Africa: Past and Present

Belete K Mebratu. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. 2010. Sage Publication.

This chapter presents the study of Africa from historical and contemporary perspectives and considers its future prospects. It discusses Africa as the origin of humankind, where prehistoric and modern human societies have lived since the remote past. The chapter throws light on the ancient civilizations of Africa and African kingdoms. It outlines briefly the history of European contacts with Africa, first through exploration, then trade, and recently in the form of colonization. Other topics of interest in African studies are also part of this chapter, including the peoples, landscapes, regions, and countries of the continent, as well as the independence movement, postcolonial Africa, disillusionment, and modern challenges, hopes, and prospects. It ends with a summary and conclusion and suggests issues for continued inquiries into the study of Africa. Further readings are provided to enrich the understanding of the African continent and its peoples within the global village of our world.

Ancient Civilizations

Africa is believed to be the cradle of humankind. This belief is becoming even stronger with the recent findings of evidence of our distant roots, such as the remains of “Lucy” (Australopithecus afarensis), and more recently “Ardi” (Ardipithecus ramidus) in Ethiopia—remains that date our connections to the remote past of 4.4 million years ago. According to R. Hunt Davis (1998), advanced primates of hominids called Homo erectus moved out of Africa to Europe and Asia some 800,000 years ago. Molefi Asante (2007), among many, argued that the source of prehistoric evidence about the origin of humankind is found in Africa. Africans began farming and domestication of animals as early as 5000 BCE. They used iron to enhance their means of production. Trade brought about wealth that added sophistication to the political and economic changes in African society. Continued migration led to social expansion and the introduction of iron-based technology and agricultural skills to wider parts of Africa. These developments helped the emergence of cities and states that later evolved into kingdoms. Davis noted that a massive migration enabled Bantu-speaking people to introduce their agricultural skills widely and dominate large areas of Africa south of the Sahara.

Advanced civilizations in places like Egypt enjoyed the benefits of the invention of written language, which goes back to 3200 BCE and is also part of the history of Africa. Egyptian civilizations along the course of the Nile River reached south to the kingdoms of Nubia and Kush of today’s Sudan. The kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia was one of the advanced civilizations of the ancient world. Axum had contacts with Rome, Arabia, and India for trade and commerce. Famous for its carved monuments, Axum formed the foundation of the Ethiopian Empire, which is still a center of tourist attraction and a source of pride for Ethiopia as a reminder of its ancient African civilization.

Major global events have had great impacts on Africa. The expansion of the Roman Empire reached Africa and took control over the northern part, including Egypt and Morocco, at the onset of the first millennium CE. The Romans’ conquest was preceded by the Greeks’ dynasty in Egypt, one that lasted from 332 to 30 BCE. Toyin Falola (2002) emphasized that Egypt was a center of trade, intellectual discussion, and culture. Likewise, Christianity was introduced to Africa through Egypt, and Alexandria has been the home of theologians who laid the foundations of a new religion. Ethiopia also was one of the earliest countries to be converted to Christianity, beginning in the 4th century CE during the time of King Ezana. Similarly, the rise of Islam had a major effect on Africa. Arabs conquered Egypt in 640 CE, and by the end of the 7th century CE, the followers of Islam controlled most of North Africa. This part of Africa remains predominantly inhabited by Muslim populations. Islam gradually expanded from North Africa to West and East Africa. According to Asante, Africa as we know it today was both influenced and shaped by these two major events, the introduction of Christianity and Islam.

Falola (2002) wrote that contacts with Europeans, beginning from the 15th century CE onward, left enduring impacts on the African continent. The first contact occurred on the coasts, and it was only later that Europeans had access to the interior part of Africa. M. Alpha Bah (1998) noted that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to have encounters with African people when they gained control of the fortress of Ceuta from the Moroccans in 1415. Later, the British, Dutch, French, Swedes, and Spanish joined the Portuguese in the exploration of the African continent for trade. The contacts gradually led to the transatlantic slave trade and then to the colonization of Africa under European rule. By 1885, most African countries were under colonial rule. This development brought with it a major cultural influx. Western traditions and practices were introduced to the African soil, and they have enduring influences to this day. Following independence in the 1950s and 1960s, African states struggled to build nations with stronger links to the outside world. Subsequently, Africa showed progress in many areas while also facing daunting challenges of political instability, civil war, dictatorship, and poverty.

