Africa: the age of revolutions
A broader view of history reveals Africans to have been decisive actors in shaping global changes, both inside and outside the continent
Anonymous painting of the Lisbon waterfront, late 16th century, known as Chafariz d’ei Rey in the Alfama District. Photo: CREATIVE COMMONS
One big difficulty historians of Africa face is the need to articulate historical changes in African experience through language accessible to a wide audience. Communicating widely means using concepts which are generally understood – yet these are usually Eurocentric, and not ideas which relate specifically to African historical experiences. Specialists have debunked the tired old western myth of African history as static. However, little of this has yet filtered into the mainstream. A good example is the so-called “age of revolutions”, the phrase coined by the historian Eric Hobsbawm to describe the decades between the American revolution in the 1770s and the Paris commune of 1848. Though the idea is Eurocentric in conception, Hobsbawm did recognise that this era also saw immense political upheavals in Africa. However, few historians have followed his lead.
African actors and societies were deeply connected to the Age of Revolutions. The way to approach Eurocentric concepts such as this may be not to discard them, but rather to expand their application to the world far beyond Europe, thus globalising historical concepts that are often used very narrowly. Connections between Africa and the world have been longstanding and usually grounded in reciprocal relationships. Indeed, they were already deep-rooted during the Age of Revolutions; by the late 18th century, many parts of Africa had had global links for centuries. East Africa was initially the best connected. As early as 150 BC, Chinese sources suggest the arrival of ambassadors from what is now Ethiopia. The Chinese connection to eastern Africa was significant. Chinese porcelain and grave goods have been found in Kilwa (Tanzania) and Madagascar from around 1,000 AD, brought by the dhow trade.
Dhows, and then camels, also brought traders from Basra in Iraq to do business in the Saharan region of the Fezzan, a desert region in what is now south-western Libya, in the 13th and 14th centuries. Meanwhile, West Africa did not take long to catch up. The mai (king) of Borno in north-eastern Nigeria first performed the haj to Mecca in the 11th century, and was followed by his successors, most famously by Mansa Musa of the Mali empire in the 1320s. An annual caravan of pilgrims would travel from Mali to Mecca during the 14th century. In the 15th and 16th century, Jolof ambassadors from Senegambia lived in Portugal, alongside those from the kingdom of Benin in southern Nigeria. Looking north, meantime, annual caravans of pilgrims would leave Timbuktu for Mecca well into the 18th century. Thus, by the eve of the American Revolution (1775-83), societies across Africa were globally connected.
Many African rulers had diplomatic envoys placed abroad. From the 16th century, Kongo, in northern Angola, often sent envoys to the Vatican. Dahomey – now the republic of Benin – sent frequent envoys to Brazil and Portugal from 1750 onwards. Borno, an independent Muslim kingdom that existed from the 8th century until the late 19th century, had regular diplomatic ties with the Ottomans in what is now Turkey. African rulers and people both shaped and were influenced by the rising tide of revolutionary movements that spread across the world from the 1770s onwards. Though the American revolution is much more famous, a movement of equal significance crystallised in Arabia during the 1770s. This was the Salafi Islamic reform movement, led by Muhammad ibn Abd al- Wahhāb, which would ultimately lead to the uniting of much of Arabia under the Ibn Saud family. The movement began in the 1740s, bringing in increasing numbers of followers.
By the 1770s, its influence was very strong and new leaders and followers joined all the time, including West Africans. Constant trading and migration to and from northern Africa had long influenced the growth of Islamic communities in West Africa. However, West African Muslims were Sufis, and now their journeys as pilgrims to Arabia brought about a reorientation of Sufi tenets along the lines of the Salafiya movement. In the 1790s, a movement of Islamic reform began in north-western Nigeria, led by a preacher called Uthman dan Fodio. This saw the establishment of the Sokoto caliphate, which dominated politics in the northern half of Nigeria throughout the 19th century. Gradually, an Age of Revolutions spread through West Africa as increasing numbers of people converted to Islam. This was a way of escaping enslavement; Muslims could not be enslaved by Islamic armies. It was also a way of escaping the control of warrior aristocracies practising African religions, who were often deeply embroiled in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This African Age of Revolution was therefore driven by the desire to overthrow an outdated aristocracy – just as the European Age of Revolution. It expressed the aspirations of a growing underclass keen to grasp the opportunities offered by expanding trade, and its desire to escape the influence of the slave traders. Just as there were reciprocal exchanges linking eastern and central Africa with the Mediterranean and Arabia, so were there linking West Africa with the Americas. Dahomey’s diplomatic links with Brazil were grounded in shared trading interests and, increasingly, the flow of Africans back and forth across the Atlantic. By the late 18th century, slaves from Dahomey who had managed to earn enough money to buy their freedom in Brazil began to return to their homeland in West Africa, bringing altered forms of religious practice, music and culinary life. Products from Dahomey such as cloth and kola nuts could be bought in the markets of Salvador da Bahia in north-eastern Brazil.
