Africa Since Independence by Paul Nugent (Book Review)

Starting Africa Since Independence is equivalent to jumping into the deep end of the pool for a neophyte learning about contemporary African history. The book is more than 600 pages with a small font size and ten pages dedicated to keeping track of political abbreviations. Given the book’s length, it is unfortunate there are not more and better quality maps. Nugent assumes that the reader is already aware of many geographical and historical facts of Africa such as where Lomé is. Having internet access to do reference lookups is very helpful when reading this book. While it was sometimes a slog to read, its scope and breadth make it rewarding. Africa Since Independence sets itself the task of providing a comprehensive analysis of Sub-Saharan Africa’s contemporary political dynamics, and succeeds. While there are occasional references to African film and literature, the author acknowledges that these serve only to add a bit of texture. The task of explaining post-colonial “Africa” would be too great across more than one dimension.

Analysis of variance

As its subtitle would suggest, A Comparative History, Nugent’s elucidates the key themes of modern African political history through a comparative approach. The book’s chapters are based on large and partially chronological themes. For example military rule precedes the the invasion of the acronyms chapter when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began to proliferate in the 1980s. Sub-chapters are often vignettes on a handful of countries (e.g. The limited allure of secessionism: Sudan, Congo, Nigeria, and Chad). While “Africa” is often spoken about as though it were a single country, Nugent makes clear that the trajectories and starting points for African nations were remarkably different. Consider geography. Some countries were tiny (e.g. Gambia and Swaziland) whilst others were enormous. Both Sudan and the Congo have land masses that exceed all of Western Europe. However territorial size was not always correlated with population. Sudan had very few people, while Nigeria had many. Though urbanization was relatively rare in Sub-Saharan Africa, there were important differences at the time of independence. For example Nigeria had an urbanization rate five fold higher than that of Mali (11% to 2%, respectively), yet both were much lower than South Africa (31%). Variations could also be seen in the nature of the resources available to countries too. Botswana had only two exportable goods (cattle and diamonds), whereas Côte d’Ivoire had more than a dozen (oil, bauxite, gold, cocoa, coffee, etc).

The institutional differences between French and British Africa were also significant. Because the British generally relied on indirect rule, indigenous rulers were given more autonomy to conduct local affairs. British colonialism in a country like Nigeria, for example, was largely concerned with foreign policy and ensuring that the legal system would protect the property rights of British investors. The Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria was the exemplar of indirect rule where the Sultan was effectively in charge of an Islamic state. But even within former British colonies there were political differences. In those countries which had large white settler minorities (e.g. Kenya and Rhodesia), there was much less emphasis placed on indigenous participation in the political system. Whereas other British colonies, like Botswana, were run by the indigenous elite whose culture and heritage was largely unmolested by British colonialism.

In the North [of Nigeria], British Residents saw it as their duty to oversee the Native Authority (NA) system so as to ensure ‘sound administration’, and intervened in matters of succession, but to a large extent the Emirate structures were self-regulating. Most northerners would therefore have encountered colonial justice in the form of Native Courts, presided over by Alkalis applying principles of Islamic law. As late as 1958, there were only three Magistrates Courts for the whole of the Northern Region, with the result that 80 pre cent of all criminal and 85 per cent of civil cases were transacted through native courts.

The colonial shadow

Decolonization happened much faster than both Colonial powers and local elites in favour of independence had expected. Western planners only began to seriously consider the future independence of colonies after the second world war with vague time lines about future generations. Yet a total of 37 African countries gained independence in a ten year period between 1956 to 1966. There are competing hypotheses as to why this occurred, but Nugent appears sympathetic to the Events, dear boy, events view of politics whereby independence led to a momentum which proved irrepressible to colonial powers who were increasingly ambivalent about shedding territory. Yet the transition to “flag” independence led to limited changes on the ground. There was a strong persistence of institutions and political structures. As is often pointed out, Africa has “strange” borders and many landlocked countries. During the Scramble for Africa colonial boundaries were based on geopolitical considerations rather than social or economic groupings. As Obafema Awolowo, one of Nigeria’s founding political leaders, put it:

Nigeria is not a nation, it is a mere geographical expression. There are no “Nigerians” in the same sense as there are “English” or “Welsh” or “French”. The word Nigeria is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not.