African Kingdoms

Africa enjoyed being the home of famous and expansive kingdoms from the earliest days until the medieval period. According to Asante (2007), Africa was the home of many kingdoms and empires known to be the earliest in the world. One of the kingdoms that developed during the Middle Ages was the Kingdom of Ghana. This kingdom later declined with the attack that came from the north in the 11th century. Another kingdom emerged in Southwest Nigeria, centering in the city of Ife. Ife declined during the 16th century. Benin was the other rich and powerful African kingdom. The Kingdom of Mali was founded in the 13th century and was known for its famous city of Timbuktu, a city well known for trade in salt, horses, gold, and slaves. This kingdom, which developed during the 14th century, was later destroyed by the Songhai Kingdom in the 16th century. The Songhai Kingdom was also a Mali kingdom, on the Niger River, that developed in the 14th century and was doomed to destruction toward the end of the 16th century by the invasion of the Moroccans. The Kingdom of Kanem-Bornu developed near Lake Chad; it became strong and remained independent until the 19th century. On the coast of East Africa, Arabs founded the states of Mogadishu and Zanzibar. In the south, other kingdoms were organized in Zimbabwe in 1430. The existence of these kingdoms, Davis (1998) argued, demonstrates the ability of the African people to master their environment and develop a political system indigenous to their culture.

Ethiopia maintained its kingdoms throughout the Middle Ages. The Axum kingdom was one of its well-known kingdoms; it dated back to 730 BCE. Later, it transferred its political power to another Ethiopian kingdom called the Zagua Dynasty, with a shift of power from the north toward the center and south. During the 13th century, according to the account of Tadesse Tamrat (1972), the Zagua Dynasty constructed complex monolith churches out of rocks; these churches remain standing today as one of the wonders of global heritage. King Lalibela, who was very religious himself, mobilized his people to construct churches using their remarkable engineering talent. This was a show to make Lalibela the center of politics and religious worship, thus claiming his legitimacy to the throne. Power was later shifted from the Zagua Dynasty to a new dynasty called the Solomonic Dynasty, which established a political theory that Ethiopian kings have their root in King Solomon of Jerusalem. This explanation for the source of their power continued to be used by Ethiopian kings from then until 1974, when the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was dethroned.

People, Landscapes, Regions, and Countries

Africa is characterized by the diversity of its geography. It is known for its forests, savannahs, deserts, mountains, rivers, lakes, and varied weather. The equator and the Great Rift Valley are part of the geographic features of Africa. The equator divides the continent, and its latitude has a major impact on its climate. The huge water bodies of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, as well as the Mediterranean and Red seas, surround the African continent. Famous rivers such as the Nile, Congo, and Zambezi are part of the African natural makeup. The Sahara Desert, the most massive desert in the world, is also found in Africa. The savannah, an extensive grassland that covers a large area, is the other wonder of the physical landscape of the continent. Also, Africa is not deprived of forests; it has one of the largest rainforests in the world. According to Davis (1998), 90% of the continent is over 500 feet above sea level. Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is 19,340 feet above sea level, is among the tallest mountains of the high terrain landscape of this continent. Falola (2002) wrote that diversity is one of the characteristics of the African continent that makes up its richness and beauty.

Thousands of languages are spoken in Africa. Contacts with other cultures have also brought to Africa languages from Europeans and other peoples. English, French, Arabic, Portuguese, and other European languages are spoken in Africa. Proverbs and storytelling are among the prominent parts of the traditions of maintaining and passing heritages and wisdom in African societies. An extended family structure, kinship support, cooperation, and respect for elders are some of the common values and traditions upheld among African peoples. Christianity, Islam, and traditional indigenous beliefs are forms of worship and religiosity among African peoples. J. Peter Schraeder (2004) observed that Africa is a mosaic of different languages, cultures, traditions, peoples, countries, and beliefs.