Many of the Fon people who returned to Dahomey acted as agents and traders in the growing trans-Atlantic trade, which had opened new markets for consumers on both sides of the Atlantic by 1800. Traditionally, historians have seen the connections between Africa and the world in this era as grounded exclusively in the Atlantic and Saharan slave trades. Of course, these were significant. Yet if they are placed in a much deeper context, a much fuller picture of the continent’s history emerges. The growth of diplomatic links, the rise of consumer and trading classes, and also the frustration which these classes experienced at the excesses and corruption of their aristocracies, all led to a wide ranging revolutionary movement, which took hold of much of central and western Africa from 1800 onwards. Thus, Africa was experiencing its own age of revolutions just as the bourgeois revolutions against the European aristocracy were taking hold in Europe and America. The impact of these interconnections grew year by year.
By 1823, military expansion by the Sokoto caliphate founded by Uthman dan Fodio led to the fall of the Yoruba empire of Oyo in southern Nigeria. Slaves rushed to convert to Islam and then attacked the property of their former masters, seeing the new movement as an opportunity to reverse decades of inequality. This in turn precipitated huge changes in Dahomey, which was a tributary to Oyo. West Africa’s revolutionary era was just as much a matter of overturning an old, reactionary elite as was Europe’s. Africa’s 18th century is still often understood as characterised by the violence of the slave trade and a growing inequality in economic exchanges with the wider world. However, a deeper look at the continent’s history shows African actors taking decisive roles in driving forward the revolutionary changes which have come to characterise this period of history as a whole. A broader view of history thus shows Africa and Africans as decisive actors in shaping global changes both inside and outside the continent.
China: the special relationship
Economic and political ties between Africa and China have led to infrastructural development on a monumental scale but their roots go back millennia
A statue of 15th century Chinese diplomat, admiral and explorer Zheng He. Photo: AFP
No one knows exactly how long ago the friendship between China and Africa began but contact and trade between the two can be traced as far back as 202 BC. This relationship deepened in the 14th century during the expedition of Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar and explorer, to parts of Asia. The China-Africa connection was furthered in the same century by the travels of Sa’id of Mogadishu, a scholar who is said to have been the first African to study Mandarin. Besides being a pioneer in the translation of Mandarin to native African languages, Sa’id is credited with playing a role in establishing Somali merchants as leaders in the trade between Asia and Africa. In the 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He, a Chinese diplomat, admiral and explorer, is reputed to have made voyages to the Horn of Africa, passing Ajuran, a Somali empire that commanded the Indian Ocean trade.
Scholars now believe that during his final voyages Zheng followed the coast down to the Mozambique channel, between Madagascar and Mozambique. But while these medieval voyages might have established a strong foundation for relations between the two, it is China’s rapid economic growth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, creating unprecedent demands for resources such as oil and other raw materials, that has undoubtedly underpinned the modern economic, political, and social ties between China and Africa. As Kenyatta University senior economics lecturer Emmanuel Manyasa notes, at no time has the friendship between China and Africa “been more pronounced” than in the 21st century. Kampala-based historian Peter Chemaswet argues that connections were first cemented in the late 1950s, when China signed the first bilateral trade pact with a number of African countries, namely Sudan, Guinea, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria.
More trade agreements were signed in late 1963, early 1964 with at least 10 recently independent African countries, when China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, toured the continent. African signatories included Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The premier’s Ghana leg of his tour was regarded as a particular landmark because the country’s leader, President Kwame Nkrumah, was seen at the time as a champion of a united Africa. “The premier’s tour of Ghana was a strategic move that opened doors for China to warm its co-operation with African countries. It is in Ghana that the China- Africa relationship was actually born,” says Joel Savage, a Ghanaian journalist and author based in Brussels. Zhou’s prime objective in Africa was to elevate China’s profile on the continent, and in a speech in Mogadishu at the end of his trip the premier said China would support revolutionary struggles throughout Africa and fiercely oppose foreign interventions.
The outcome of Zhou’s visit was evident in 1971 when 26 African countries voted in the United Nations with 50 others to recognise the People’s Republic as the only legitimate China representative at the UN, replacing Taiwan, which had held the seat since 1949. The foundation of the current relationship between China and Africa was laid with the Beijing Declaration in October 2000 and the announcement of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) at a conference attended by at least 80 ministers from China and 44 other countries, as well as representatives from 17 international and regional organisations. Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice-President Hu Jintao were all present at the conference. “This is when the serious work that we see today between China and Africa began,” says Hongxiang Huang, the director of China House, a Nairobi-based research think tank he founded in 2014. Since then, China’s relationship with Africa has grown exponentially.
