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Nationalism in Africa and the Middle East

Church bells pealed joyously through the night air in the African city of Accra. It was
midnight, March 6, 1957. The bells marked the end of the British colony of Gold Coast and the birth
of the new nation of Ghana, named in honor of the ninth-century African kingdom. As the red,
green, and yellow flag of Ghana was hoisted atop the parliament building in Accra, 50,000 people
cheered. The new country’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, wept for joy.

The next day, a week-long celebration began. Accra was host to 2,000 foreign
visitors. Among them was a Soviet delegation that presented Ghana with a jet plane and several
automobiles. Vice President Richard Nixon headed the United States’ delegation. With him were
UN representative Ralph Bunche and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. They gave the new
country a library of technical books.

Ghana was one of the first African nations to gain independence. That independence
was an important symbol for all Africans. In the 500 years since the ship captains sent by Prince
Henry had explored Africa’s west coast, the people of Africa had lived under European domination.
The terrors of the slave trade had been followed by the unending burdens that came with
colonialism. Now, at last, freedom was with reach.

We will see how the nations of Africa and the Middle East won their independence and
sought to develop as nations. We also see how nationalism led to conflicts throughout Africa and
the Middle East.

The age of imperialism ended in Africa

In 1950, the political map of Africa showed only 4 independent countries _ Egypt,
Ethiopia, Liberia, and white-controlled South Africa. Two decades later this number had risen to 38.
Another two decades brought the total to more than 46. Behind this vast change lay a new spirit of
nationalism among the peoples of Africa.

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan recognized that spirit in a speech in South
Africa in 1960. “The wind of change is blowing through this continent,” he said, “and whether we
like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

Nationalism led to independence in Africa

The years following World War II marked a turning point for Africa. Signs of this
change had appeared earlier. Between World War I and World War II, an educated and westernized
African middle class had appeared in cities throughout the continent. Those Africans had studied at
schools run by missionaries and colonial governments. Often these Africans had attended college in
Europe or the United States. From this educated elite came the first nationalist leaders who worked
to end colonial rule.

After World War II, these leaders gained new support. About 200,000 African soldiers
fought alongside British and French soldiers in North Africa, Asia, and Europe. They helped to free
France, Burma, and Ethiopia. Fighting for the freedom of others made them determined to gain their
own. The examples of new nations such as India and Pakistan inspired them to begin.
North African nations gained independence

The first of the countries to win their freedom were in North Africa. That region had a
strong Islamic tradition and close ties to the Middle East. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after
World War I, Muslims in the Middle East began to build their own nations. Muslim nationalists in
North Africa watched with growing determination do to the same.

Soon after World War II, a new and more nationalistic government came into power in
the land of the Nile. Egypt had become an unofficial British protectorate in the late 1800’s, and
Britain had recognized its independence in 1922. Egypt’s king continued to cooperate closely with
Britain _ too closely, some Egyptians thought. In 1952, a group of young army officers overthrew
the king and declared a republic. Their leader, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, became its president.

One action taken by Nasser symbolized the new nationalism. In 1956, he moved to
take over the Suez Canal. Built by an Anglo-French company and still controlled by British and
French interests, the Suez Canal was Egypt’s most valuable resource. Although not immediately
successful, Nasser’s policy in time brought the Canal under Egyptian control.

In its colonies of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, France tried to resist demands for
independence. Soon, however, Muslim nationalists in all three countries revolted. The French gave
up quickly in Morocco and Tunisia but turned all their energies to keep Algeria. A bitter war
between Algerians and French troops raged from 1954 to 1961. The peace settlement with Algeria
left all Africa north of the Sahara independent.

Nationalism spread in sub-Saharan Africa

In the late 1950’s, the focus for independence shifted south of the Sahara. There too
Britain and France were the greatest colonial powers, although Belgium and Portugal also had large
holdings. European rulers did not welcome the independence movement in sub-Saharan Africa any
more than they had in North Africa or southern Asia. Weakened by World War II, however, they
were unable to keep strong control.

In Britain, Labor Party policies supported the idea of giving up African colonies.
Britain was more ready to grant independence to West African lands where Africans made up most
of the population than to areas with many white settlers _ for example, in Kenya and Southern
Rhodesia. Unlike Britain, France was determined to keep its colonial empire. The result was
prolonged war in several colonies.

