Neocolonialism can be defined as the continuation of the economic model of colonialism after a colonized territory has achieved formal political independence. This concept was applied most commonly to Africa in the latter half of the twentieth century. European countries had colonized most of the continent in the late nineteenth century, instituting a system of economic exploitation in which African raw materials, particularly cash crops and minerals, were expropriated and exported to the sole benefit of the colonizing power. The idea of neocolonialism, however, suggests that when European powers granted nominal political independence to colonies in the decades after World War II, they continued to control the economies of the new African countries.
The concept of neocolonialism has several theoretical influences. First and foremost, it owes much to Marxist thinking. Writing in the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx argued that capitalism represented a stage in the socioeconomic development of humanity. He believed that, ultimately and inevitably, the capitalist system in industrially developed countries would be overthrown by a revolution of the working class; this would result in the establishment of socialist utopias. In 1916, Vladimir Lenin modified this thesis, claiming that the rapid expansion of European imperialism around the world in the last decade of the nineteenth century had marked the highest stage of capitalism. Presumably, then, the end of imperialism (which Lenin believed would be the result of World War I) would mark the beginning of the end of capitalism. However, neither imperialism nor capitalism came to an end after the war or in future years. European empires persisted well into the 1960s.
With the granting of independence to colonies, a theory of modernization took hold. This suggested that independent countries would begin to develop very rapidly, politically and economically, and would resemble "modern" Western countries. It soon became clear, however, that this was not happening. Postcolonial theorists now sought answers for the continued underdevelopment of African countries and found a second influence in dependency theory.
Dependency theory first gained prominence as a way to explain the underdevelopment of Latin American economies in the 1960s. It proclaims that underdevelopment persisted because highly developed countries dominated underdeveloped economies by paying low prices for agricultural products and flooding those economies with cheap manufactured goods. This resulted in a perpetually negative balance of payments that prevented underdeveloped countries from ever becoming competitive in the global marketplace. Economic theorists of postcolonial Africa, such as Walter Rodney and Samir Amin, combined the Marxist-Leninist concept of colonialism as a stage of capitalism with the concept of underdevelopment to create the concept of neocolonialism, which Kwame Nkrumah called "the last stage of imperialism."
According to Rodney and Amin, European countries, and increasingly the United States, dominated the economies of African countries through neocolonialism in several ways. After independence, the main revenue base for African countries continued to be the export of raw materials; this resulted in the underdevelopment of African economies, while Western industries thrived. A good example of this process is the West African cocoa industry in the 1960s: during this time, production increased rapidly in many African countries; overproduction, however, led to a reduction in the selling price of cocoa worldwide. Neocolonial theorists therefore proclaimed that economies based on the production of cash crops such as cocoa could not hope to develop, because the world system imposes a veritable ceiling on the revenue that can be accrued from their production. Likewise, the extraction and export of minerals could not serve to develop an African economy, because minerals taken from African soil by Western-owned corporations were shipped to Europe or America, where they were turned into manufactured goods, which were then resold to African consumers at value-added prices.
A second method of neocolonialism, according to the theory's adherents, was foreign aid. The inability of their economies to develop after independence soon led many African countries to enlist this aid. Believers in the effects of neocolonialism feel that accepting loans from Europe or America proved the link between independent African governments and the exploitative forces of former colonizers. They note as evidence that most foreign aid has been given in the form of loans, bearing high rates of interest; repayment of these loans contributed to the underdevelopment of African economies because the collection of interest ultimately impoverished African peoples.
The forces of neocolonialism did not comprise former colonial powers alone, however. Theorists also saw the United States as an increasingly dominant purveyor of neocolonialism in Africa. As the Cold War reached its highest tensions at roughly the same time that most African countries achieved independence, many theorists believed that the increasing levels of American aid and intervention in the affairs of independent African states were designed to keep African countries within the capitalist camp and prevent them from aligning with the Soviet Union.
If the forces of neocolonialism were so obvious to many theorists at the time, why then could independent African countries not simply recognize them and steer toward economic models that would allow them to be more competitive in the world market? Most students of neocolonialism had theories about the continuing drain of African resources. Perhaps the two most prolific were Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon. Many theorists and politicians came to espouse the ideas of these two men; a general understanding of the causal theories of neocolonialism may therefore be gained through a brief summary of their writings.
