The Challenges African States Faced at Independence

A postcard issued by the government of Jomo Kenyatta to mark Kenya's formal independence on 12th December 1963. Photo by Epics/Getty Images

When African states gained their independence from Europe's colonial empires, they faced numerous challenges starting with their lack of infrastructure. 

Lack of Infrastructure

One of the most pressing challenges African states faced at Independence was their lack of infrastructure. European imperialists prided themselves on bringing civilization and developing Africa, but they left their former colonies with little in the way of infrastructure.

The empires had built roads and railroads - or rather, they had forced their colonial subjects to build them - but these were not intended to build national infrastructures. Imperial roads and railways were almost always intended to facilitate the export of raw materials. Many, like the Ugandan Railroad, ran straight to the coast line.

These new countries also lacked the manufacturing infrastructure to add value to their raw materials. Rich as many African countries were in cash crops and minerals, they could not process these goods themselves. Their economies were dependent on trade, and this made them vulnerable. They were also locked into cycles of dependencies on their former European masters. They had gained political, not economic dependencies, and as Kwame Nkrumah - the first prime minister and president of Ghana - knew, political independence without economic independence was meaningless.

 

Energy Dependence

The lack of infrastructure also meant that African countries were dependent on Western economies for much of their energy. Even oil-rich countries did not have the refineries needed to turn their crude oil into gasoline or heating oil. Some leaders, like Kwame Nkrumah, tried to rectify this by taking on massive building projects, like the Volta River hydroelectric dam project.

The dam did provide much needed electricity, but its construction put Ghana heavily into debt. The construction also required the relocation of tens of thousands of Ghanaians, and contributed to Nkrumah's plummeting support in Ghana. In 1966, Nkrumah was overthrown

Inexperienced Leadership

AT Independence, there were several presidents, like Jomo Kenyatta, had several decades of political experience, but others, like Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, had entered the political fray just years before independence. There was also a distinct lack of trained and experienced civil leadership. The lower echelons of the colonial government had long been staffed by African subjects, but the higher ranks had been reserved for white officials. The transition to national officers at independence meant there were individuals at all levels of the bureaucracy with little prior training.  In some cases this led to innovation, but the many challenges that African states faced at independence were often compounded by the lack of experienced leadership.

Lack of National Identity

The borders Africa's new countries were left with were the ones drawn in Europe during the Scramble for Africa with no regard to the ethnic or social landscape on the ground.

The subjects of these colonies often had many identities that trumped their sense of being, for instance, Ghanaian or Congolese. Colonial policies that privileged one group over another or allocated land and political rights by "tribe" exacerbated these divisions. The most famous case of this was the Belgian policies that crystallized the divisions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda that led to the tragic genocide in 1994.

Immediately after decolonization, the new African states agreed to a policy of inviolable borders, meaning they would not try to redraw Africa's political map as that would lead to chaos. The leaders of these countries were, thus, left with the challenge of trying to forge a sense of national identity at a time when those seeking a stake in the new country were often playing to individuals' regional or ethnic loyalties.

 

Cold War

Finally, decolonization coincided with the Cold War, which presented another challenge for African states. The push and pull between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) made non-alignment a difficult, if not impossible, option, and those leaders who tried to carve third way generally found they had to take sides. 

Cold War politics also presented an opportunity for factions that sought to challenge the new governments. In Angola, the international support that the government and rebelling factions received in the Cold War led to a civil war that lasted nearly thirty years.

 

These combined challenges made it difficult to establish strong economies or political stability in Africa and contributed to the upheaval that many (but not all!) states faced between the late '60s and late '90s.