As African independence movements gained in strength, European governments sought

to contain them. They arrested and imprisoned nationalist leaders and executed extreme nationalists.
But in most parts of Africa, Europeans were simply too few in numbers and too widely scattered to
control the tide of African nationalism. European leaders soon realized that the Africans, who
outnumbered European settlers 800 to 1 throughout sub-Saharan Africa, would have to be given the
reins of power.

South of the Sahara the first African nation to gain independence was Ghana, under the
leadership of Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah represented a new generation of black leaders who
emerged to guide the movements for independence. Educated in the United States, Nkrumah had
founded the Convention People’s Party to work toward independence from Britain. Now, after
spending most of the previous five years in British prisons, he became prime minister of Ghana.
Leaders recognized that once independence was won, establishing new nations would
not be easy. The price of independence would be hardship and sacrifice. Yet, as Nkrumah said,
“There is a new African in the world and that new African is ready to fight his own battles … We
prefer self-government with danger to servitude in tranquility.”

Colonialism left a legacy of problems

The joy that Africans felt over independence was soon overshadowed by the reality of
the enormous problems facing them. Nationalist leaders had promised that independence would
bring great benefits. In reality, that promise raised hopes that could not be fulfilled. Years of
colonial rule had left most African countries without either their traditional forms of government or
the institutions for truly representative government. Britain and France had done little to prepare
their colonies for independence, and Belgium and Portugal had made no effort at all. So repressive
had been the regime in the Belgian Congo that only 16 educated leaders could be found in that vast
country. Thus, when independence came, many former colonies lacked organized systems for
governing and were unprepared to deal with problems that arose.

In many countries, the practices of colonialism had undermined social stability.

Thousands of men had been forced to work in the gold and copper mines of the Congo, Rhodesia,
and South Africa. Often they were away from home for months or years at a time. Elsewhere
forced migrations disrupted communities and weakened traditional ties and the customs of everyday

Unity within colonies had not been a priority for colonial rulers. Thus, boundaries had
been drawn without regard for the African ethnic groups living within them. Some borders divided
groups that shared the same language and culture. Other borders joined groups whose cultures
clashed or who were traditional enemies. Creating a sense of national unity under these conditions
would be difficult.

Economic problems also faced the new nations. Africa has great potential wealth. Its
many valuable minerals include gold, copper, platinum, uranium and diamonds. Its hydroelectric
resources, when developed, will be enormous. Yet, under colonialism, the wealth from Africa’s
resources had gone to the ruling nations.

Poverty was not new to people in the African colonies. Traditional ways of living _
whether by herding or farming _ in pre-colonial times were often at a subsistence level, with
scarcely enough means to survive.

Colonial rulers introduced commercial agriculture, intended to yield a surplus that

could be exported. Plantations were developed to produce coffee, rice, sugar, and cocoa, while
rubber and palm oil were obtained from tropical forests. Income from agriculture and forests, like
that from mining, went to the ruler and to companies overseas rather than being invested in
developing the colony. Thus, the new nations lacked both the benefits of development and the
money to carry out the development themselves. The new nations would have to continue to sell
plantation crops and minerals abroad to obtain money for development. Meanwhile poverty became
even more acute.

Transportation too presented problems. In order to export products and resources,

colonial rulers had built railroads from mines or market towns to the coast. Internal transportation,
however, was not developed. For effective government and economic development to take place,
networks of transportation and communication were essential. Building them would be a major cost
for new nations.
Because rulers had little or no interest in the education of their colonial subjects, the
new nations lacked people trained as teachers, doctors, lawyers, officials, and technicians. They also
lacked people trained in the methods of modern technology _ technology that was essential to
economic development. In many countries, only a small percentage of the population was even
literate. Yet these people were now the citizens of new nations, and they expected to participate in
self-government and economic growth.

The African environment caused problems

Certain conditions in the geography and environment of Africa also influenced the
prospects for the new nations. The huge size of the continent means that distances are great. In
some areas, such as the vast Sudd swamp of the upper Nile or the rain forests of the Zaire Basin, the
terrain is impassable. A number of interior countries are landlocked, with access to the sea only
through other countries.

Most of Africa is a vast plateau, broken by five great rivers. These rivers leave the
plateau in falls that prevent navigation inland from the sea. The lack of navigable rivers and the
regular coastline _ with few natural harbors _ limited shipping and trade both within Africa and
overseas. Air travel has enabled Africans to conquer distance, cross natural barriers, and establish
regular communication.

