|When people speak of the
African continent in historical terms, they are generally
referring to one of three eras: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. The
boundaries of the countries in Africa today are recent developments because
those boundaries, except for a few countries, were
drawn up by European colonizers in
1885. Some countries changed their names after they gained their
independence, such as Zimbabwe, once known as Rhodesia.
There are tremendous differences between the pre-colonial and colonial periods, and too often there are similarities between the colonial and post colonial periods. In the pre-colonial era, Africans were independent and lived according to the culture of the ethnic group and kingdom to which they belonged. In the colonial period, Africans had their cultures and territorial boundaries ignored and an entirely different set of laws, rules, and often religion, were imposed. When African countries successfully fought to gain independence from their colonizers, they entered the post colonial period. This is the period that currently exists for all of Africa.
All African nations are free from direct foreign rule, yet often the economic infrastructure is still in the hands of the former colonial country's companies and institutions. Functionally, this means that many decisions that indigenous Africans make affecting the cultural, social, and economic fabric of their countries have to be non-threatening to the institutions that control the natural and financial resources of the country, or the ability of the country to obtain foreign capital by which it can improve itself. Military force, the usual method of enforcement in the colonial era, has been replaced by financial pressure. And there have been numerous occasions when the indigenous African in charge of a country willingly ruled according to the interests of the former colonizer.
Many leaders, like Patrice Lumumba of what was the former Belgian Congo, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana tried to rule in a truly free and independent fashion. Lumumba was assassinated by the CIA. Ghana, whose main export and chief revenue source was sugar, saw the price for sugar drop worldwide. This action, which crippled the economy, was initiated by the world's principal financial institutions. Hence the term "neo-colonialism," meaning colonialism exists under the guise of self-rule, has been applied to describe the true governmental state of some "independent" African countries. Many African leaders reject neo-colonialism, but they must walk a fine line between doing what is best for their country while not doing something that can cripple its cash flow.
Some years ago Dr. Ali Mazrui presented a documentary series on PBS entitled The Africans. The series drew immediate fire from the mainstream press and traditional academics who said that the documentary did not present the West in a favorable light. These critics said that the series did not illustrate the positive aspects of Western involvement in Africa. The remarks struck me as not only misguided and the result of an enormous amount of misinformation, but also as being very hypocritical.
A common theme in many movies and television series is one of aliens from another planet coming to Earth for the express purpose of at least greatly altering the way we live in order to serve their purpose. The viewer naturally recoils at what the aliens are trying to do and is often somewhat surprised or even horrified at what they will do to accomplish their ends. Yet the same viewer will often see nothing extraordinarily strange or wrong with what happened to the African cultures after contact with the post 15th century Europeans and the fate of the indigenous people—commonly called Native Americans or Indians—of North, Central, and South America.
The reality is that, contrary to mainstream belief, the overall influence of post 15th century Europe upon Africa has been destructive and debilitating. Given the events that have occurred in Africa since the 15th century, calling this statement extreme or unfair is one-sided and contrary to what has occurred in world history. Whenever a region has been conquered, and the conquerors impose their own institutions and lifestyles while ignoring the traditions and norms of those who were conquered, centuries of tradition and a way of life will inevitably be destroyed. Looking at history from the viewpoint of those whose lives were altered in such a way will clearly illustrate why the terms destructive and debilitating are appropriate and often mild.
One reason for the great disagreement some people have with the fact that Africa after European intervention has been worse off than before is that they do not know what life was like in Africa prior to her being conquered. There were great kingdoms and there were also areas that were far less advanced; people who lived on the periphery and were backward by comparison.
Today, that may sound very strange given the kind of technology we take for granted, yet, in the industrialized 20th century—for many years before and after World War II—much of Europe was rural, and consisted of small villages where plowing by oxen was common and generally the fabric of daily life had not significantly changed for centuries. These regions existed a very short distance from the great urban centers of London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin. Yet, few people note the comparison between those situations and the conflict they have with mention of great African kingdoms at a time when they were told that some of the Africans contacted by the Europeans were backward and "savage."
The current predicaments in Africa are too often seen, examined, and analyzed in context of a few decades. Yet, the correct steps and methods for progress can only be accurately developed when a larger, more comprehensive picture is presented.
Thus, in this section, we will present clarity to a very distorted picture of the past. Hopefully, future thoughts and actions will be made with knowledge of that past.