Africa is made up of 53 countries. Davis (1998) wrote that Africa is more than 3 times the size of the United States. The African continent is so vast that it is divided into regions. These regions are east, west, north, south, and central. In the north, one finds the countries of Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. These are countries inhabited predominantly by Arabic-speaking Muslin populations. West Africa consists of 16 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Western Sahara, and Togo. Countries in the east African region are Kenya, the Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles. Central African countries include Cameroon, Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome, and Prince. These countries are historically connected to French colonial rule; thus, the French language is common in the region. In the southern part of Africa are the countries of Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

African literature is characterized by both indigenous oral and written literatures. It is reflective of African traditions, religion, philosophy, culture, and livelihood. African literature has depicted the indigenous heritage of oral traditions before the advent of European colonization and cultural influx. In Africa, literature has also been part of the struggle and movement for independence. Poetry, drama, short stories, and larger prose writings were at the center of the pan-African movement and the Negritude activism to mobilize Africans for independence and to express the pains of colonialism. African literature is written in both African and European languages. Among the notable European languages are English, French, and Portuguese.

During the colonial period, literature was part of the effort to define and demonstrate African identity, culture, and history to the outer world. The postcolonial African literature has, however, turned to look inward in addressing African challenges and issues. The change in trend is also reflected in the use of African languages, instead of European languages, for literature. African writers have been focusing on political distaste by exposing corruption, dictatorship, and inept leadership on the continent, and writers have become victims of intimidation, harassment, imprisonment, disappearance, and executions. Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Nadine Gordimer (South Africa), and J. M. Coetzee (South Africa) are four African writers who received the Nobel Prize in literature. Joseph (2007), however, argued that even though these writers are from Africa, they represent divergent literary backgrounds reflecting Arab-Islamic traditions, conditions of European settlers in Africa, and indigenous African traditions. This is an indication of the great extent of diversity within the African continent and its societies.

European Interests in Africa: From Exploration to Colonialism

Early European knowledge of Africa came from the exploration of European expeditions, which required a series of efforts with challenges and difficulties. The European explorers made continuous efforts to uncover the African continent beginning in the 15th century. Such efforts began with some knowledge about the coastal part of Africa. European explorers first came in contact with places such as Timbuktu, Gambia, Senegal, Tripoli, and Cairo. According to Ieuan Griffiths (1995), Europeans had been familiar with coastal Africa for a long time before discovering the interior of Africa; this took so long because many voyages ended in vain due to the difficulties of surviving diseases, traversing the terrain of deserts, and overcoming the challenges of following the courses of rivers, such as the Niger, to their roots. European explorers were mainly from Portugal, Britain, and France. Griffiths notes that the European interest in Africa was motivated by religious missions, trade, and the intellectual curiosity for explorations. In that process, the Portuguese took the lead and reached the Azores in 1431, the mouth of Congo River in 1445, and the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

Europeans started to transport slaves from Africa across the Atlantic in the 16th century. The trade transaction followed a triangular route, in which manufactured goods were taken from Europe to Africa and, in return, the ships took slaves from Africa to the West Indies, and finally they took sugar and other products from the colonial plantations to Europe. This was called the triangular trade route. Even though the slave trade was neither new nor limited to the one that was carried out by Europeans, Schraeder (2004) shared what many believe, which is that the transatlantic route was the one used for the most trade.

Part of the horror of the slave trade was that the slaves were captured in raids and as war captives before they were brought to the coast. Africans took part and became rich out of the business of supplying slaves for European merchants at the coast. Slavery was one of the most horrifying experiences of Africans and humanity at large in terms of its immediate and long-term impact. Slavery brought about cultural shock, humiliation, and exploitation. Thomas O’Toole (2007) wrote that slavery, among other impacts, has overshadowed the glory of the history and civilizations of Africa that stretch as far back as to ancient Egypt. With Great Britain’s decision to abolish the slave trade, it became illegal in 1807. Despite the decision, Schraeder (2004) indicated that thousands of slaves continued to be smuggled illegally into the United States throughout the first half of the 19th century.

