Postcolonial Africa Research Paper

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In 1945 the Fifth Pan-African Congress convened with the goal of ending colonialism in Africa. By 1960 Africa had experienced successful independence movements in several countries, and many military overthrows of government ensued. A general unity has not yet settled on the continent, however. Efforts to build a “United States of Africa” after colonialism have been hindered by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and religious disputes.

After World War II, Africans and those of African descent met at the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in the United Kingdom in 1945, where one of their primary aims was to formulate strategies for ending colonialism on the continent. Several independence movements around the continent were sparked or gained a new momentum as a result of the congress’s activities. By 1960 several African countries had freed themselves of their colonial masters or were actively engaged in struggles to achieve that goal. In the following decades the African continent experienced many political, economic, and social challenges as well as moments of glory that have helped determine its current position in world history.

Impact of Colonialism

Colonialism’s impact on the African continent was dramatic: colonialism was autocratic, and it set up artificial boundaries that privileged certain regions (or ethnic groups within those regions). Colonial authorities exploited the territories they controlled for their mineral wealth, and agricultural potential was poorly developed. This colonial legacy was a huge challenge for the new governments in the early postcolonial period.

The fact that colonial powers had not established democratic governments in the lands they controlled predisposed the newly established independent governments to continue noninclusive traditions of governing. During the colonial era police forces had been used to quell disturbances, put down protests, and arrest political agitators; many of these practices continued after independence. The fledgling independent states did not have the means to address major concerns such as better employment opportunities, housing, and developing adequate health care and educational systems. Often, out of political expediency, the new governments catered to privileged classes or ethnic groups that were the equivalent of mini nations within larger states.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU)

At the core of the idea of a united African continent was the Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah (1909– 1972), the first leader of an independent Ghana. His vision of a United States of Africa took a step forward with the formation of the Organization of African Unity, whose charter was signed on 25 May 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Among the conditions for membership were political independence and government by majority rule. There were thirty charter members, among them Ghana, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Chad.

The general aims of the OAU were to promote unity and solidarity among African states, to respect and defend member nations’ sovereignty and the integrity of their borders, and to promote intercontinental trade. However, the OAU had no real authority over its member states, and the reality was that external forces (notably the United States and the Soviet Union) had significant influence over the various political and economic positions taken by many of the OAU’s member states. While the OAU did use its influence to mediate or attempt to resolve various conflicts on the continent (for example, conflict in Mozambique in the mid-1970s, the Somalia- Ethiopian war of 1977, and civil conflicts in Chad in 1980–1981), it was less successful as the unifying force that Nkrumah had envisioned.

Military Governments

Military takeovers of governments have been a consistent feature of postcolonial African life. Between 1960 and 1990 there were more than 130 coup attempts, close to half of which were successful. By the late 1990s African countries collectively were spending more of their national budgets on military expenditures than on education and health systems combined.

Kwame Nkrumah was ousted from power by the military in 1966; the military retained control on again and off again until 1992. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, was the setting of a violent military overthrow in January 1967 in which the president and several other prominent politicians were assassinated. Subsequent events in that country led to the outbreak of a devastating civil war (1967–1970, also known as the Biafra War). In some cases military leaders assumed power to prevent the total breakdown of the government, and in some cases the political infighting, governmental corruption, and civil unrest the country endured before the takeover were so severe that the population actually welcomed military intervention. This was the case with Nigeria in 1967 when its first coup took place. But although military governments were able to enforce the rule of law, they were no better at addressing issues of poverty, health care, land reform, and employment than the civilian governments they had toppled.

Forging National Unity

Nation building has been a major challenge for modern African nations. Colonial “divide and rule” policies had often privileged one group over another in terms of political power or access to commercial advantages. The period before and after World War II (when nationalist sentiments began to surge) saw the emergence of ethnic (sometimes referred to as “tribal”) associations and unions. In several cases these became the basis of more formal political parties. While the various disparate factions shared the single goal of independence, once that was achieved ethnic partisanship frequently became a stumbling block to national unity. There are close to a thousand different ethnic groups represented on the African continent, and from childhood a people are made aware of their ethnic identity as keenly (if not more) as they are made aware of their national identity.

Ethnic conflicts in the postcolonial era have been routine. Whether it is Yoruba versus Hausa versus Igbo in Nigeria, Kikuyu versus Luo in Kenya, Shona versus Ndebele in Zimbabwe, Zulu versus Xhosa in South Africa, or Hutu versus Tutsi in Rwanda, these conflicts have continued to haunt many modern states. The 1994 Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda led to a genocidal massacre in that country. Political leaders have often actively or subtly exploited ethnic rivalries for political gain. Such is typically the case when resources are limited: political leaders favor one group as a means of maintaining that group’s loyalty and support.

Some countries have used creative strategies to combat ethnic polarization. After Nigeria’s devastating civil war, it began a policy of mandatory national service for its youth. After completing secondary school in their home territory, the participants were required to spend a year performing some service-related activity (such as tutoring younger students) in another part of the country, ideally where they would be exposed to a different language and cultural tradition.

