Understanding Africa Today: Part 1


by Fredrick Kasuku (Young Socialists League, Kenya)

[Part 1: This is the first in a series of three articles written by Fredrick Kasuku, an organizer with the Young Socialists League based in Kenya, exploring Africa’s history and current sociopolitical and economic realities.]

I’ve been asked many times whether Africa is a country and which city I am from. Africa is the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent, with a land mass of 30.3 million square kilometers and 1.22 billion people as of 2016.  It has 54 countries divided into five regions defined by differing geographies, languages, economies and commercial blocs. Other than being the probable birthplace of humankind and the infamous Transatlantic slave trade, not much is known about Africa’s civilizations before colonization and its modern history afterward. Understanding Africa’s history is key to understanding today’s challenges and solutions.

Africans know little about their pre colonization civilizations. While Africans may have great national pride, they have little regard or pride in Africa’s common history. Most Africans believe Europeans “civilized” primitive Africans. Our “history” starts in the Savannah forests as “early man,” then jumps into the invasion of the Europeans followed by the slave trade. The narrative concludes that while colonization had its negative impacts, it ultimately created the benefits of modernization that Africa enjoys today. Wiped from the history are the great civilizations of Egypt, Nubia and Swahili [1] that coexisted in mutual respect. Such knowledge of our great civilizations only raises questions about our current condition. If we were not always subservient and weak, then how did we get to our current state?

Knowledge of our history expands our imagination of what is possible within an Africa independent by our own strength and will free us from foreign countries exploiting our natural resources and wealth. The prevailing belief is that our problems are best dealt with at the national level rather than a continental one, making it easy to divide and conquer us. A united Africa could introduce a common currency to replace the dollar. It could keep its natural products in order to industrialize Africa and provide for our needs with simply the surplus being exported. This would free African countries from the yokes of imperialism and neocolonialism.

Before and After the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 (Scramble and Partition of Africa)

Europe’s official colonization of Africa started with the 1884-85 Berlin Conference. Before the conference, Europe’s relationship with Africa was that of a trading partner, not a colonial master. As early as the 15th century, Europeans, especially the Dutch and Portuguese, traded items such as cloth and metals for spices, ivory and gold with west African countries. In 1498, the explorer Vasco Da Gama landed on the Kenyan coast at Malindi and marveled at “cities as fine as all but a few they could have known in Europe” with a “commerce even larger, and perhaps wealthier, than anything that Europe knew.” These cities were flourishing with maritime trade in gold, iron, tortoise shells, beads, copper, cotton cloth and porcelain. By the 1800s, European powers even formed strong trade ties with African chiefs.

Belgium’s King Leopold II sparked the “scramble for Africa.” In 1876, he founded the International African Society to research and “civilize” the continent [2]. In 1878, he created the International Congo Society. While the International African Society served as a philanthropic front, the International Congo Society had more explicit economic goals. Leopold tricked and persuaded the Congo Society’s foreign investors to provide the resources for his secret research in determining whether it was economically worthwhile to colonize Africa.

In 1881, after uncovering King Leopold II’s plans [3], the French dispatched Pierre de Brazza to central Africa into the western Congo basin to raise the French flag over the newly founded Brazzaville (present Republic of Congo). Based on old treaties with Spain and the Roman Catholic Church, Portugal quickly joined claiming this same area. In 1884, it established a treaty with its former ally, the United Kingdom, to block the landlocked Belgian Congo Society’s access to the Atlantic.

Henry Morton Stanley’s exploration and charting of the Congo River Basin (1874–77) removed the last terra incognita from European maps of the continent. British, Portuguese, French and Belgian powers raced to maximize their regions of influence even as they blocked out local minor powers in this scramble for land and resources.

In 1882, realizing the extent of Portuguese control over Africa’s coasts and seeing French penetration eastward across central Africa toward Ethiopia, the Nile and Suez Canal, Britain saw its vital trade route through Egypt and its Indian Empire threatened. Under the pretext of the collapsed Egyptian financing and subsequent riot, the United Kingdom intervened and took over the nominally Ottoman Egypt. This established UK rule over the Sudan, which later became British Somaliland.

In his attempts to find diplomatic solutions to Germany’s frustrated expeditions into Africa, Otto von Bismarck organized 14 countries into the Berlin Conference to establish a protocol for slicing up and taking Africa. The resulting Berlin Act colonized Africa while guaranteeing all nations freedom of trade in the Congo Basin and freedom of navigation in the Niger and Congo Rivers.

The Berlin Act stipulated that to colonize a land, a country had to notify all others of territorial annexation. The process had to be validated through “effective occupation” — planting one’s flag upon the territory, a treaty with a local leader and the establishment of an administration and police to govern and keep order. This principle was important to the European powers in acquiring territorial sovereignty and to determining the limits of their respective overseas possessions — effective occupation, in some instances, settled boundary disputes between colonies.

The conference provided an opportunity for European powers to settle latent inter-European hostilities and create a common accepted process to expand their territories free from conflict. Such process became more urgent given the potential incursion of rising U.S., Russian and Japanese interests in Africa.  

Colonialism was introduced across nearly all the continent except for Ethiopia and Liberia [4].When Africans regained independence after World War II, they inherited fragmented states. The British and French established direct rule by sending their subjects to rule the territories’ legislature, executive and civil administration and indirect rule by controlling pre-existing local power structures.

In southern Africa, Europeans permanently settled in significant numbers and imposed direct rule. In order to thrive in the colonies, they demanded special political and economic rights and protection. Security and prosperity for the settlers depended on economic exploitation and political oppression of the vast African population. Settler colonies included today’s South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia (then Southern and Northern Rhodesia), Angola, Mozambique and Namibia (then South West Africa). Dutch, German and Portuguese settlers colonized these areas. In addition to southern Africa, settler rule was also practiced in the east in Kenya by the British, and in the north in Algeria by the French.


  1. Ancient Egypt was the origin of mathematics and science and the famous pyramids. The Nubia civilization in today’s Sudan is responsible for many of the 255 strong pyramids that still remain today. What kind of technological advancements had these civilizations reached?
  2. The famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley was tasked with this duty.
  3. From 1878 to 1885, Stanley returned to the Congo as an envoy from Leopold with the secret mission to organize what would become known as the Congo Free State.
  4. Except for Ethiopia, which fended off Italian colonialism, and Liberia, which arguably had been established by the Americans in 1824 and later used to settle freed slaves instead of repatriating them, the African continent came under either direct or indirect colonial rule. Eventually, even Ethiopia came under brief Italian military occupation following the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1939).