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Nationalism in Africa

Postcolonial Nationalism In Africa

Each African nation took a unique path toward independence. Some, such as Algeria, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, took extreme measures like waging a guerilla war on the colonial state; most countries pursued nonviolent means and achieved a peaceful transfer of power. But there were varying degrees of success. Some countries, such as Ghana, became completely independent while others, such as Congo, continued to depend on Europe, and their independence was superficial rather than absolute.

As the age of independence dawned, African leaders faced the daunting tasks of developing their vastly underdeveloped economies and reversing the economic ills of imperialism. Largely, African nations leaned toward leftist ideologies (such as Marxism and socialism) or capitalism. Because the Soviet Union possessed no African colonies, it was perceived as an ally of anticolonial movements. Nyerere, Nkrumah, Ahmed Sékou Touré (1922–1984), and Muammar Gadhafi (b. 1942; Libya) attempted to "indigenize" leftist doctrines and became the continent's leading leftist thinkers. They blamed Western capitalists' imperialism for Africa's ills, and believed the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism was the only way to truly liberate Africa. Precolonial African societies were based on communalism, and many viewed socialist and Marxist ideologies as a way for African nations to return to their precolonial ways of living because they promised economic equality and a classless society. Others felt that nations on the left, such as Cuba, the USSR, and China, should be looked to as allies and for aid; the leftist powers proved incapable of providing enough aid and support, however, and both socialism and Marxism have been abandoned throughout Africa. Nations that chose capitalism proved equally unsuccessful because African economies were not diverse enough to sustain development. World Bank and structural adjustment programs proposed by the West only worsened Africa's underdevelopment. The debt of these nations increased exponentially and their economies weakened considerably.

Consequently, African nationalistic ideals of the 1950s and 1960s have waned. African nations have not succeeded in convincing their countries' populations to put national interests ahead of regional, ethnic, or religious ones. In various parts of Africa, politics has progressed so that leaders must rely on the backing of their own ethnic group, and, if one branches out too far, he or she will be replaced by someone who will better represent interests of the specific ethnic group. In other words, being loyal to one ethnic group, religious faith, or geographical region can offer protection, but it also creates great divides in society. Ethnic divisions have hurt both nationalism and development in Africa. Countries such as Nigeria, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have had their share of ethnic rivalries, civil wars, and genocide. In order to avoid ethnic clashes, some leaders advocated socialism, military rule, or one-party states, but these ideas have failed and such maneuvers have served only to widen ethnic divisions.

Many African nations have failed to maintain a strong sense of nationalism or national identity. Ethnic rivalries, diseases, unemployment, globalization, corruption, greed, and natural disasters have all played major roles in the dire reality that is post-independence Africa. African nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s was overtly anticolonial or anti-European. Once the colonial powers formally pulled out, Africans looked inward to consolidate power and rid themselves of political rivals. Military coups, one-party political systems, widespread corruption, and tyrannical autocrats became the norm.

As a result, numerous scholars have provided many valid criticisms of nationalist movements. Initially, scholars harshly criticized African ruling parties and political systems as they tended to promote corruption, violence, and tribalism as well as sponsoring useless plans for development. Most experts of the 1960s believed that independence would bring about progress and development. By the late 1970s, such optimism had been eradicated, most scholars became pessimistic about Africa's future, and "Afropessimism" became an ideology of its own. Civil wars, depleted economies, increasing debt, skyrocketing unemployment, and despotic leaders led many to become disheartened and to give up hope.

More recent critiques have been twofold. One type offers deeper analyses of how these negative systems operate and goes beyond identifying the problems in order to fully understand how coups and tyrants can be eliminated. Leroy Vail's work is an example of this approach. His The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, an edited collection of essays, aims to explore why and how tribalism has been employed throughout both the colonial and postcolonial eras. Instead of accepting tribalism as inevitable, Vail discusses how ethnic identities have been manipulated and strengthened over the past century, while demonstrating how the educated elites and the continent-wide movement toward one-party rule promoted tribalism: it was a way for leaders to secure support even when their policies failed. As he puts it, "They concentrate upon its heroes, its historical successes, and its unsullied cultural purity, and are decked out with the mythic 'rediscovered' social values of the past" (p. 14). In other words, tribalism and ethnic affiliations became easy ways to achieve or consolidate power when development failed. They have allowed regional nationalism to blossom while weakening national identities as a whole.

The second type of critique emphasizes areas where Africans themselves have succeeded despite such difficult surroundings. Richard Werbner and Terence Ranger document how Africans, in general, react and cope with despotic leaders and harsh political realities. Werbner and Ranger aim "to show how and why the present reconstructions of personal and collective identity, of social subjectivity, and of moral agency draw on the culturally nuanced resources of social memory for negation, for affirmation, and for playful fun" (p. 4). Their work recognizes agency on the part of the African masses, instead of assuming them to be helpless pawns in the hands of tyrants. While these achievements are not monolithic, acknowledging them does serve to diminish the pessimistic view that Africa is doomed to remain lawless and antidemocracy.

While Africa has failed to develop along the lines of nations such as Japan or the United States, nationalism has not been completely erased. Manifestations of nationalism and national unity are most apparent during times of natural disaster, sporting events, and international crises. For Africa to compete in the twenty-first-century's global economy, African nations must foster stronger national identities that can be sustained for an extended period. The unity has to be permanent and not as easily dissipated as the attempts of the 1960s. It must also be strong enough to overcome ethnic divisions and rivalries that have plagued the continent since independence. Poverty, AIDS, starvation, globalization, and negative interference by the West may be common problems that will finally unite Africans and foster such nationalism.


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Toyin Falola

Tyler Fleming

Additional topics

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