Another shocking experience for Africa was the advent of colonialism. European countries substituted slavery for an alternative grip on the African soul through a rule commonly called colonialism. Among the notable European powers to rule Africa through colonialism were Great Britain, France, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. According to Griffiths (1995), the colonial powers made Africa virtually their private property, and they scrambled the continent with no restrictions or limitations except the rivalry and competition among themselves. Falola (2002) outlined the timeline in the processes of the scrambling of the continent among the European powers. The Portuguese settled in Angola and Mozambique in the 16th century. The Dutch founded a colony in 1652 in South Africa. In 1814, the British took the Dutch colony in South Africa. The French invaded and colonized Algeria in 1830. Germany took control of Namibia, Togo, and Cameroon in 1884 and took Tanzania in 1885. The Belgians colonized what is known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1885. The French took Madagascar in 1896 and Morocco in 1912. In the early 20th century, the British added to their stock Egypt, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, and Kenya. The Italians had a colony in Libya, and they also made an attempt to colonize Ethiopia during World War II but failed after five years of occupation. By the middle of the 20th century, nearly all of the African countries had fallen under the colonial rule of the Europeans. Exceptions to this were Liberia and Ethiopia, the only African countries that remained uncolonized.

According to Falola (2002), Europeans were successful in colonizing Africa for many reasons. Africans were not one single force; rather, they were in many separate entities. Europeans took one place at a time, sometimes with assistance from African leaders. With regard to technology and resources, Europeans had professional armies equipped with better firearms and resources than the natives had. In terms of resistance against European invasions, however, one of the most successful cases in the history of the continent was the victory of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia over the Italian colonial army at the battle of Adwa in 1896. Asante (2007) referred to this victory as decisive and monumental in a movement for the liberation and freedom of African peoples.

The Independence Movement

Africans resisted European invasion and colonial rule from the outset. European colonial ambition was not without challenges and resistances from the natives of Africa. In fact, Europeans had to win a number of battles to overcome the resistance. Rebellion movements against the European colonial rule became common throughout Africa in the 20th century. Pan-Africanism, the African National Congress, Negritude, and the Mau Mau movements were among the well-known forms of struggle and movement for independence. Many African countries became independent in the 1950s and 1960s. Some remained under colonial rule until the 1970s and 1980s. Zimbabwe got its independence in 1980. The last country to attain its independence from colonial rule was Zambia in 1990. The independence movement was not only a drive to become free from foreign rule; it also represented a hope for prosperity and development under the rule of Africa’s new leaders. Africans hoped for a better life under the leadership of their own children free from the rule by Europeans.

One of the nationalist political movements during the colonial period was the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. The Mau Mau movement was much more forceful than the forms of struggle in other parts of Africa. According to Falola (2002), factors such as land scarcity and grievance against the British rule led to a more violent form of resistance, which later became guerilla warfare against the government. The movement accelerated Kenyan independence, which was made possible in 1963. One of the leaders of the movements, Jomo Kenyatta, became the first president of an independent Kenya.

The armed struggle resistance in Algeria was part of the struggle for independence in Africa. France had a stronghold in Algeria, claiming that Algeria was a part of France. Despite the various attempts made by the French to ease the colonial rule for appeasement, armed struggle became inevitable. This war became the bloodiest form of struggle in Africa, and it cost the lives of thousands on both sides. After this devastating war that lasted nearly a decade, Algeria became independent in 1962 following a referendum both in France and Algeria. One of the leaders of this armed struggle, Ahmed Ben Bella, became the first president of independent Algeria.

Pan-Africanism was a movement for the independence of Africa from colonial rule. It was a movement aimed at mobilizing the black people in Africa and all over the world against colonial rule. The movement initiated awareness and unity among black people in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa for the end of exploitation and oppression and for the freedom of the African people from European rule. Kwame Nkrumah, who was among the notable activists of the Pan-African movement, became the first president of Ghana after independence.

World War II had its own consequences for strengthening the movement toward the end of colonialism in Africa. Many colonies of the European countries that were participants in World War II used Africans as the source of human power required by the war. Many served in the British and French armies as fighters. Basil Davidson (1994) highlighted what Africa paid for the war with its children. Returnees from the war later became well aware and conscious of their conditions at home and began to join the resistance movement against colonial rule. Opinions also began to change, even in Europe, about colonial rule in Africa. The outcome of World War II brought about a change in the balance of power on the world stage. It also had an impact on the conditions and opinions in Europe that contributed to the changes made in the Europeans’ colonial policy in Africa.

