More than half a century after achieving independence from European colonizers, the continent of Africa remains largely underdeveloped. On the surface, the large-scale poverty, civil conflict, and political corruption experienced by the populace appear as inescapable tragedies despite best efforts for change.
The legacy of colonization is twofold: first, divisive, manipulative institutions and practices continue to contribute to violence and unrest; second, modern nations consciously exercise control over African resources, economics, and politics. Simply put, many countries have yet to escape the grasps of their former colonizers as new foreign powers flock to the continent to install their own systems of extortion. France in particular has guarded its interests within its former colonies relentlessly; meanwhile, China has been accused of neo-colonialist practices for taking advantage of vulnerable African countries through heavy investment to further its economic agenda and gain natural resources.
Importantly, the World Trade Organization provides the platform to restructure trade policy in a way that allows Africa to grow beyond its reliance on raw material exports, though it necessitates a coalition of countries to secure Africa’s economic ascent. Understanding the role of foreign powers in the ongoing economic, political, and cultural turmoil of African countries through the lens of colonialism provides valuable insight through which accountability and change towards prosperity can be envisioned.
In pursuit of allies leading up to the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union used their political power in the international arena to aid African independence. As a result of this pressure along with the growing popularity of African independence movements, many African countries achieved their sovereignty under a United Nations charter, with 15 officially recognized as independent states emerging in the 1960s alone. However, the relinquishment of these countries from the overt hold of colonialism did not result in adequate progress in terms of modernization and development.
With historically destructive colonial practices which reconstructed the African economy to serve foreign powers’ industrialization, pitted ethnic and tribal groups against one another, and carved up the continent by arbitrary divisions, systems of oppression had been far from dismantled when independence was achieved.
These pre-existing challenges aside, shortly after achieving hard-fought sovereignty, African countries were given loans by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which were dominated by their former colonizers. These loans bound developing African countries to extremely high interest rates, which quickly led to debt and the economic strain of these new nations. Neocolonialism in Africa today is largely unaddressed by all parties responsible for the general welfare of developing countries including international organizations, although the multitude of factors involved make this a difficult structural issue to solve.
The term “neocolonialism” was coined by Kwame Nkrumah, the former prime minister of Ghana, who stated that neocolonialism was the last stage of imperialism. This takes form in developing countries’ perceived independence while its status as a developing or underdeveloped country in the world trade system has severe economic consequences, neocolonial powers use military force against less powerful nations, and politicians and other public officials are bribed to serve foreign interests.
Nkrumah reminds us: “although most Africans are poor, our continent is potentially extremely rich.” This statement remains true today, as the natural resources of the continent provide great potential for prosperity. However, it has yet to acquire the necessary ownership of these materials or to be given the trade benefits it deserves. The economies of African countries continue to depend on raw materials and cash crops, the profit of which is severely inhibited by the fact that the world system limits revenue resulting from these products. Colonial powers continue to acquire these goods at cheap rates while flooding African economies with manufactured goods. With such import-oriented economies, African countries have not been able to develop the profitable manufacturing industry which was responsible for China’s industrial revolution and rise as a world power. Research also finds that African governments pay a premium of about 2.9 percentage points more than is macroeconomically sensible or qualified by credit risk evaluations on their loans due to investor bias, which contributes to increases in debt for these countries.
West Africa produces one-third of the world’s cocoa on its own, but this is acquired by foreign manufacturers through asymmetrical trade deals and child labor. Despite that “Arabica” coffee from Ethiopia is Africa’s biggest export good, large Western corporations such as Starbucks benefit much more from the trade than Ethiopian farmers do, selling the coffee at a 4900% markup. British corporations have mining operations throughout Africa, owning collectively $1 trillion of Africa’s resources including gold, diamonds, and platinum. This large degree of control over Africa’s raw material industries held by British companies alone results in mass exploitation benefitting foreign corporations as opposed to the potential economic benefits to African countries.
a. Eritrea and Ethiopia
As for the ongoing political conflicts on the continent which stall good governance and the progress of citizens’ social welfare, much can be attributed to the consequences of European imperialism and/or is exacerbated by modern foreign intervention. Taking the current civil conflict in Ethiopia as an example, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has joined forces with Eritrean Prime Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a regional ruling party in Ethiopia that has challenged the federal government’s power. The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia was never officially demarcated by the Ethiopian Empire and Italy when it colonized Eritrea.
The legacy of Italian colonization remains relevant to today’s conflicts as the border dispute-turned war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998 to 2000 (despite lingering hostility after the official peace deal was signed) took place in the Tigray region, which is why Eritrea sees the TPLF as a common enemy with the Ethiopian government. Eritrea’s military intervention in Ethiopia has contributed further to the violent conflict, displacement, and devastation of Tigray where their soldiers are accused of looting and crimes against humanity. While colonization and neo-colonialism do not excuse violence on the part of African countries, understanding its devastating impact and tendency to cause internal conflict is necessary.
b. Central African Republic
The political instability and humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) are being dramatically worsened by France and Russia, who can be considered neo-colonists due to their self-interested contributions to the civil conflict and corruption of African officials for economic benefits. It appears that the two nations are involved in a proxy war in the country. Recent elections in CAR have sparked unrest as preliminary results of the presidential race declared President Faustin-Archange Touadéra the incumbent whereas former President François Bozizé’s candidacy had been invalidated by the courts days before due to the international warrants issued against him for crimes including torture. Bozizé gained the support of a rebel coalition that took control of towns and interfered with the election by attacking election convoys, removing ballot boxes, etc.
Russian networks support Touadéra whose government has allegedly used foreign aid to benefit his closest allies rather than the country at large, and France supports Bozizé. Russia stands to benefit greatly from CAR and Africa in general as 49% of the world’s arms exports are to the African continent. In exchange for Russian military contractors, valuable raw mineral resources are used to pay for a service few others are offering, but the Russians benefit much more in this trade. From the French point of view, its involvement has more to do with continuing to assert control over its former colonies which is threatened as Russia continues to expand its influence in Africa and beyond. Both countries are playing into each candidate’s desire for influence and power at the expense of the people of the Central African Republic.
African countries today still face staggering obstacles to achieving peace and prosperity. Many have yet to resolve civil conflicts, political corruption, and economic underdevelopment. While we often take the current issues of the African continent at face value, viewing colonization as a lasting alteration of political, economic, and cultural structures within society helps us get to the core of these obstacles. Because the economic prosperity and wealth of today’s greatest powers rely heavily on the exploitation of Africa’s raw materials and labor, these nations will remain intent on continuing to control African countries through neo-colonialism.
It is no minor detail that the international governing institutions with the most power to improve the conditions of African countries from an external perspective, such as the IMF or WTO, are led and heavily influenced by these same exploitative powers. A shred of optimism can be found in that Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first woman and African to be appointed director-general of the World Trade Organization this February, and with her perhaps, comes meaningful reform. Additionally, reallocating foreign aid into building infrastructure, improving education, and maintaining social services, as opposed to straight into the hands of African governments where foreign countries use those funds to gain favor with corrupt politicians, will need to see implementation.