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Africa into the 21st Century

- Political Development in Independent Africa -

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Africa’s political inheritance from colonial rule was a mass of artificial “nations” with arbitrarily drawn borders and ethnically diverse populations with few or no historical ties. In the buildup to independence, “nationalism” presented only a facade of unity in the face of the colonial opponent. After independence that unity only survived while the new African government was able to deliver on its promise to improve the lives of its citizens, particularly in terms of employment and social services.

The colonial powers had been at pains to emphasize ethnic diversity, as a way to weaken national opposition. They had encouraged a sense of ethnic difference and rivalry far greater than that which had existed in precolonial times. In the most extreme version of this policy, for instance, the German and Belgian rulers of Rwanda and Burundi had encouraged Hutu and Tutsi adversity. They co-opted the Tutsi aristocracy as their partners in colonial rule and, in doing so, deprived the Hutu peasantry of educational and economic opportunities. In this policy lay the seeds of Hutu-Tutsi ethnic hatred that was to lead to massacres and genocide in the 1990s. In many democratic nations of independent Africa, political parties developed around ethnic identity. As a result, insecure governments constantly feared ethnic conflict or secession. The fear was well founded, as shown by the 1967 secession of the Igbo homeland, called Biafra, from Nigeria, leading to the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970).

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