In 2006, at a FOCAC summit in Beijing attended by 35 African countries, the then president, Hu Jintao, rolled out $5 billion concessionary loans to Africa. The president also, as one of the “eight measures” for Sino-African relations, announced the creation of the China-Africa Development Fund to stimulate his country’s investment in Africa with $1 billion of initial funding. In 2009, the year China became Africa’s biggest trading partner, surpassing the US, a FOCAC ministerial conference in Egypt further defined China-Africa relations. At the conference an action plan to deepen cooperation was announced, including a $10 billion low-cost loan, double the amount committed in 2006. An additional $1 billion special loan for small- and medium-sized African enterprises was also established. At the same time, Premier Wen Jiabao announced a debt write-off for poor African nations, the construction of 100 new energy projects and a gradual lowering of custom duties on 95% of products from African countries with which China had diplomatic ties.
Crucially, China said it would ensure that Africa attained a stable food supply and it would provide the continent with modern medical equipment to fight malaria. Trade between China and Africa has expanded at an average annual rate of 20%, from $13 billion in 2001 to $188 billion in 2015. Figures from China’s General Administration of Customs show that in 2018, the country’s total import and export volume with Africa was $204.19 billion. During that period, China’s exports to Africa were $104.91 billion, up by 10.8%, and China’s imports from Africa were $99.28 billion, translating to a 30.8% increase. However, some analysts and observers – and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – have cautioned that China’s economic slowdown and the sharp drop in commodity prices presents a risk for resource-dependent sub-Saharan African countries. The IMF, for example, has advised countries to look at diversifying their economies and reducing their reliance on natural resource exports.
On the other hand, China’s demand for consumer-related resources such as agricultural raw materials and food products has increased, and this focus on agriculture is likely to intensify China- Africa trade. To date, China has acquired 252,901 hectares of land for agriculture in Africa. According to the China Africa Research Initiative, a research programme dedicated to understanding the political and economic aspects of China-Africa relations, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, China has also established 14 agricultural centres across Africa, “taking an increasingly hands-on role in its work and investment related to African agriculture, leasing and developing land”. China is also synonymous with large scale infrastructural investment in Africa, historically epitomised by the construction of the 1,710 km Tanzania-Zambia railway, which was completed in 1976. “China finances one in five projects; it also engages in the construction of one in three mega projects,” observes Luke Mulunda, a finance journalist who runs business today. co.ke in Kenya.
Transport, shipping, ports, energy, power, real estate – encompassing industrial, commercial and residential real estate – are some of the key infrastructural works in which China has invested in Africa. A Deloitte report by Hannah Edinger and Jean-Pierre Labuschagne published in March this year noted that to date China has participated in over 200 infrastructure projects in Africa. They said Chinese enterprises have completed and are building projects that “are designed to help add to or upgrade about 30,000 km of highways, 2,000 km of railways, 85 million tonnes per year of port throughput capacity, more than nine million tonnes per day of clean water treatment capacity, some 20,000 MW of power generation capacity, and more than 30,000 km of transmission and transformation lines”. The China-Africa friendship has also seen an expansion in aid. Currently, China is one of the largest country donors to Africa. However, critics argue that some support has been extended to Africa disguised as aid when in reality it is in the form of loans.
Analysts also point out that some African countries, happy to take advantage of China’s “ready-to-assist” policy – and willing to overlook questionable labour and environmental practices by Chinese business operations in Africa – have ended up choking themselves with loans. “The secrecy that shrouds Chinese operations, and corruption in many African countries, is what has perpetuated this time-after-time interchangeable use of aid and debt,” says Manyasa. According to The Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington DC, China’s loan issuance to Africa has tripled since 2012. New debt issuance by Chinese institutions to African countries has gone up substantially in the past five years, rising to some $5 billion to $6 billion of new loan issuances each year in the 2013–15 period. McKinsey & Company say that in 2015, these loans accounted for about a third of new sub-Saharan African government debt. Most of the loans have been linked to infrastructure projects, such as China EXIM Bank’s $3.6 billion loan to finance the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya.
Ongoing Chinese investment in African infrastructure is in line with its Belt and Road initiative (BRI) announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013. This hugely ambitious transcontinental project aims to revive the ancient Silk Road for the 21st century, improving interconnectivity between Asia, Europe and Africa to increase trade and development along economic corridors – and enhance Chinese influence along the way. Unsurprisingly, therefore, that when China announced a new $60 billion African development fund at FOCAC 2018 in Beijing it was made clear the money would be channelled to projects, including ports, telecommunications, bridges and roads, aligned to the BRI. The John Hopkins China Africa Initiative says in a recent report that “from 2000 to 2017, the Chinese government, banks and contractors extended $143 billion in loans to African countries and their state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Importantly, the report notes, however, that while some government loans qualify as “official development aid”, others are “export credits, supplier credits or commercial, not concessional in nature”. It is in this context that analysts caution that it is up to African governments to ensure that these funds are put to productive use to have the desired impact on their economies. Otherwise, as financial journalist Luke Mulunda says, African countries may find themselves in a serious debt trap, jeopardising their development.
