Bambara formed a powerful military state in 1712. Both of these states engaged in the slave trade to secure weapons and goods.

In East Africa several powerful states rose or fell during this period. By 1500 the kingdom of Zimbabwe had declined and was replaced by several smaller states. The largest of these, Mwene Mutapa, exported gold and ivory to distant lands and carried on a lively local trade in salt, iron, copper, and food. A number of states arose in the Great Lakes region of East Africa. North of Lake Victoria the Bunyoro kingdom became the dominant power, while Rwanda emerged as the strongest state in the southern part of the region.

Another influential state in East Africa was Buganda, which stood out in the region because its ruling class was not made up of pastoralists. Another unusual feature in Buganda was that power depended on ability and loyalty to the king, not on birth or heredity. The kingdom grew rapidly during the 1700s by dominating local trade and exporting ivory to the east coast.

Elsewhere in the region, European influence actually decreased as the Swahili cities joined forces with Arab merchants to cut Portugal out of the Indian Ocean trade. The last Portuguese fortress on Africa’s eastern coast fell to Swahili and Arabs in 1698. Farther south the Portuguese attempted to penetrate the interior to gain access to gold from Mwene Mutapa. Granting land to African traders, they created chiefs who owed loyalty to both the king of Portugal and local rulers.

Perhaps the most important change of the period took place in far southern Africa, where the Nguni established states based on both herding and farming in the early 1700s. In time, powerful chiefs strengthened by new military techniques imposed their will on lesser leaders. This process reached a peak after 1818 with the rise of the Zulu kingdom under SHAKA ZULU. The military techniques of the Zulu were soon adopted by neighbors and rivals, who established a number of states from South Africa to Tanzania.


Until the 1800s Europe was primarily interested in Africa as a source of slaves, gold, and ivory. However, Great Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, and most other European nations had done the same by the mid-1800s. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution in Europe created a demand for tropical oils to use as lubricants in industrial machinery. New markets also appeared for African products such as gum, rubber, coffee, and cocoa. European powers began to look at Africa as a place for colonies that could supply these and other items, bypassing local African rulers and merchants.

Effects of the Industrial Revolution

Two developments during the Industrial Revolution had a significant impact on African states. The first was the modernization of weapons after about 1850. Many African states that traded with Europe wanted guns in exchange for their goods. Those with up-to-date weapons had a major advantage over their enemies. One example was Ethiopia, which emerged as a major power in eastern Africa. In the late 1880s, Ethiopian king MENILEK II accumulated many modern guns and trained his troops in their use. Using these weapons, Ethiopia defeated an invading Italian army in 1889. As a result of its victory, European powers officially recognized Ethiopia as a state.

The second major development was a decline in prices for African goods after 1850. Lower prices came partly a result of increased production, which soon outpaced demand. In addition, the opening of the Suez Canal in the 1860s made delivery of Asian goods to Europe much quicker and cheaper. Competition from Asian products contributed to a further drop in prices, forcing African rulers to find other ways to raise revenue. In many cases this meant demanding tribute from the people they ruled or providing slaves to Arabs or to other African states.

The use of modern weapons and financial problems made the 1870s and 1880s perhaps the bloodiest time in Africa’s history. As African rulers faced financial difficulties and struggled to hold their kingdoms together, groups of well-armed men could gain control. For example, the Bornu Empire of central Africa fell to a small force of Arab riflemen in 1897. Civil war plagued many states on the continent at this time as well. Some states, such as Buganda, were able to expand using modern weapons, but many were swept aside or destroyed by internal conflict. This political and economic turmoil made the European colonization of Africa in the late 1800s much easier.

Early Colonial Developments

Only a few European colonies existed in Africa before the 1880s. In South Africa the Dutch had established Cape Colony in 1652. After the British took over the colony in 1806, the original settlers began to move farther inland. The Dutch set up two states—the South African Republic and the Orange Free State—which became known as the AFRIKANER REPUBLICS. Europeans found diamonds in the area in the 1860s and gold in the 1880s. These discoveries led to more immigration and investment, as well as to increased conflict with Africans in the region.

