In one momentous year, 17 nations were freed from European colonial rule

1960: independence takes root across Africa: in one momentous year, 17 nations were freed from European colonial rule

Michael Wines




In the 19th century, intense competition for Africa’s mineral riches led to disputes between several European powers. In 1884-85, European readers gathered for a conference in Berlin at which they divided up the African continent among their countries. No Africans were invited to the conference.


* Ask students why they think the Europeans created borders that were bound to create ethnic turmoil in the future. (Most historians say that the Europeans regarded Africans as inferior and saw no need to respect them. The borders simply recognized European authority in areas in which they already had interests. Note that Africans were not invited to the Berlin Conference in 1884-85.)

* Why, after fighting for freedom from European colonial rule, do you think that in many countries dictators replaced colonial rulers? (One reason is the ethnic divisions in most countries. Another is the absence of democratic traditions.)


* Write a brief essay identifying some of the ways in which the colonial period affects life in Africa today.


* Note that Africans who were hired by Europeans to oversee their colonies often ruled cruelly. Why do you think this was the case?

* Do former European powers have a special obligation to assist in the development of their former African colonies?

* Did America’s fear of Communism in Africa during the Cold War justify its intervention there?


* Ethiopia was the only African country to rebuff European colonization, repulsing Italian invaders in 1806. But 40 years later, the Italians returned, occupying the country until 1941, when the British helped it regain its independence.

* Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, became an independent republic in 1847.


http://africanhistory.about. com/library/bl/blessentials-Independence.htm provides a brief, easy-to-read history of each African country. Click on country names to see their location on the continent, date of independence, and colonial ruler.

At the stroke of midnight on Oct. 1, 1960, at a racecourse outside Lagos, a crisp green and white flag climbed a giant flagpole, replacing the British Union Jack, and fireworks lit up the sky. Tens of thousands of people roared collectively and sang the words of a new national anthem. Nigeria had become an independent nation.

Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, sounded a hopeful but somber note that morning, marking the end of a century of British colonial rule. “Having been accepted as an independent state, we must at once play an active part in maintaining the peace of the world and in preserving civilization,” he said. “We shall not fail for want of determination.”

He might have been speaking for an entire continent. At the end of 1950, there were only four independent nations in Africa. By the end of 1960, there were 27–17 of them set free in that year alone, as Britain, France, and Belgium all but dismanded colonial empires that had subjugated tens of millions of Africans.


European involvement in Africa began in the mid-15th century when Portuguese traders came looking for gold. By the end of the next century, they were trading in African slaves (with many sent to America), but colonization on a large scale didn’t occur until much later. In the late 1800s, when explorers uncovered the riches of the continent’s interior, including diamonds, rubber, and iron ore, the “scramble for Africa” began. In 1885, the European powers carved up the continent: Britain, Germany, and Portugal mostly took southern and eastern Africa; France controlled the west and north, and Belgium got the Congo. By 1900, 90 percent of Africa was under European control.


Colonial rule brought some benefits: roads, railroads, and educational and governmental models that still survive. But it was riddled with abuses. Natives hired to oversee the colonies often ruled cruelly, and direct European control could be even worse: Congo’s first ruler, Belgium’s King Leopold II, boosted production at rubber plantations and mines by ordering managers to hack off the hands of laggard workers.

In addition, the territorial borders created by Europeans—often arbitrarily and without regard to tribal relationships or geographic considerations–are responsible for a good deal of the ethnic turmoil and fighting in Africa today.

After World War II, a broke and ravaged Europe faced increasing demands for freedom from its colonial subjects, including those in Africa. In some cases, independence movements turned violent, as guerrilla fighters attacked colonial governments; in others, African political leaders championed self-determination and rallied support with relatively little bloodshed.

In Nigeria, freedom came gradually: In 1946, Britain acceded to Nigerians’ demands for representation in the colonial government; eight years later, it granted regional assemblies more power, which led ultimately to the end of colonial rule. In 1960, Britain granted independence to Somalia as well; in the next five years, nine more British colonies–Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe among them–also became free.