One consequence of Africa’s ethnically-illiterate borders was that all African leaders had to carefully balance the power of competing tribal and religious constituents. The failure to resolve internal tensions could lead to civil wars and coups. For African leaders which came from small tribal groups like Nkrumah (an Akan) or Amin (a Kakwa), kin-based appointments led to resentment from the broader population. Even in the case of a deft leader like Kenyatta, a careful balancing act was needed throughout his entire reign in order to ensure that the Kikuyu plurality remained ensconced in power. Natural resource development could exacerbate ethnic tensions. The discovery of significant petroleum reserves in Igboland led to an explosion of Nigerian government revenues without almost any benefit to the local Igbo population. National solidarity was therefore seen by the Igbo as a cynical attempt by the Yoruba and Hausa to fleece Igboland of its natural patrimony. This resource curse helped to provoke the Biafran War. Botswana proves an interesting counterexample to Nigeria even though resource revenues also flowed in the central state coffers. Since the country’s diamond mines were mainly found on the territory of the Bangwato, which happened to be the Seretse Khama’s (the president) own tribe, the centralization of resource revenue was seen as an actual example of national solidarity. As indirect rule relied on co-opting local elites, stratified economic development occurred within colonial states either geographically (north and south in Nigeria and Uganda) or ethnically (the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi).

In Nigeria, Catholic and Protestant missionary organisations had been given a relatively free hand in the South from the nineteenth century, but they had been kept out of the Muslim north. The result was Northerners lagged far behind it terms of educational attainment. Oxford had graduated its first Yoruba woman in 1935… the first Northerners graduated as late as 1951. This was one of very good reason why the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) sought to retard the pace of decolonization in the 1950s… In the Nigerian case, the British intention had been to avoid antagonising the Muslim establishment, but in Rwanda and Burundi it was a conscious policy on the part of the Belgians to favour Tutsis over Hutus.

After independence one of the main differences between Anglophone and Francophone Africa was how enduring the cultural and economic ties would be. The French were much better, unsurprisingly, at preserving a neo-colonialist structure. Most of French West Africa was led by men who were Francophiles like Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire or Léopold Senghor of Senegal. While Nkrumah and Kenyatta had different economic world-views, they were both weary of any lingering British influence in their country. France managed to preserve its influence over most of West and Equatorial Africa through a regime referred to as Françafrique. The majority of French-speaking African countries use the CFA franc which required member countries to hold large reserves of francs and outsource their monetary policy to France. Even today the telecoms, finance, and retail industries of French West Africa are dominated by French firms. Leaders that flirted to closely with American firms or Soviet aid were liable to suffer from economic punishments or coups. France launched more than 40 military interventions in French West Africa, mainly during the cold war. The machinations of international relations led to particularly brutal consequences for the Congo.

The elimination of Lumumba signalled the splitting of the Congo into four different administrations: namely Leopoldville, where the College of Commissioners governed in the name of the Congo; Stanleyville, where the provincial government provided a home for the government-in-exile of Antoine Gizenga; Elizabethville, with Moïse Tshombe claimed to be the leader of an independent Katanga; and Bakwanga, where Kalonji went on to declare himself king. The first two regimes remained attached to the idea of the Congo, whereas the second two insisted that it was consigned to history. The reconstitution of the Congo, in relatively short order, has everything to do with the same external forces which had eliminated Lumumba.

African Economic Policy

At independence almost all African countries placed themselves within the non-aligned movement; adopting a de jure policy of neutrality in the Cold War battle between Communism and Capitalism. However most countries were still categorized as either following development policies of either a capitalist or socialist vision. While the socialist economies generally performed worse that their capitalist counterparts for the first two decades there were still interesting differences within the socialist economic world view. Nugent spends a good deal of time contrasting the two English-speaking colonies of Tanzania and Ghana. Tanzania pursued an indigenous policy of African Socialism or ujamaa. Nyerere’s vision was that of happy and honest peasants working in collective ujamaa villages. After a voluntary collectivization (naturally) failed to draw in villagers, the state resorted to more coercive measures. In order to avoid government sanction, peasants would put in a token amount of work on collective farms and then spend the rest of their time on their own plots of land. The result was a collapse in agricultural output and Tanzania went from being a net exporter to a net importer of food. While Nkrumah was also interested in charting a uniquely African way socialist development, he considered industrialization as the key for Ghana to escape poverty.

What other countries have taken three hundred years or more to achieve a more dependent territory must to accomplish in a generation if it is to survive. Unless it is, as it were, jet-propelled, it will lag behind and thus risk everything for which it has fought for. Capitalism is too complicated a system for a newly independent state. Hence the need for a socialistic society.

Ghana’s “big push” amounted to borrowing billions of dollars, well above its GDP, in order to finance massive infrastructure projects and pursue an economy policy of import substitution industrialization. The results were disastrous. Ghanian industry had no competitive basis beyond government support. The significant investments made into the Akosombo Dam were designed to fuel an industrial renaissance that never occurred. In 1966 Ghana’s per capita income was lower than it was at the time of independence (1957). In retrospect it is clear that socialistic development strategies or premature industrialization and collectivization were not only going to lead to any development. A necessary condition for increasing agricultural output in an underdeveloped economy is have property rights, a stable macroeconomic regime, and economies of scale (i.e. land consolidation). The economic dreams of a dictator are bound to fail because there is no course-correction mechanism. After the CCP and TANU won elections in Ghana and Tanzania, respectively, both countries abolished multi-party democracy for a single-party state. If the peasants could have voted, they would have tossed out the party backing the ujaama fantasy. Most Ghanians would have preferred better education, healthcare, roads, and electrification, instead of a grand Soviet-style industrialization strategy.