African leadership: the golden age
The continent’s current crop of leaders is more acquiescent than their post-colonial predecessors in dealing with external attempts at unwarranted interference
Former Nigerian military leader Yakubu Gowon had a telling exchange with US President Richard Nixon in 1971. Invited for a state visit, Gowon, according to a recently declassified American diplomatic cable, said he was too busy administering his country. The army general promised Nixon he would consider a possible future visit – but never did. Gowon never visited the US during his nine-year tenure and is the only Nigerian leader not to have done so. When, shortly after his election in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari flew out to meet President Barack Obama even before he had named a cabinet, the Nigerian media did not miss the opportunity to draw a contrast. The Lagos-based newspaper Premium Times lamented the country’s foregone “golden era” of diplomacy. It supported this position with another revelation from declassified US cables.
This time the revelations concerned how, in an effort to protect farmers, Nigeria’s President Shehu Shagari resisted President Jimmy Carter’s bid to sell American rice in Nigeria. The idea of an African leader rebuffing a superpower in defence of his compatriots excites advocates of truly independent African leadership. If nothing else, it is strikingly at variance with the more acquiescent mood of the continent’s current leaders, who these days may require a US or EU visit to validate their mandates. At a time of a renewed scramble for Africa, such diplomatic encounters have triggered questions about Africa’s continued ability to check unwarranted external influence. More importantly, they have led some to ask whether Africa’s era of people-oriented leadership ended shortly after the colonial period. Both questions arise in the context of celebrated leadership figures such as Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, Nelson Mandela, and Thomas Sankara.
“African leadership has changed over the years,” says John Magbadelo, lead director at the Abuja-based Centre for African and Asian Studies. “African leaders [who] emerged from the independence struggles through which they wrenched power from colonial administrations were different in several respects from their military and civilian successors.” In 1969, Africa had just three leaders whose power was based on multiparty elections; by 2018 that number had grown to 43. Within the same period, the number of those who gained power in single-party systems fell from 11 to zero. The number of leaders who came to power through coups d’état also dropped from eight to zero, according to the Brookings Institution’s African Leadership Transitions Tracker. Despite apparent democratic advances, the continent remains beset by leadership problems, mirrored by conflicts, corruption and woeful performance on all key economic and life indicators.
Former lead member of the African Union High-
Level Advisory Group Mehari Maru
Africa’s foreign policy has also become less assertive. Acknowledging the leadership problem, the organisers of the $5 million annual Mo Ibrahim Prize – the continent’s most prestigious award for former heads of state – said they had found no worthy recipient for six years between 2007 and 2017. Many analysts argue that Africa’s leadership problem has lingered for decades, since the pre- and earlier post-independence era, which they see as the continent’s golden age of people-oriented leadership. That period saw leaders confront colonialists, win independence and lead their fledgling nations to early political and economic progress. “The current [generation of] democratic African leaders are spineless because the situation in much of the continent has gone from bad to worse over the years,” Magbadelo told Africa in Fact. “African youths are braving the Mediterranean Sea [each year] in a futile search for greener pastures in Europe because they cannot see any hope for survival in their countries.”
So, how much has African leadership changed over the decades, and how were past leaders able to do better, while warding off unwarranted external influence? Historically, Africa’s leadership problem almost certainly predates the colonial era. In a 2016 paper, “Traditional Leadership and Corruption in Pre-Colonial Africa: How the Past Affects the Present”, Benson Igboin describes corruption during a time when African kings reigned with unlimited powers, and were regarded as God’s representatives. The lack of accountability allowed bad governance to fester, and chiefs were seldom called to account for their stewardship of their kingdoms’ resources. In recent history, the first factor that enabled a more assertive leadership was political. Mehari Maru, a scholar on African governance and former lead member of the African Union High-Level Advisory Group, traces three political phases since the independence era.
These are: the pan-African solidarity era, during which leaders mainly mobilised for the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle; the confusion and division era, when the cold war between the US and USSR led to ideological struggle between supporters of the west and the east; and the period of intervention and integration. The first era, which produced heavyweights like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), was also the most people-oriented. Many leaders in this category asserted the foreign policies of their newly liberated countries in defence of their people. According to Maru, the next era, signposted by the cold war, saw the rise of undemocratic political groups, dictatorial governance styles and bloody political changes through military coups.
It produced dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Houari Boumédienne, Said Barre and Mobutu Sese Seko, who were feared at home and also proved tough for the western world and the eastern bloc. “In a sense, the courage that the military rulers projected onto the global stage was a defence mechanism to assuage their feelings of guilt for displacing democratically elected administrations,” Magbadelo told Africa in Fact. That “courage” faded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the US becoming the world leader. The third leadership era was born under US pressure for political and economic reforms in Africa, which resulted in the rise of civilian leaders. Africa also ceased to be a proxy for either the West or the East, but that neutrality cost Africa its influence. There were signs of deference to the US for the role it had played in the implementation of governance reforms in Africa.