British control of South Africa suffered a temporary setback in 1870 when the Zulu defeated a British army at Isandhlwana. Within a year, however, the British had conquered the Zulu, and many other southern African peoples soon came under their control as well. In 1899 the British attacked the Dutch Afrikaner Republics, and by 1902 they had taken over both states and added them to Cape Colony. Soon afterward white settlers began moving farther north into what are now Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Elsewhere in Africa, European colonization was pushed along by both political and economic factors. The search for raw materials and markets for European-made goods led to increasing European activity in Africa. So did the desire of European nations to increase their power and prestige by establishing colonial empires on the African continent. The rush to gain these empires began in earnest in the 1880s when King Leopold II of Belgium claimed the Congo Basin as his personal possession. The European powers soon became involved in a “scramble” for Africa in which they competed for territory and colonial outposts. In 1885 representatives from several European nations met at a conference in Berlin, Germany, to set out rules for colonization and divide up the African continent. Within 25 years Europeans controlled almost all of Africa.


The Berlin Conference established national borders in Africa based upon the competing claims of the European powers. Africans themselves did not take part in any discussions about the fate of their continent. The legitimacy of many European territorial claims was supposedly based on treaties with local rulers, but these rulers had no say in the future of their lands. At another meeting in Brussels in 1890, European leaders prohibited the sale of weapons to Africans. With Africans thus denied access to modern weapons, European mastery of the continent was assured.

Colonial Boundaries

The drawing of colonial borders at the Berlin Conference had profound consequences for the future of Africa. These boundaries were created without regard for ethnic and linguistic divisions within the continent. In many cases the borders placed members of the same ethnic group in different countries. In others they forced rival groups to share the same land. The difficulty of crossing the new borders affected nomadic herders and hunting-gathering groups, who needed to move about freely to find pastures for their animals or fresh sources of food. The creation of borders threatened the survival of these peoples. It also increased the likelihood that they would come into conflict with settled communities over access to land and resources.

Colonial Economics

The European nations that colonized Africa hoped to exploit the continent’s natural resources for their own benefit. From the start, however, their efforts were hampered by lack of familiarity with Africa and by inadequate funding.

At first, most colonial powers granted European companies a monopoly over the production of resources such as rubber or timber. In return, the companies agreed to build much of the infrastructure needed to extract the resources and bring them to Europe. This included building towns for workers, roads and railroads to ship the goods to port, and harbor facilities to service the ships carrying goods between Africa and Europe.

The agreements between colonial rulers and European companies caused major disruptions in African society. Companies had the right to take over land, remove those who lived there, and deny Africans access to the land’s resources. In many cases Africans were forced to work for the companies for little or no pay, often under brutal conditions.

Hundreds of thousands of Africans died working in mines, fields, and factories, and while building roads and railroads through Africa’s difficult terrain. Despite efforts to control expenses, most of these undertakings were very costly. The large coffee and cocoa plantations set up by European companies, for example, were far less efficient than the many small African farms that produced the same crops.

Despite many years under European rule, most African countries were still very underdeveloped when they achieved independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Few roads or railroads had been built, and most of these served limited areas. Because the European powers saw Africa as a market for their manufactured goods, they established very little industry in their colonies. Instead, African raw materials were sent to Europe, where they were used to produce finished goods that were then shipped back to Africa. African dependence on foreign manufactured goods would contribute heavily to economic problems after independence.

Colonial Politics

Colonial efforts to cut costs were not confined to economic activities. The administrations that were set up to govern African colonies were often understaffed and overworked. European leaders did not want to invest more resources in their colonies in Africa than they could get out of them. As a result, the amount spent on government was limited to whatever revenue the colonial authorities could raise from taxes and fees charged on imports and exports.

With only small staffs to govern their colonies, the European powers developed other ways to maintain control. Britain and France, the most important colonial powers, adopted different strategies. The British kept many traditional sources of authority in place. They relied on existing African leaders to maintain order at the local level and incorporated them into the general structure of colonial government. The French, on the other hand, eliminated local governing institutions and replaced them with councils and other organizations based on French models. In all colonies the rights and needs of the colonial powers and white settlers came before the rights or needs of Africans.