Paradoxically weak property rights and a high risk of expropriation in many states did not lead to a radical rearranging of the economic elites in many locations. Even after black majority rule, white farmers continued to hold a disproportionate share of prime agricultural land in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa.

During decolonisation, some African businessmen did move into the niches vacated by the European firms, but the greater beneficiaries were the Lebanese in West Africa and the Asians in East Africa who were petter placed to take advantage. An African business class consequently remained very small and prospered largely on the basis of access to political patronage from the centre.

Political development and collapse

Most African founding fathers placed a strong emphasis on education due to their own background and an obvious realization that a lack of technical skills would place their countries at the mercy of their former colonial overlords. Yet education was a double-edged sword for most rulers. Those countries which had a capitalist, or at least non-socialist bent, like Ethiopia or Kenya, would face radicalised student populations seduced by the ideas of Afro-Marxism and class-based struggle. The thousand year reign of the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia came to an abrupt end in 1974 when Haile Selassie was toppled in a coup instigated by a coalition of civil servants, soldiers, and students that made up no more than 0.1% of the population at the time.

The elite which inherited power was not born of economic strength but out of access to the educational system.

Almost all of Africa’s monarchies were abolished between the 1960-70s: Uganda, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Rwanda, and Zanzibar. Monarchies were seen as alternative sources of power and therefore naturally conflicted with politicians and military leaders trying to establish political hegemony through the dispensation of patronage. Furthermore, kings were associated with an ancien régime at odds with the modernizing impulse pervasive at the time of independence. As of 2020, only one country in Sub-Saharan Africa (Swaziland) is headed by a monarchy.[1]

The contrast between the Basotho and Swazi monarchs could hardly have been starker The one had been constitutionally emasculated and then publicly humiliated in the wake of a coup launched by the politicians; the other had extracted a constitution which was favourable to himself before launching his own coup against refractory politicians. However the king of Lesotho had fared comparatively well by comparison with his counterparts in Ethiopia and Burundi. Here, the monarchies were abolished outright and the last incumbents were murdered, providing spectacular illustrations of how the balance of power in post-colonial Africa had shifted.

Tribal leaders are also fared poorly in the first decades of independence. Their associations with colonial governance (through indirect rule) and their reactionary political inclinations were often at odds with the new generation of political leaders. Once again Nugent shows how the case of Northern Nigeria is illustrative.

Although Nigerian chiefs had been stripped of their formal power, the greatest amongst them retained a measure of political influence because politicians and soldiers alike still needed to bask in their reflected glory. However, there was no disguising the fact that a veritable revolution had been carried out, especially in the North. The extent to which the chiefs had been tamed became fully apparent some years later, in 1984, when the Buhari regime confined the Emir of Kano and the Ooni of Ife to their home areas for having dared to make an unauthorised mission to Jerusalem in defiance of government policy. As we have seen, the Bello administration had not hesitated to put an earlier Emir of Kano and his place, but the public manner in which the chastisement was carried out reverberated through Nigeria. The fact that Buhari himself was a northerner underlined just how much the balance of power had shifted away from the palace and towards the barracks.

African coups were frequent throughout the post-independence period and were a reminder that the keys of the kingdom were held by a small number of power players. Excluding the island nations, the only African countries that have not had a coup attempt are Eritrea, South Sudan, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi, Botswana, and South Africa.[2] The motivations for coups were numerous ranging from tribal tensions, economic incompetence, unrest in the junior officer class, or just pure ambition.

By the 1980s most African economies were experiencing a negative shock from higher interest rates and low commodity prices. The macroeconomic damage was visible in the form of falling growth rates, balance-of-payment shortfalls, inflation, and debt crises. Governments which turned to the IMF for financial support received funding contingent on policy reforms; a system referred to as structural adjustment programs (SAP). The academic consensus is that SAPs failed since Sub-Saharan African growth rates remained miserable between the 1980-90s despite policy reforms. Though Nugent acknowledges that it is difficult to know what growth rates would have been in the counter factual. Since SAPs largely took the form of reducing tariffs, privatizing government assets, and reducing economic distortions, there are some clear examples where an enfeebled state led to particularly damaging effects such as the limited public health response to the AIDs epidemic.

Sometimes history is interesting for its own sake, although it is also a nice bonus when it helps to bring context into events today. For example the horrific Boko Haram movement in West Africa had many precedents even as recently as 1980s.