Moreover, most African countries came under structural adjustment programmes facilitated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – western-inspired institutions that shaped the global economy in the second half of the 20th century. “Africa lost its voice,” says Emmanuel Akyeampong, professor of history at Harvard University’s Centre for African Studies. “With only one game in town, African political parties no longer fought over ideology or foreign policy, but over who could better implement structural adjustment and be more loyal to the United States.” It was Africa’s initial lack of relationship with these economic institutions that was the second factor – besides politics – that enabled independence-era leaders to be more assertive and people-centred. The Bretton Woods Institutions – including what would later become the World Trade Organization – were all new organisations in the 1950s and 1960s.
This allowed African leaders, in the first two decades of independence, more autonomy in defining their paths of economic development and governance, according to Akyeampong. But everything changed after 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today’s African leaders are not necessarily weaker than their post-independence predecessors, says Yolanda Spies, a senior research fellow of African diplomacy and foreign policy at the University of Johannesburg. The open defiance of western powers in particular shown by some past leaders was not always an indication of their diplomatic strength, because the cold war afforded many of them opportunities to double-deal with both east and west. Even so, the US cables also show that some African leaders snubbed the imperialist west because they were loyal to the opposite side of the ideological divide.
Another factor in perceptions of these former leaders, Spies argues, was the limited media scrutiny that existed in those decades. This may also have been an advantage, since very little was known about leaders’ public and private lives. “We live in an era of unprecedented media scrutiny. If we had had the kind of 24/7 scrutiny of leaders then, as we have now, we would not romanticise them as much,” Spies told Africa in Fact. Yet, while the political and economic contexts of each of the leadership eras may differ, Akyeampong argues that few leaders in modern Africa have the integrity of their predecessors. To put it another way, if a country’s corruption index reflects the integrity level of its leaders, the results today are not impressive. On average, half of the 20 countries in the world with the highest perceived levels of corruption in the past decade are in Africa, according to Transparency International. “Integrity has become a rare quality in African politics today,” Akyeampong says.
“The first generation of African leaders was patriotic: shaped in the crucible of colonial rule, they wanted better for their new nation states.” Akyeampong recalls a 2018 visit to the widow of Ahmed Sékou Touré, Guinea’s first head of state from 1958 to 1984: she was living in the only home she and her husband ever had in the capital, Conakry. It was also the house where Nkrumah, Ghana’s first head of state, had lived after he was deposed in 1966, until his death in 1972. Touré was notable for leading Guinea to vote “no” in a continent-wide 1958 referendum on whether former French colonies should join the new Francophone community that was being proposed at the time. He demanded outright independence. “The leaders of the first generation were of a different ilk,” says Akyeampong. Former US President John F Kennedy rejected the “socialist” and “communist” labels that were commonly attached to African leaders like Touré, he adds.
“He decided that they were ‘patriotic nationalists’, and what the United States needed to do was to assist them with economic development, [because] these leaders valued the prosperity of their countries over ideology.” With new powers like China challenging the US for dominance in Africa, there are still bright spots of good leadership on the continent, notes Spies. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame continues to be a reference point, as is Botswana’s former president, Ian Khama. Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, helped to end the 20-year war with his country’s neighbour, Eritrea, shortly after taking office, and recently helped to end the standoff between Sudanese security forces and pro-democracy protesters. Meanwhile, more African countries are becoming democratic, and the number of opposition wins is growing and more incumbents are conceding defeat. “That is leadership,” Spies says.
“We saw very little of that in Africa until very recently. It sends a powerful diplomatic message – that leaders value their people, and that they value their institutions.” But more needs to be done with regard to Africa’s foreign policy, says Maru. Kagame is making some effort to assert African autonomy, but his stance is not usual among contemporary African leaders. Perhaps this is because there are considerable challenges in developing a coherent continental approach to foreign relations. In Maru’s view, what is needed is “a pan-African level leadership that could withstand unwarranted interferences from external forces, including the US, China, Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.” But there are considerable challenges in developing a coherent continental approach to foreign relations. The African Union (AU), formed in 1999 with the goal of forging a common front in global affairs while pushing for Africa’s development, has yet to provide such a coherent approach.
First, the AU has no clear foreign policy guiding its dealings with other continents and big countries – unlike the US, China and the EU, which have policies on Africa. Its structure is also seen as too centralised and weak to support effective policy implementation internally to Africa, let alone as regards foreign policy. The regional histories of north, Francophone and Anglophone Africa bring with them different ties with different parts of the world. Also, Africa’s underwhelming economic position, despite its vast natural resources, continues to make it vulnerable in external negotiations. Then there is the complex problem of how ties – in some cases, cultural and religious – between AU member nations and foreign countries sometimes hinder efforts at achieving joint decisions. A recent example is Sudan where military rulers relying on support from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, held onto power despite the AU’s warnings and its suspension of the north-east African country.