The most drastic form of white domination arose in South Africa, where a highly segregated state began to emerge during the early 1900s. Although white and black populations lived separately in all parts of sub-Saharan Africa, in South Africa that division was backed by law. Under APARTHEID, South Africa’s policy of segregation, nonwhite residents lost virtually all their civil rights, including the right to move freely within the country. Blacks were forced into separate schools, driven out of “white” areas in towns and cities, and made into a permanent underclass with no chance of improving their lives.


Between 1914 and 1945, worldwide economic and political crises— World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II—caused European nations to reduce their investment in African colonies. During this time the first African labor unions and political parties arose to challenge white privileges and white rule. After World War II, the European powers moved to grant more rights and freedoms to Africans. Most colonies achieved some form of self-rule, although final authority remained in Europe. Despite such changes, calls for greater freedom intensified, and during the 1960s most African countries gained independence.

Postcolonial Politics

Following independence most African nations faced serious political problems. Traditional forms of authority had been destroyed during the colonial era, leaving most countries with a system of government inherited from their European rulers. The system, run by a small group of educated Africans, excluded the majority of the population from political power.

The most pressing issue for most African leaders was to build strong central governments in countries with deep racial and ethnic divisions. The boundaries created during the colonial period remained after independence, producing nations composed of rival groups, often longstanding enemies. Struggles among competing ethnic groups and violence marked politics in countries such as Nigeria, Sudan, RWANDA, and BURUNDI. Military leaders emerged as rulers in nations where the army was the only effective way of gaining and maintaining power. In some countries public order broke down completely, and civil war has raged in many African nations since independence.

Postcolonial Economics

African nations have also experienced economic problems in the years since independence. Because of colonial neglect, few countries had the infrastructure needed to support a modern economy. In addition, African economies have been dependent on exports of raw materials such as minerals and agricultural products—items with unstable prices that cannot produce steady income. African nations also have had to import most of the expensive manufactured goods they need from Europe and other parts of the world. The imbalance in trade revenues forced African nations to borrow heavily to finance improvements such as roads, railroads, seaports, power plants, and schools, leaving many countries deeply in debt.

In the 1980s Africa faced a continent-wide financial crisis: most nations were unable to pay back the money they had borrowed. Lenders agreed to forgive or refinance debts if borrowers reduced the size of government and cut back on spending. Doing so, however, left even less money to spend on development and social services. In fact, many of those social services—such as education and transportation—rapidly decline once spending is cut. Most African nations had targeted such services for growth after the end of colonialism, but rising populations combined with spending cuts led to underfunded schools and crumbling roadways and railroads. The inability of African leaders to meet the needs of their citizens resulted in political unrest, leading some nations to use severe measures to control the people. The most brutal regimes often were very corrupt, with leaders stealing government funds and gaining advantages through bribery and threats.

Africa’s Dilemma

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Africa stands at a crossroads. While many developing countries in Latin America and Asia have advanced both politically and economically, most of Africa lags far behind. A number of African nations still face the threat of internal conflict and some, such as SOMALIA and LIBERIA, are so torn by civil strife that their governments have completely collapsed.

Many of Africa’s problems can be traced back to the slave trade and colonial policies that disrupted or destroyed the continent’s traditional social, economic, and political institutions. Modern African leaders now face the challenge of building stable nations on weak economic foundations and governmental structures that are not generally accepted as legitimate by the people.

To solve Africa’s problems and help the continent move forward, its leaders must take steps to repair the damage done by slavery and colonialism. This will almost certainly require the cooperation of the nations that profited from the exploitation of Africa for so many years. Until that occurs, most Africans will continue to be denied the benefits of the independence they won nearly 50 years ago. (See also Africa, Study of; Arabs in Africa; Boundaries in Africa; Cities and Urbanization; Colonialism in Africa; Development, Economic and Social; Diaspora, African; Economic History; Ethnic Groups and Identity; Genocide and Violence; Global Politics and AfricaGovernment and Political Systems; Humans, Early; Independence Movements; Kings and Kingship; Laws and Legal SystemsNationalism; Neocolonialism; North Africa: History and Cultures; Southern Africa, History; Sudanic Empires of Western Africa; West African Trading Settlements; World Wars I and II.)