During the Shagari years and afterwards, the glaring inequalities of wealth and power led to outbursts of popular discontent. In 1980, a millenarian Islamist movement (not the first) emerged under the leadership if Muhammadu Marwa, otherwise known as Maitatsine, and fought the security forces in pitched battles in Kano. Although the leader died in this insurrection, the movement spread to other northern cities through to 1985. In successive clashes with the army and police, anywhere from 3000 to 10,0000 people may have lost their lives. The Maitatsine movement was undoubtedly unorthodox, given that the founder apparently disputed that Mohammed had been the prophet. However, its social roots lay amongst alienated Muslim youth in the cities. Marwa championed the lot of the have-notes and preached against conspicuous consumption which the Northern Muslim elite had taken to with gusto. He even banned symbols of modernity like wristwatches, radios and money.

The collapse in many African countries economic growth rates in the 1980s coincided with a crisis in legitimacy for most leaders, many of whom remained in power since the time of independence. As Nugent notes: “As of 1990, no African government had ever been removed through the ballot box, but within six years no fewer than 18 heads of state had been sent packing”. The two phenomena are not unrelated. With a shrinking economic pie, clientelist politics (the glue of one-party states) became increasingly difficult to manage.[3] Furthermore a new generation of youth who had lived free of colonial rule their whole lives were much less sympathetic to the leaders which had won them “freedom”. The 1980s also saw an explosion of civil society groups which further reduced the power of the central state since many of these NGOs were directly funded by foreign governments or aid agencies. Declining state power provided more room for an active press: “At the end of the 1980s, then, there was a veritable explosion of print media in most African countries as dozens of private papers suddenly hit the newsstands.”[4] Leaders desperate to cling onto to power in a one-party gave a variety of excuses as to why democracy would be unsuitable for their country. Most of these were, of course, cynical attempts to maintain legitimacy. However the claim that competing democratic parties would invariably form along ethnic lines and lead to civil war was not an unreasonable one. In Nigeria for example, Babangida attempted to limit the factionalism of political parties by building them from scratch.

The National Electoral Commission (NEC) … announced two parties of its own creation – one ‘a little to the left’ and the other ‘a little to the right’ – namely the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention. The exercise became almost surreal when the NEC drafted the manifestos for the parties and the transition committee crated their symbols.

Concluding thoughts

When Africa Since Independence was published in 2004, the economic story of Sub-Saharan Africa was largely one of economic stagnation. Nugent’s book reminds us that even though this is true statistically, it is still important to understand the relative internal dynamics between African countries both economically and politically. One must always resist referring to Africa as though it were a country. Since the 2000s though, many of the world’s fastest growing countries have been in Africa including Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Rising labour costs in Asia has allowed nascent industrial sectors to form, particularly in East Africa. Sustained population growth and urbanization has made West Africa and important trading bloc and allowed for economies of scale. In 2012 Nigeria’s aggregate GDP exceeded that of South Africa’s to become the largest economy on the continent. In addition to being a useful reference, Nugent’s book also encourages Africa-watchers to pay close attention to the variations within the continent that will inevitably emerge.


  1. Although there are many traditional sub-regional monarchies still in Africa, such as the Emir of Kano. 

  2. Even this list looks more promising than it is. South Sudan has been engulfed in a civil war since independence, Eritrea was ruled by a military dictatorship, and Namibia only gained independence in 1990. 

  3. Consider this amusing factoid from Nugent: “As in much else, Nigerian television was in a league of its own. In 1983, the budget of the Nigerian Television Authority was about one-third that of the BBC and this did not even include the multiplicity of affiliated stations in the individual states.” 

  4. For an interesting analysis of political cartoons see It’s a Political Jungle Out There (Eko 2007). As always, Nigeria’s situation proves to be the most interesting: “Outside of South Africa, Nigeria was the one country which boasted a vigorously independent press after independence. The federal system lent itself to a more decentralised media structure, in which each state would typically own its own newspaper. There were also private newspapers which were the partisan instrument of political grandees, such as the Tribune which was in the pocket of Obafemi Awolowo. Because of the sheer size of the Nigerian reading public, there was real money to be made through the print media. Hence Nigeria threw up media tycoons like M. K. O. Abiola, whose publishing group published the Concord locally, but also the African Concord magazine from offices in London. The size and strength of the Nigerian press made it much less susceptible to manipulation by the central government, although the down-side was that it tended to be highly partisan in tone. The Buhari regime was the first to attempt to crackdown on the press by means of the notorious Decree No. 4 of 1984. This made it a crime to embarrass a public official, even if the printed allegations happened to be true. This piece of controversial legislation was related by Babangida, who promised a return to unfettered press freedom.” 

Written on August 9, 2020