After the removal of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir on 11 April this year, the AU initially demanded the restoration of civilian rule within 15 days. Sudan’s military leaders later received a 60-day extension, thanks to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who, as the AU’s current president, rallied a few leaders to support the effort. The AU finally suspended Sudan after 3 June, when the security forces killed scores of protesters and wounded many more. Sisi reportedly tried to block the decision. Sudan has for years relied on its Arab allies for support, especially since losing most of its oil revenues to newly independent South Sudan in 2011. This year, amid the political turmoil, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in half a billion dollars in aid and promised another $2.5 billion, handing a critical lifeline to the country’s military rulers. Africa requires partnerships, not subservience, to succeed, says Magbadelo.
Ultimately, its development will depend on quality leadership and on Africans. “Africa’s vision to attain development does not need the concurrence of any superpower, but the determination of its leadership to implement policies that would institutionalise structures that harmonise and utilise the creativity and productivity of African people for the overall development of the continent,” he says.
Lead director at the Abuja-based Centre for African and Asian Studies John Magbadelo.
African communism: a pragmatic approach
Communism was not a decisive force anywhere in Africa until the cold war made the continent a priority for the Soviet Union
A high level of industrialisation is, according to Marx and Engels, the crucial trait of societies ripe for revolution. Since they first published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, however, these authors have been repeatedly contradicted by reality. In later times, communism emerged victorious in circumstances very different from those its fathers envisioned. In fact, a communist revolution gained control of a state for the first time in Russia, a mainly rural and underdeveloped country. Other countries where it later took power were even further removed from the relations of production which Marx and Engels had predicted to be necessary for a proletarian takeover. Many of these countries were in Africa, where communism had a pivotal influence during the 20th century. As in Tsarist Russia, most parts of the continent lacked the masses of industrial workers that had been supposed to be the catalyst for the advent of a classless society.
Africa’s masses weren’t proletarians with “nothing to lose but their chains”, as Marx and Engels said of the workers they thought would want to free themselves of the capitalist yoke. Instead, communism gained prominence in Africa through state-directed action based on geopolitical interests. Until the beginning of the cold war, Africa’s exposure to Marx and Engels’ theory came through a tiny minority in countries with white European groups. “The first appearances of communist ideas in Africa were introduced by European workers in newly industrialising colonies with a significant concentration of settlers,” writes Edmond J Keller in a 2017 paper, “Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa”. In most African countries, it was of almost no consequence. In the metropoles, communism was outlawed or demonised by the authorities, who feared change at home and in the colonies.
Meanwhile, most European colonial societies were dominated by government officials, landowners and industrialists who were reluctant to consider the need for change – and who were certainly hostile to revolutionary change. Early Marxists in Africa often enlisted in the struggle secretly and at great personal cost. The four countries mentioned by Keller as having a significant communist presence were South Africa, Algeria, Egypt and the Sudan. This was particularly the case in South Africa. The British colony at the southern tip of the continent was arguably the most autonomous and dynamic colonial territory on the continent. Energised by diamond and gold rushes, its white society soon became a well-established, vibrant community with a sizeable working class employed in the mines and other industries. It was in this context that left-wing trade unions and ultimately the South African Communist Party (SACP) were born and achieved notable muscle.
Ethiopian President Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam (R) makes a V-for-victory sign as he stands with Fidel Castro (C) and Raul Castro (L) during an official visit to Havana, Cuba, in April 1975. Mengistu took power in 1977 after a coup. Photo: PRENSA LATINA / AFP
This strength did not at that stage result in the advancement of black people’s rights. The 1922 Rand Rebellion saw the party and its allied trade unions protesting a relaxation of the colour bar on the mines, a measure which would have resulted in lower salaries for white workers. Nevertheless, communism was not a decisive force anywhere in Africa until the cold war made the continent a priority for the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted to win the continent in the battle for global hegemony with the US-led capitalist bloc. At the time, some African countries had just become independent or were about to, and there was a strong need for a sense of direction and economic support. So Moscow stepped in. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah became a Moscow protégé. He put in place socialist inspired policies and aligned his country with other international actors hostile to the West.
More importantly, Nkrumah’s potent symbolism as Africa’s first black post-colonial leader was a tremendous asset for the Soviets in their contest with the Americans for worldwide cultural influence. Not without American resistance, the Kremlin repeated this approach with other freshly-installed black nationalist presidents. Moreover, the Soviet Union began arming, training and sponsoring insurgent movements fighting western colonial dominance and the capitalist white regime in South Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Soviets did not focus on the oppressed masses; rather, they wooed members of local elites who had been educated by missionaries or who had achieved so-called évolué status in French territories. It was this thin layer of the population that produced African activism for equal rights. Early forms of the struggle against discrimination and injustice around the continent were far from the revolutionary positions they would become from the 1960s.
Many liberation icons – among them Nelson Mandela and other major figures in South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) – were professionals who came late to the socialist discourse for which they are known today. Their struggle was not against capitalism as such; rather, they wanted to end discrimination and open the door to prosperity for masses of fellow Africans who had been deprived of their rights. In their early stages, many liberation movements shared this liberal, reformist approach to change. Their leaders were, after all, aspiring bourgeoisie. In retrospect, we can ask: why did they let themselves be seduced by an ideology that rejected everything they cherished and yearned for? According to Keller, African leaders at the time made alliances with their Soviet and Chinese backers “primarily because they offered material support to the movement or dominant party in a regime, rather than being based on a clear and consistent acceptance of the guiding ideology of either the western or communist partner”.
