Africa in Transition: Facing the Challenges of Globalization

By Keller, Edmond J. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Africa in Transition: Facing the Challenges of Globalization


Keller, Edmond J., Harvard International Review


On March 6, 1957 Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to achieve independence from European colonial rule. Over the next 23 years, most of the other sub-Saharan colonies followed suit. Expectations on the continent and around the world were high, as leaders hoped that sub-Saharan African states would "take off" both politically and economically to become viable, independent actors in the world community. However, most independent African states struggled almost immediately under the weight of protracted political and economic crises.

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Africa's "first wave" of democratization quickly morphed into a wave of autocracy as African militaries seized power in the mid-1960s, and multiparty systems gave way to authoritarian, one-party regimes. Economic stagnation had set in by the early 1980s, and African states became increasingly dependent on international development assistance, thereby incurring enormous debts. Then, after the end of the Cold War, Western powers began to make their aid to Africa conditional on the pursuit of good governance and democratization. In the early 1990s, Africa entered a "second wave" of democratization as autocratic regimes gave way to new, more democratic constitutions and multiparty systems.

Given Africa's crisis-prone transition from colonialism to independence and the many challenges its states have faced, it seems reasonable to ask what Africa has achieved in the 50 years since the start of the independence movement. Have African states moved from the margins of the international community to the center? Do they now have a stronger voice in the discourse on democracy and globalization, or are they as marginal as they were at the time of independence? Africa undoubtedly faces many challenges today, and it must continue to struggle not to lose ground in this age of globalization. Certainly Africa is not yet in a position to completely overcome these challenges--at least in the short run. However, if Africa's leaders want to move the continent forward and create a new position within the global community, they must make a concerted effort to begin addressing these challenges now.

The Legacy of Colonialism

Even though the period of colonial rule was a relatively brief one in Africa, the European powers profoundly reordered African political space, modes of economic production, and social hierarchies and cleavages. The modality of colonial rule varied from one colonial power to the next, but the end result was always domination, exploitation, and organized repression. Despite this, World War II coincided with the emergence of African demands for political independence.

With the onset of the independence era, colonial regimes in Africa were replaced by independent, African-led regimes that were more or less carbon copies of their colonizers' political systems. At a fundamental level, the post-colonial African state looked like a top-heavy administrative state. African leaders hoped that this model would lead to self-sustained economic development--a hope that unfortunately was never realized. European powers relinquished political control on their former African possessions, but not their economic interests and influence. The formal trappings of colonialism were replaced by a situation of neo-colonialism, in which Africa remained heavily dependent on foreign private investment and bilateral and multilateral development assistance. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund set the development agenda for Africa starting in the 1960s, rather than allowing African countries to decide individually or collectively how to develop their own economies and societies. Bilateral donors such as Britain and France benefited from their relationships with former colonies and Africa's continued dependence on European monetary assistance and capital investment. For example, the former colonial powers, as well as the rest of the Western world, encouraged the export of primary products from Africa so they could be processed in European factories.

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Africa in Transition: Facing the Challenges of Globalization
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