The climate of Africa presents its own set of problems. One third of the continent is
desert. Of all the continents, Africa has the largest area _ about 90 % of its land _ within the tropics.
The altitude of the vast African plateau helps to offset the high temperatures and make it habitable.
However, it does not prevent the spread of tropical diseases or the insects that carry many of them.
Sleeping sickness, carried by the tse-tse fly, and malaria, carried by mosquitoes are only two of
many hazards to human health.

South of the Sahara, a wide strip of semiarid grassland, the Sahel, extends across
Africa. This is an area of nomadic herding and light farming. Rainfall here is uncertain, providing
adequate moisture for grass and crops in some years and little rainfall in others. Since the 1960’s,
the Sahel has suffered serious droughts, which have been made worse by overgrazing. The result
has been starvation for millions of people. In the 1980’s, drought has spread to Ethiopia and parts of
the Sudan with the same terrible result.

Drought affects not only people, herds, and vegetation but also the land itself. Once the
grass that holds the soil is gone, the land of the Sahel begins to turn to desert. The southward spread
of the Sahara has become a threat to the whole region the Sahel.

Africans built new nations

The granting of independence to Ghana began a wave of nation building. New nations
appeared almost regularly as the British and French governments made an orderly but rapid
withdrawal. Following their departure, the real challenge of independence began. Could the new
nations develop unified and responsible governments? And could their economies grow enough to
assure at least a minimum standard of living for their people?
In creating new governments, most African nations _ like India and Pakistan earlier _
chose to be politically nonaligned as part of the Third World. Nonetheless, both democratic and
communist countries sought to establish spheres of influence. Often this was done through outright
aid, support for education, and assistance in industrial development.

New nations sought political stability

When they became independent, most African countries patterned their new
governments and economic systems after those of Western Europe and the United States. Most of
them set up representative democracies with capitalist economies. Some countries, such as Gabon,
succeeded in following the Western model. They were successful because they had fairly solid
economic bases and a growing middle class. Those countries also relied on their former rulers for
support. Gabon, for instance, kept close ties with France.

The Western model, however, was not fully implemented in many countries. In some,
an elite upper class ran the country for their own benefit. Other countries experienced periods of
unstable rule with coups and uprisings. A few became ruthless dictatorships. Thus, a variety of
governments came to power in Africa.

Ivory Coast: Ivory Coast is an example of a country that made the transition to
independence in a peaceful fashion. Felix Houphouet-Boigny provided that country with stable
leadership for more than three decades. Although there was only one political party, it represented
all major groups. Such stability, however, was the exception rather than the rule.

Tanzania: In Tanzania too, the move to independence was peaceful. Julius Nyerere
led the new nation and its one-party government. Nyerere adopted some socialist methods. His
objective was to obtain greater economic efficiency, unite the ethnic groups, and provide social

Kenya: In Kenya, conflict preceded independence. People of the Kikuyu had once
been driven from their land by white settlers. From 1952 to 1956, the Mau Mau, a secret society,
tried to retake their lands by force. Kenya became a republic in 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu
leader, as president.

Zaire and Uganda: Zaire experienced a series of problems, from civil war to the
secession of one province. Those upheavals gave way to a highly authoritarian government under
General Joseph Mobutu. The most extreme problems following independence occurred in Uganda.
There the dictator Idi Amin seized power and launched a seven-year reign of terror. An estimated
300,000 Ugandans perished under Amin’s rule. Whole ethnic groups were wiped out, while
suspected political opponents were simply murdered at will. The aftermath of chaos left that nation
torn apart.

Nigeria: One of the richest and most advanced of the new nations, Nigeria, became
independent form Britain in 1960. The most populous of African countries, it is also the most
fragmented. It is home to more than 250 ethnic groups who speak dozens of different languages and
dialects. The three dominant groups _ the Hausa in the North, the Yoruba in the west, and the Ibo in
the east _ had been mortal enemies for generations. Forging these groups into a national unit seemed
an almost impossible task.
Conflict over political control led in time to civil war _ after the Ibo leaders had sought
to form a separate state, Biafra. More than two million Ibo perished before a final surrender. Since
then, an uneasy truce has prevailed, with military leaders heading the government.
During the 1970’s, enormous wealth poured into Nigeria from the export of the nation’s rich
oil resources. Distribution of that wealth, however, is highly unequal. Nigeria has used some of the
income from the sale of oil to develop industries that in time will strengthen its economy.

Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe was one of the later nations to come under the control of its African
peoples. Known as Southern Rhodesia, it was home to many British settlers, who lived on farms in
the highlands. Those settlers, led by Ian Smith, declared independence from Britain in 1965.
However, they refused to grant any power to black political parties. Pressure by Britain and the
United Nations to grant Africans a greater voice in the government was unsuccessful. In 1979, an
agreement was finally reached to give the black majority control of the government. Under
President Robert Mugabe, whites and Africans have tried to set aside their differences and live in

Namibia and Angola: The last country of Africa to gain its independence is Namibia.
A former German colony, Namibia has for the past three quarters of a century been controlled by
South Africa. Its fate has in recent years been linked to that of Angola, a former Portuguese colony.
After becoming independent, Angola received support from Soviet-bloc countries, including
thousands of troops from Cuba. After years of civil war between the government and non-
communist guerrillas, negotiations have ended the fighting. South Africa has agreed that when
Cuban troops are withdrawn from Angola, it will recognize the independence of Namibia. This
agreement is still being implemented.

Nations faced problems in economic development

European colonial policy had sought to keep colonies as suppliers of food, raw
materials, and resources _ but without the industry that was the monopoly of the ruling nation.
Nowhere was this policy more successful than in Africa. African workers produced plantation crops
and mineral resources for export and provided a market for goods manufactured abroad. Africans
hoped that with independence, some of the income from plantations and mines could be used at

Experience quickly showed that many problems remained. Countries like Ghana that
depended on the export of a single crop such as cocoa found that a fall in world prices could greatly
reduce national income. Many African countries had a similar experience: Zambia with copper,
Uganda with coffee, Chad with cotton.

The long-term solution was to develop a wider range of economic activities, based upon
each nation’s resources, and to produce for world markets. But modernizing was slow in a continent
where soil is generally poor and farmers followed subsistence methods. In many areas, drought
reduced crop production far below earlier levels.

Another possibility was the development of industry. The problem there was capital.
Money was needed to build roads for transportation, dams for energy, and factories for producing
goods. Many African leaders attempted to develop their country’s economies by borrowing from
abroad. Yet even when new industries were built, they rarely produced enough wealth to repay the
loans. Thus, most countries remained continuously in debt.
By the late 1980’s, some bright spots had begun to appear in economic development.
The huge Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River now provided electricity to Zambia and Zimbabwe. By
changing from subsistence to commercial methods, farmers in Zimbabwe made that nation self-
sufficient in food, and Zimbabwe even began to export food to neighboring countries.
With income from oil exports, Nigeria has been able to fund some of its own
industrialization. Building a petrochemical industry has enabled the nation to refine its own oil
before selling it abroad. Nigeria also plans to begin selling liquefied natural gas to Europe by 1995.
The plant for producing the gas will be black Africa’s largest construction project of the early

A different kind of economic change is taking place in Tanzania. There, socialism had
had the effect of limiting economic growth. Today Tanzania is returning to some capitalist methods,
including focus on the market to adjust prices and provide incentives for production. Letting prices
rise encourages farmers to produce more food. Some benefits of Nyerere’s early policies remain,
however. A model education system, based on the use of Swahili (the language of East Africa), has
raised Tanzania’s literacy rate to a remarkable 80 %.

Social changes affected development

Probably the greatest threat to Africa’s future development is the current explosion in
population. In 1950, Africa’s population was estimated at 215 million. Today it is 600 million or
more. It may even double by some time in the first decade of the next century. Africa’s population
is the fastest growing in the world.

Several factors make such rapid population growth an acute problem. The continent is
already so short of food that many countries have to import food to help people survive. Shortages
are increased by the drought in the Sahel, which is taking land out of cultivation and thus reducing
the amount of food produced. Also, as India discovered, a large and growing population cannot live
from the land alone. Industry is needed to provide employment, but the amount of industry _ and
therefore the number of jobs _ is limited. Nonetheless, governments that provide food do so at the
cost of industrial growth.

Increasing population is a special problem for cities because of the migration of people
from rural to urban areas. Hundreds of thousands of families are living in slum areas that have
grown up around major cities. Among the largest are those of Kinshasa in Zaire. There, many
people live without a stable food supply, jobs, education, or medical care. The overcrowding also
leads to crime and disease. A related problem is that of refugees. War, ethnic differences, hunger,
and political strife have forced millions of people to leave their homes.

Among the seemingly insurmountable social problems, some progress is being made.
Because most countries have established educational systems, literacy is increasing and future
leaders are being educated. Also, the traditionally important role of women in African society _as
traders, producers of food, and keepers of the home _ is expanding in many areas. New educational
opportunities for women are a key to improving their position in society. One example of the
changing status of women is Angie Brooks of Liberia, the first woman to become president of the
United Nations General Assembly.