The French were bogged down in a guerrilla war in Algeria, and had killed 10,000 Africans in a 1955 revolt in Cameroon. Exhausted, they gave up most of their empire: 14 of the 17 nations set free in 1960 were French colonies, including Mali, Niger, and Madagascar.

These changes in Africa played out at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. was intent on thwarting the spread of Communism around the globe, and Africa became the latest battleground.

Many African leaders viewed the democratic West with suspicion, and Communism with an open mind. “We in Africa have had experience of French colonialism, of British colonialism, of Belgian and Portuguese,” one Guinean intellectual told The New York Times in 1960. “We can worry about Russia later. First we must rid this continent of the colonialism that still exists here.”

In Congo, also freed that year, Belgian forces fled in the face of rioting, and the country soon fell into a civil war, during which Col. Joseph Mobutu, the army’s chief of staff, seized control. It was revealed many years later that the U.S., afraid that Congo would become Communist, secretly aided the anti-Soviet Mobutu, who would become one of Africa’s most savage dictators.

Indeed, for many of Africa’s former colonies, freedom’s blessings have been tempered by blood and suffering. The Congo had almost no trained government officials when it became free; most of the post-independence period was marked by brutal repression under Mobutu and vicious wars among tribes battling to control its mineral riches.


Zimbabwe became independent from Britain in 1965, but white rule over the majority black population continued until 1980. Once one of Africa’s top farming nations, it has become one of its hungriest under its autocratic ruler, Robert G. Mugabe.

Sudan, freed by Britain in 1956, has been wracked by civil war for decades, during which 2 million people have died; and ethnic violence in the Darfur region has claimed tens of thousands more lives since 2003.

But there are bright spots as well. A democratic Mozambique is growing rapidly. Mali, after years of dictatorship, has become a resilient democracy. And a decade after it emerged from apartheid, South Africa is increasingly the continent’s model for democracy and its economic engine.

Still, with poverty and disease, including the world’s worst rates of AIDS, plaguing the continent, Africa was the focus in July of the Live 8 concerts and the G8 summit in Scotland, during which world leaders pledged increased assistance.

Many African leaders say that if Africa is to overcome colonialism’s legacy, it must do more on its own to embrace education and modernization so it can compete in the world economy. “Africa is ready,” Turner Isoun, Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, told New Scientist magazine recently. “We are past the stage of just being passengers.”



1. How would you describe the key elements of European colonial rule in Africa? —

2. Art of the following European countries had colonies in Africa except

a Portugal.

b Austria.

c Germany.

d Britain.

3. In 1960, the United States was especially concerned about developments in the African country of Congo. The main concern in the U.S. was that the Congolese would

a embrace Communism.

b break relations with Belgium, their former colonial, ruler.

c take control of the mineral exploration formerly operated by Westerners.

d head up an antiwhite revolution that would sweep the continent.

4. Why did many African leaders view the West with suspicion and Communism with an open mind? —

5. Which statement suggests why the Europeans granted independence to their African colonies in the years after World War II?

a Europe had already exploited Africa.

b Europeans pressured their governments to free their colonies.

c Europe was weak and broke after the war.

d The U.N. threatened intervention if the colonies were not granted independence.

6. Which of the following African countries is increasingly a model of democracy and economic development?

a Sudan

b South Africa

c Zimbabwe

d Liberia


1. Many trade experts say Africa’s agricultural products cannot compete on the world market because countries like the U.S. subsidize their own farmers, pricing Western farm products at levels Africans can’t match. Should the U.S. cut subsidies to American farmers to help the Africans?

2. What did Nigerian official. Turner Isoun mean when he said Africans “are past the stage of just being passengers”?


1. harsh, cruel, uncaring, or similar terms.

2. [b] Austria.

3. [a] embrace Communism.

4. Africans had experience with the colonial rulers; they had no experience with Communism. (Similar wording is acceptable.)

5. [c] Europe was weak and broke.

6. [b] South Africa

Michael Wines is Johannesburg bureau chief for The New York Times.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Scholastic, Inc.

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