Understanding Africa Part II: From Colonialism to Neocolonialism
Written by Fredrick Kasuku (Young Socialists League, Kenya)
Edited by Dae-Han Song (Chief English Editor) and Stephanie Park (Editor)
There were two reactions to colonial rule in Africa: collaboration, and resistance. In the beginning, when European intentions were less clear, people sought to avoid death and destruction by cooperating with one set of Europeans as protection against other European aggressors. As most of these collaborators were betrayed and colonized, European intentions became clearer and collaboration changed to resistance. Years later, uprisings would defeat colonial rule only to usher in neocolonial rule and imperialism.
African collaboration with Europeans was carried out through diplomacy, adaptation and alliances, almost always in exchange for military support and wealth. Ultimately, however, most collaborators were betrayed and colonized. If we look at the example of my country, Kenya, in the western part, the King Nabongo Mumia of the Wanga community was easily swayed to support colonization through promises of political ascendancy. Before the Europeans came, the Luhya tribe (which King Mumia belonged to) traded in harmony with the Luos, Kabras and Ababukusu people. However, when the British fought to subdue the Luo, Kabras and Ababukusu, all of whom were resistant to colonization, King Mumia sent his warriors to fight alongside the British. The reason? The British had promised him the title of paramount chief of all the Luhya people in exchange for his loyalty. Of course, King Mumia never attained such title. In 1920, the British declared the Republic of Kenya a colony: the monarchy ruled Kenya, and there was no need for a paramount chief.
Countless versions of this story repeated throughout Africa during the early days of colonization. In modern day Kenya, Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga of the Agikuyu supplied food and water to European traders in exchange for continued self rule and greater wealth for his people. However, once the Agikuyu put down their guard, they were raided and colonized, and their leader was captured, imprisoned and killed. In modern day Zambia, Paramount Chief Lewanika of the Lozi people collaborated with the British to get protection from his enemies and learn from Western knowledge, hoping that knowledge would help his people and society. He signed treaties with the British without a clear knowledge of the conditions. Under the pretext of helping him establish a better model of government, the British set up a colonial administration ultimately stripping Lewanika of his powers.
When it became clear that collaboration would not stop colonization, Africans commonly used local movements to resist Europeans. In 1929, in Nigeria, Igbo women protested the Warrant Chiefs (native people appointed as representatives of the British) for restricting women’s role in government, seizing property, imposing harsh local regulations, and imprisoning those who spoke out against them. Women would target a Warrant Chief by “sitting on” him, effectively harassing him into compliance. As a result of these protests, a new political system was put in place; warrant chiefs were replaced by “massed benches” where judges were elected by villagers. This inspired many other protests by the Igbo such as the Tax Protests of 1938, Oil Mill Protests of the 1940s, and the Tax revolt 1956. Few resistance movements were as successful as the Igbo, and those that achieved independence usually did so by establishing African proxies that ultimately betrayed the local movements and maintaining the colonial structures of administration.
Factors that lead to Independence
While social and political turmoil contributed to Africa’s independence “from the inside,” external factors also played a major role. One of the most important external factors was World War II. European colonizers used Africans to fight the Axis Powers. Those Africans that went to fight had been promised equality, justice and self determination. After the war, when these promises were not kept, they took up arms against the white colonists. In addition, war made the Europeans intensify their colonial exploitation in mining and agriculture to supply their soldiers. This furthered unrest in the colonies.
Another major factor was the emergence of the USSR as a global socialist force. Russia supported decolonization to popularise Socialism in the newly formed independent African countries. Many liberation movements were inspired by the Russian Revolution. For example, the Russian revolution inspired nationwide resistance in Egypt in 1919 that defeated the British occupation. In South Africa, the Russian Revolution inspired independence activists yearning for freedom and independence. Later, the Russian Revolution swept across other Sub-Saharan Africa, in part due to the diplomatic, financial and military aid of the Soviet Union, especially in French- and Portuguese-speaking colonies. The Marxist-Leninist People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) took power following Angola's independence from Portugal in 1975, with military support mostly from the USSR and its socialist allies.
The final major external factor was the rise of the USA. The United States had emerged relatively unscathed from both world wars. During the war, they had supplied the Europeans with war material through the Lend-Lease Act. After the war, the USA came up with its “open door trade policy” to export manufactured goods and to invest in high-opportunity markets worldwide. Their need to access Africa led to their support for the decolonization of Africa. Furthermore, decolonization allowed the USA to spread its capitalist ideology to counter the USSR’s socialist influence.
Struggle for Independence - and Beyond
African nations acquired “independence” from Europe starting in 1957 with Ghana all the way until 1980, when Zimbabwe gained official independence. In some countries, African people educated in Europe returned to negotiate sovereignty while armed guerrillas fought from the forests. In others, political parties came into power lifted up by urban protests. Eventually, deals were signed between the Europeans and the national elites, disbanding all liberation movements. Instead of returning the land or redistributing wealth to the people, most of it was simply handed to the newly ascended domestic elite.
One striking example is the Mau Mau of Kenya, who rose up against the British in 1952. The Mau Mau had fought for the British in Burma under the Kings African Rifle during World War 2. When they returned to Kenya after their service to the British, the Mau Mau found their lands taken and occupied by white settlers. Fighting against other Europeans for the British had destroyed the idea that the white man was invincible, so the Mau Mau used the hilly terrains to attack the white settlers. The Mau Mau’s return coincided with Jomo Kenyatta’s return from the UK to become President of the Kenya African Union, an independence organization (which would became the Kenyan African National Union party), in 1947. Kenyatta visited the Mau Mau and proposed that the Mau Mau continue to fight from the forests and countryside while he negotiated with the colonizers in the urban areas. In exchange, he promised that after independence he would return the Mau Mau’s land and grant top military positions for their generals.
The Mau Mau stole bullets and guns from the colonizers and used the British’s own military knowledge against them. Kenya gained independence in 1963 and became a Republic in 1964, with Kenyatta as the first Prime minister and President. Immediately after achieving independence, Kenyatta betrayed the Mau Mau, ordering them to leave the forests telling them they now had to buy back their old lands. When the Mau Mau rejected this directive, they were hunted down, killed and declared an illegal sect, despite their role in attaining Kenya’s independence.
In South Africa, in 1975, a series of urban protests sparked by students in Soweto brought down the Apartheid government. The uprising involved demonstrations and protests by black school children against the introduction of the dutch based Afrikaans language alongside English as the official language of instruction. 3000 to 10,000 students peacefully marched against the government’s directive singing and waving placards rejecting the Afrikaan language and calling for use of the native Zulu language. The police barricaded and fired live bullets and tear gas at the unarmed peacefully demonstrating students, killing 700 and wounding a thousand. Protests continued until the next year with people across the country joining, ultimately bringing down the Apartheid Government. The uprising established the leading role of the African National Congress in the anti-apartheid struggle. Although the students wanted a complete expulsion of the oppressing white Afrikaner settlers, the ANC's “non-racialism” dominated the anti-apartheid movement and not only allowed white Afrikaners to remain but also allowed them to continue dominating South Africa’s economy along with a newly risen Black bourgeoisie at the expense of poor Black natives.