Supporters of the pro-communist Ethiopian
Workers’ Party wave in front of a huge portraits of the founders of “scientific socialism” on 13 September 1987 in Addis Ababa, on the 13th
anniversary of the Ethiopian revolution led by Haile Mariam Mengistu. From left: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Mengistu set out to create a socialist state in Ethiopia aligned with the communist bloc.
Photo: ALEXANDER JOE / AFP
FRELIMO leader and future Mozambican president Samora Machel acknowledged this in the early 1970s, when he described the major communist powers as “the only ones who will really help us”, according to a 1973 report by Michael Calvert on “Counter- Insurgency in Mozambique” in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, too, alluded to what one could describe as the “minginess” of the support from liberal democracies for Africa’s quest for freedom. Shortly after his release, he gave short shrift to criticism from Miami of his visit to Cuba in 1991. Responding to attacks on his praise for a non-democratic leader, Fidel Castro, he said: “Who are they to call for the observance of human rights by Cuba? They kept quiet for 42 years when human rights were being attacked in South Africa.”
He noted that some countries had “suddenly” become keen on the ANC as its accession to power got closer. Arguably, many members of African liberation elites might have wanted to see their countries become capitalist, liberal societies. But some of the liberal democracies were former colonial powers that had denied Africans the freedoms their citizens enjoyed at home. Some communist powers, among them the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and Cuba, moved in to fill the void, offering a plausible vision of full citizenship and human dignity. And, as we know, the Americans worked to counteract their influence. The Soviet and American interventions in Africa occurred mostly behind the scenes. As the cold war heated up, proxy conflicts proliferated around the continent, of which the Congo crisis in the first half of the 1960s is a relevant example.
Perhaps the only direct involvement of any communist country in Africa was the Cuban intervention in Angola, where it deployed military forces between 1975 to 1990 to keep the Marxist regime in power and repel an anti-communist military campaign of the apartheid government. Its mission in Angola only ended when Namibia became independent. The presence of Cubans in the former Portuguese colony made an indelible impression on many Africans. The solidarity of that enterprise, which was widely perceived as selfless, is still hailed in the region today. Perhaps more extraordinarily, many who lived and worked with Cuban personnel – not only in Angola, but in other African countries to which Castro sent military and civilian missions – were inspired by the Cubans’ lack of racial prejudice and the naturalness of their interaction, at least by colonial Africa’s standards.
The Angolan writer Adriano Mixingue, who studied on the Caribbean island, described the Cubans he met at home as “hardworking, friendly, fair and fun” and being “popular and well-liked”. Apart from Moscow, the other great pole of communist power in the world was Beijing. Maoist China aimed at challenging Soviet hegemony in Africa and exerted its own influence through means similar to those employed by the Kremlin. Mao Zedong’s third-world nationalism and his own experience of non-conventional guerrilla warfare made him a popular example among members of several liberation movements. Mao’s quest for relevance in Africa was especially successful in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, “two countries where different aspects of the Maoist repertoire were applied with particular vigour through the late 1960s and 1970s,” writes Julia Lovell in her book Maoism: A Global History (2019).
Replicating Maoist practices such as rural collectivisation, nationalisation and the use of violence to support a leader’s absolute authority had disastrous results in Africa, as they had in China itself – among them famine in Tanzania and “one party-thuggery and economic calamity in Zimbabwe”, the author notes. Soviet-type policies brought a comparable authoritarianism to other African countries. A marked example was that of Ethiopia under dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. He is believed to have killed half a million people during the “red terror” campaign of 1977 and 1978. Combined with a persistent drought, Mengistu’s social engineering involved extensive nationalisation and the state seizure of all land, and it caused a famine that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the mid 1980s. As highlighted by academic William Gumede in a 2017 article, African liberation movements were often “structured along variations of Soviet Marxist-Leninist or Chinese communist party lines with a powerful leader at the head”.
African liberation movements “were organised in a top-down, secretive and military-like fashion” that concentrated “power in the hands of either the leader or a small group”, writes Gumede. It was a pattern they maintained after assuming government. The price of having undemocratic regimes as a model is still being paid on a continent that has a deficit of democratic culture.
Protesters try to topple a giant “socialist realist” statue of Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on 23 May 1991 in Addis Ababa, two days after the departure of Ethiopian pro-communist strongman Mengistu Haile
Mariam into exile. Photo: JEROME DELAY / AFP
African history: quo vadis?