Kwame Nkrumah was a major figure in African politics for more than four decades. Born in Gold Coast (later Ghana) in 1909 and educated in Philadelphia and London, Nkrumah became a powerful leader in the movements for African independence and pan-African unity in the 1930s and 1940s. He became the first president of independent Ghana in 1957 and ruled until 1966, when his regime was overthrown by a military coup. Aside from his political activity, Nkrumah also wrote several books dealing with issues facing contemporary Africa. Of particular importance was his 1965 Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism in which he sought to prove the existence of neocolonial forces in Africa and explain the impediments to overcoming them.
According to Nkrumah, the most important factor allowing for the perpetuation of neocolonialism in Africa was the "balkanization" of the continent that had occurred as a result of European colonialism. Colonizers had broken Africa into dozens of administrative units in order to govern it more effectively, and the colonial boundaries had become the lines within which African countries had been given independence. Nkrumah believed that the interests of Africa were being damaged by the need of each new country to fend for itself. For instance, the fact that each produced and exported its cocoa crop independently was what resulted in lower prices. Nkrumah believed that through African unity and cooperation, the continent could best combat neocolonialism. This required a policy of nonalignment in the Cold War. Believing that Africa had all the resources necessary to achieve true economic independence, Nkrumah promoted inter-African trade, so that the continent could wean itself from Western imports. He also believed that African unity would help to strengthen African countries' bargaining power on the world market, as well as in international politics. If Africans aligned with each other, rather than with the various Western countries that wished to exploit them, the future could be safeguarded. Nkrumah also believed that concerted efforts toward industrialization should complement agricultural and mineral exports in order that African countries become able to produce their own finished goods and reduce their reliance on European and American manufactured products. By enacting such policies, the spell of neocolonialism could be broken, ushering in an era of distinctly African "socialism." Many African leaders of the day, including Sékou Touré of Senegal and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, held similar beliefs. Although these men fought diligently for African unity and economic development, their goals were mostly not achieved.
Frantz Fanon offered a different perspective on the dilemma facing independent African countries. Fanon was born in Martinique, in the West Indies, in 1925. Educated in France, he moved to Algeria in 1953 to practice psychiatry, and soon became embroiled in that nation's violent struggle to gain independence from France. As the Algerian war of independence was nearing its end, Fanon wrote his most celebrated book, The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la terre), in which he discussed, among other things, the causes of neocolonialism in Africa, and the solution he foresaw.
Fanon took much of the basis for neocolonialism for granted, seeing the exploitative tendencies of Western countries as inherent to their capitalist nature. He saw no place for Africa in this system. The African petty bourgeoisie, which had received power from the exiting colonial government, was the primary cause of neocolonialism in Africa. Fanon believed that the Africans who took power at the time of independence had been favored by European powers because they were willing to effect a smooth transition from colonialism to neocolonialism. Since they were generally of the Western-educated middle class who had in many ways benefited from the colonial system, they had the most to gain from a continuation of colonial economic policies. Fanon accused them of collaborating with the colonial power to ensure that the interests of both would continue to be met after the declaration of formal political independence; this class of Africans had betrayed the masses on whose backs the various nationalist movements had been borne. In order to achieve complete and final independence for African countries, "a rapid step must be taken from national consciousness to political and social consciousness" by the masses in order to check the power of the governing class, which had merely replaced the colonial administration as the most direct exploiters of African people. Violent revolution was the only means to drive oppressive neocolonial forces from the world. Fanon's ideology was supported by several political actors in Africa, including Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, who warred against a deeply entrenched Portuguese colonial regime until his assassination in 1974.
Of course, neocolonial theory has its detractors as well. Opponents argue that the concept is merely an attempt to continue to blame colonialism for Africa's problems rather than confront the major issues hampering independent African governments, such as corruption, inefficiency, and protectionism. They argue that these problems, more than any systematic process of external exploitation, have been responsible for the poor performance of African economies since independence. Others continue to argue that neocolonialism persists, if in slightly different form. Transnational corporations, such as petroleum and mining companies, and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization are responsible for much of the neocolonial influence in African countries in the early twenty-first century. The activities of these corporations and organizations transcend the boundaries and powers of the traditional nation-state, making it difficult to talk about interregional relationships except in terms of such paradigms as united North (Europe, Canada, and the United States) and underdeveloped and desperate South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). As the understanding of international and intercontinental relations becomes more and more refined, the idea of neocolonialism will continue to be revisited. It is for this reason that neocolonialism has entered the vocabulary of all students of Third World affairs and is an important concept in the history of ideas.