In many countries, the transition to independence has brought rapid modernization.

Television and radio are playing an enormous role in bringing the outside world to even the most
remote corners of the continent. The result is a culture in transition _ with ox-drawn carts and
motorcycles jostling for position on dusty village roads, soft-drink cans littering refugee camps in
the drought-stricken Sahel, and farmers listening to radios while harvesting millet by hand, just as
their great-grandfathers had done a century earlier.

South Africa’s peoples remained divided

Of the sub-Saharan nations, South Africa is the most advanced in economic and
technological development and has the greatest wealth. South Africa in 1910 became a self-
governing country within the British Empire and in 1931 gained full independence within the
Commonwealth of Nations. In 1961, South Africa left the commonwealth and became a republic.

The population of South Africa is composed of four groups: blacks, people of mixed
race, Asians, and whites. Most of the Asians are of Indian descent. The white population is made
up of two groups _ Dutch and English. The Dutch, known as Bowers or Afrikaners, are descendents
of settlers who came to South Africa several hundred years ago. Most English settlers have come
within the past hundred years. Blacks, people of mixed race, and Asians together make up about
87% of the population, with blacks _ at 73 % the majority.

Apartheid: Although South Africa has been independent since 1931, the vast majority
of its people have never had self-government. Afrikaners _ the larger white group _ have always
dominated the government. Their vision of independence was based on white control. Black South
Africans could not vote or hold seats in parliament and were denied opportunity in all spheres of
political life.

In 1948, the government established an even more extreme policy called apartheid,
which called for the complete separation of the races. New laws banned all social contacts between
whites and blacks. Schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods were to be separate. Parks, playgrounds,
and beaches were also segregated. Even certain jobs and higher education were close to blacks.

In 1959, new laws extended racial segregation by creating separate homelands for
South Africa’s major ethnic groups. Afrikaners hoped that all blacks would in time be resettled on
these homelands, which would have semi-independent status. The homelands policy was highly
unfair. About 13 % of the nation’s land was set aside for blacks, who made up 73 % of the
population. The remaining 87 % of the country _ including its best farmland and its fabulously rich
gold and diamond mines _ remained in the hands of whites, who represented just 15 % of the
population. Many blacks were forced to return to homelands that they had never seen. Other blacks
remained in the areas reserved for whites because they had jobs on farms, in the mines, or as laborers
in the cities.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, huge slums, or townships _ the urban homes of blacks _
grew up around the major cities. Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, was one such township.
Blacks living in those areas were required to carry registration passes. Because cards were available
only to those with jobs, families were often separated. To be together, families had to live in the
shanty towns illegally. Without these workers, South Africa’s economy would have collapsed. Yet
the government made no real provisions for them in the community. Instead, a strong army stood
ready to enforce control.

Black resistance: Blacks in South Africa had long resisted the government’s
repressive treatment. In 1912, they founded the African National Congress to work for equality.
During the 1930’s, the ANC (African National Congress) organized strikes and boycotts to
demonstrate against apartheid. The government responded by outlawing the ANC in 1960. Protests
nonetheless continued. Later that year, nervous police killed 69 demonstrators in Sharpeville. The
Sharpeville massacre sparked more protests and tough crackdown. In 1964, authorities sentenced
ANC leader Nelson Mandela to prison for life.
The cycle of protests, repression, and violence continued to plague South Africa in the
1970’s and 1980’s. In 1976, students in the black township of Soweto boycotted school to protest a
policy requiring the use of the Afrikaners’ language in some of their classes. The demonstrations led
to a violent clash in which more than 600 students were killed.

Despite the mounting violence, black leaders such as Anglican Archbishop Desmond
Tutu still called for peaceful change. Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize as recognition for this
courageous fight against segregation. In his acceptance speech, Tutu explained, “There is no peace
in southern Africa. There is no peace because there is no justice.”

World leaders supported Tutu’s call for justice by urging the South African government
to change its racial policies. Many countries, including the United States, have limited trade with
South Africa. In addition, South African athletes are banned from international sporting events such
as the Olympics.

As domestic and international pressures increased, South African leaders relaxed some
apartheid laws. Hopes for more change rose when F.W. de Klerk became president in September
1989. He promised to work for a dialogue aimed at “securing justice for all South Africans.”
Although de Klerk pledged real progress, neither he nor the white minority was ready to grant
political power to the black majority.