Zimbabwe adopted an innovative strategy in the early 1980s in its creation of Heroes Acres. These stylized cemeteries were created throughout the country to honor those who had died during the struggle for independence. In thus honoring a deceased combatant or hero, the state sought to minimize the polarization that could be caused by different ethnic funerary practices.

One-Party States

One way in which a number of modern African leaders and countries have attempted to combat the persistent problem of ethnic polarization has been through the establishment of so-called single- or one-party state. The theory is that if there is only one political party, there will be less of a tendency for people to divide along ethnic lines, and more emphasis could be placed on nation building and tackling other social concerns, such as economic development. Proponents of a one-party state suggest that when there is just one party, individual talent has the opportunity to rise through the ranks of the party to achieve leadership position and recognition, regardless of ethnicity. Another argument put forward in support of a one-party state is that democracy as it has been described in the West is foreign to the African continent, which traditionally had chiefs, kingdoms, and top-down rule. Prominent post-independence leaders who have spoken persuasively in favor of this “traditional” form of government include Julius Nyerere (1922–1999) of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda (b. 1924) of Zambia. Many African countries that began as multiparty states have become, either de jure or de facto, single-party states: today the majority of African states are one-party states.

The advantages that proponents of a one-party state have touted have not materialized, however. Economically, Tanzania under Julius Nyerere performed very poorly because of his adherence to strict socialist ideology. The one-party systems in Malawi, Zaire, and Uganda were very repressive, restrictive, and even brutal at times. In some cases ethnic loyalties continued to be exploited. Furthermore, because one-party states have a tradition of controlling the media, it is difficult for dissenting views to be heard.

After years of political infighting and dramatic instances of violence in Zimbabwe, the two major political parties—the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU)—emerged as a united single party ZANU (PF) in 1987, thus making Zimbabwe a de facto single-party state. Others political parties were not outlawed, but the power apparatus clearly fell into the ZANU (PF) sphere of control. It was not until the early twenty-first century that a viable opposition party emerged. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) seriously challenged ZANU, which quickly passed laws, instituted restrictive practices, and, according to members of the opposition, engaged in political intimidation to limit its rival’s access to the public and chances for success.

One development took place in Kenya at the end of 2002. After years of de facto single-party rule, the Kenya Africa National Union was defeated in free and fair national elections by the newly formed National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) with a minimum of disturbances. This signified a new direction for Kenya and possibly for other African countries. However NARC rule in Kenya was short-lived, ending in 2005.

Economic Strategies

Throughout the postcolonial period there have been multiple efforts to expand economic cooperation among African countries as a means of countering outside unfair trade practices. In 1967 the East Africa Community (EAC), which fostered cooperation among Kenya, Tanzania (by 1967 Tanganyika had become Tanzania, which also included Zanzibar), and Uganda, was established, but it fell apart a decade later, when disputes between Kenya and Tanzania broke out and Tanzania invaded Uganda to oust Idi Amin (1924/1925–2003). The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was established in 1975 to ease trade among its sixteen member states. Similarly, the Southern African Development Coordinating Conference (SADCC) formed to combat South Africa’s economic dominance of that region. These agreements have not been without problems, however. In the case of ECOWAS, for example, Nigeria has been able to use its power as the country with the largest economy and population in the region to force its will on the smaller states.

Directions and Challenges for a New Century

In 2004, South Africa celebrated its tenth anniversary as an independent African state. Ten years earlier, after years of political and often violent resistance, the African National Congress (ANC) under the leadership of Nelson Mandela (b. 1918) took control of the government. Although Mandela served only one term in office as South Africa’s first president elected by the entire population, he occupied a larger-than-life position throughout the African world.

As Africa’s largest and most prosperous economy, South Africa is poised to lead the rest of the continent. Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki (b. 1942), called for an African renaissance, which he envisioned as a regeneration of African pride, technology, innovativeness, and accomplishment.

The promise of this African renaissance, however, is in danger of being sidetracked by the HIV/ AIDS pandemic, which has the potential to ravage the African continent in the same way the bubonic plague devastated fourteenth-century Europe. How the African continent deals with the pandemic will determine what sort of future awaits the next generation.

The other threat facing the continent is the outbreak of religious violence in various countries. While outbreaks of violence between Christians and Muslims have occurred in Nigeria since the mid-1980s, they have intensified more recently (within the last five years). Efforts to handle these conflicts have been minimum, and the root causes of the disputes have not really been dealt with. In other parts of West Africa there continue to be religious tensions, but they are not nearly so severe as in Nigeria. The World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP; founded 1970), a coalition of representatives of the world’s great religions, has encouraged Christian and Muslim leaders in the region to work together through the formation of organizations such as the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL; 1997), which in 1999 helped bring about the signing of the Lome Peace Accord in that nation. There are many African organizations that seek to address the delicate issue of religious intolerance on the continent. One of the primary aims of the Project for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa (PROCMURA) is the facilitation of constructive engagement between Christians and Muslims. As part of the effort to improve relations, participants have shared gifts and sent greetings and goodwill messages on the occasion of major religious festivals. They have also formed joint committees of Christians and Muslims to address such issues as the implementation of Islamic law in northern Nigeria and to encourage governments to stop making aid and political appointments dependent on one’s religious affiliation. Such efforts represent an African solution to an ongoing challenge in the region.


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