Newly emerging African histories in the 1950s and 60s served as an antidote to the views of imperial and colonial historiography
Undated picture showing a school in Bingerville, former French Ivory Coast. In 2006, then French President Jacques Chirac sent a hotly-disputed comment on the “positive role” played by France’s colonial history to the country’s constitutional council, its highest judicial body. The article was inserted into legislation which said that school curriculae should “recognise the positive role of the French presence overseas”, particularly in north Africa. Photo: AFP FILES / AFP
African history has gone through many incarnations as an academic discipline. Most recently, there’s been a global turn in African historiography. This shift has been prompted by a greater awareness of the powerful forces of globalisation and the need to provide an African historical perspective on this phenomenon. This has helped to place the continent at the centre of global – and human – history. It’s important to explain the role of Africa in the world’s global past. This helps assert its position in the gradual making of global affairs. As an approach, it’s a radical departure from colonial views of Africa; it also complements the radical post-colonial histories that appeared from the 1950s and 1960s. And it may offer another framework for thinking through the curriculum reform and decolonisation debate that’s emerged in South African universities over the past few years. Afrocentric history emerged strongly during the 1950s and 1960s, in tandem with Africa’s emergence from colonial rule.
Newly emerging histories served as an antidote to the pernicious views of imperial and colonial historiography. These had dismissed Africa as a dark continent without history. But demonstrating that Africa has a long, complex history was only one step in an intellectual journey with many successes, frustrations and failures. The 20th century ended and a new one beckoned. The 21st century brought new sets of challenges. South Africa euphorically defeated apartheid, and the decolonisation project that started during the 1950s in west and north Africa was completed. These achievements were overshadowed by a horrific post-colonial genocide in Rwanda. Another genocide loomed in the Sudan. Coups, civil wars and human rights abuses stained the canvas on which a new Africa was gradually being painted. Africa’s woes were deepened by the emerging HIV/AIDS pandemic.
State driven, pro-poor policies and programmes founded during the early post-colonial period atrophied. This decay was driven by hegemonic global neo-liberal economic policies, and the study of history on the continent took a knock. Student numbers declined as post-colonial governments shifted their priorities. Global funding bodies focused their attention on applied social sciences and science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Nearly two decades into the new century there’s been another shift. The subject of history, alongside other humanities disciplines, is attracting growing attention aimed at averting their further decline. This can be explained in part by the subject’s own residual internal resilience and innovative research in newer areas of historical curiosity. There’s an emerging interest in history as a complementary discipline. Students of law, education, and political science are taking history as an additional option.
In South Africa in particular, history cannot be easily ignored, although it is contested. The country is still redefining itself and charting its new course after decades of apartheid and colonialism. However, a great deal of newer interest in history as a subject can be ascribed to university student movements. These movements have garnered greater public attention for ongoing debates about decoloniality and decolonised curricula. Decoloniality is a radical concept. Its main aim is to degrade the coloniality of knowledge. In South Africa, the decolonisation movement has been tied to bread and butter issues: tuition fees and access to higher education. Decoloniality affords both the language and the reason for seeking to dismantle what are regarded as western and colonial systems and structures of knowledge production and dissemination. But while decolonisation is riding a wave of academic interest, the histories of pre-colonial Africa are receding as an area of primary research focus.
A police officer looks on as Congress of South Africa Students (COSAS) demonstrate in support of the Fees Must Fall movement in Sandton, South Africa, in September 2016. Student protests spread around the country, with police firing rubber bullets at demonstrators on campuses in Johannesburg and Grahamstown as unrest over tuition fees roiled universities across the country. The wave of protests was triggered by a government announcement that universities would set their own fee increases. Photo: MUJAHID SAFODIEN / AFP
The histories of resistance to colonialism continue to resonate with current struggles for transformation and decolonisation. They have long been popular among historians in and of Africa. Indeed, several social and political movements have used decolonial interpretations of African history as their currency. However, questions continue to be asked about the kind of history curriculum that should be studied at university level at this moment. And what are the purposes of such curricula? Is an African history module a necessarily transformed one? What new conceptual and methodological tools should be deployed to describe and explain colonial encounters from a decolonial lens? What modes of ethics should inform such approaches? The challenges go beyond the conceptual aspects of decolonisation in the domain of African history.
There are historical structural formations, hierarchies and tendencies within academia that are rooted in coloniality. These make it a huge challenge to articulate newer forms of knowledge. At the same time, decoloniality should operate through other forms and frameworks. This will allow it to find application beyond its own self-defined frames. In addition, new approaches should challenge received wisdom and develop new kinds of curiosity. Newer curricula should, for instance, grapple with the fact that there is no single Africa. A unitary model of Africa is a colonial invention. Ordinary people’s identities form and evolve via multiple networks and knowledge forms. An Africa approached from its diverse histories and identities could help forge new, purposeful solidarities and futures.
A student holds a placard reading “Fees must fall” in Cape Town, October 2015, during nation-wide protests against fee hikes at tertiary education institutions. Similar protests were held at other universities around South Africa at the time. Many students said higher fees would further prevent poorer black youths from accessing a university education. Photo: RODGER BOSCH / AFP