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 antagonized many independence activists all over the world. Ethiopia remained independent for centuries and has been an example of an independent black nation not colonized by European powers. It was a big surprise when the League of Nations remained silent and did not protect its own member nation, Ethiopia, from being attacked by another member nation, Italy. This contributed to the League of Nations’ demise and subsequent replacement with the United Nations right after World War II. Nationalists and Pan-African leaders and supporters were radicalized and made every effort to call for an end to colonial rule in Africa. According to Davidson (1994), the Italian invasion of Ethiopia created outrage among many in Africa and beyond, and it helped to strengthen the Pan-African movement. The effect of this event was clearly seen in British West Africa, with its renewal of commitment and spirit to stand not only against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, but also the entire imperialist colonial rule in Africa.

International developments have had their contribution to the strengthening of the movement for independence in Africa. The independence of India from British colonial rule in 1947 was a good model to imitate, and it became an example for a peaceful resistance struggle on the African continent. Schraeder (2004) stressed that Asian nationalism provided an impetus for Africa’s demand for independence. Internally, politicians were also very committed to the independence movement in anticipation of leadership positions in the new independent Africa. To that end, many political parties were formed and mobilized millions of people in the struggle for the end of colonial rule. Workers established unions and organizations. Students in higher education institutions also joined the movement by becoming activists for liberation. The African-educated elites took a critical role in exposing the hidden interest of the colonial powers and agitating the African people for resistance. The media also played a part through its publication of materials that challenged the European colonization. Peaceful struggles in the form of demonstrations, mass strikes, boycotts, publications of literary materials and political writings, and armed struggles were coupled with developments from the outside world in Europe, North America, and the Caribbean, bringing to an end European rule over the African continent that had lasted for more than a century.

Postcolonial Africa

The outcomes of independence from colonial subjugation were immense. Achieving independence was significant to the emotional and psychological makeup of the African people. Africans who had been under European rule— deprived of so much with so many restrictions, limits, and indignity—rejoiced in their freedom with the onset of independence. Independence brought about the feeling of freedom, respect, and dignity. The educated Africans, elites, and politicians came to be at the helm of the society and assumed leadership roles. They formulated policies and started the work needed to make changes in the lives of millions of people. Continental associations were also formed in order to unite the entire African continent to move forward. One such entity was the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which was formed in 1961 with headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Following independence, many African countries also joined the United Nations. New businesses and enterprises also began to emerge with the leadership and ownership by Africans themselves.

Expansion in the service sectors was another task of building nations in Africa after independence. Building schools to serve students at both lower and higher levels was a priority for the new African leaders. Education was thought to be the key for development, and much hope for prosperity was put into the schools. The concept of access for all, including girls, was among the new academic policies. Changing the contents of the curriculum, from a focus on European studies to the concerns of African societies, was part of the reform effort in the education system. Education received significant attention among the new leaders as a vital tool for nation building across independent Africa.

Africans began to use their native languages. Cultures and traditions that are indigenous to the African people began to be revived for full use with pride and dignity among African people. Following independence, the publication of literary works grew significantly. Many African writers have produced novels that have a wide readership beyond Africa. These writers include Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka of Nigeria and others such as Ngugi Wa Thingo and Chinua Achebe. Their works of literature reflected on life under colonial rule, the movement for independence, the hopes and prospects of independent Africa, and the celebration of African traditions and cultures.

In the aftermath of their independence, African countries began to restore their cultural heritages, while they also lived with the carryover effects of the colonial past. European modernity and bureaucracy, which left footprints on the African soul, continued to influence the organization of governments, businesses, and other sectors among African countries. In many sectors, including the education sector, there has been a significant introduction of European culture into the African traditions. Africans have had to make great efforts to regain the cultural identities, traditions, and customs that they sacrificed during the colonial period. Thus, Africa struggled to maintain an equilibrium between retrieving its lost indigenous cultural heritages and the cultural influx it received from European traditions.


There were many promises that were made during the independence movement concerning Africa once it was back in the hands of the African people. Equally, the African people developed high expectations for a better life after independence. However, these expectations were not met as the years went by with the new leaders in power. Unfulfilled dreams of prosperity began to build up dissatisfaction and doubt toward the new leaders on the part of the people. Many started to believe that the change was only in the leadership, that is, African elites had replaced European rulers. The new leaders became the new elite class in the African society, and not much change was delivered to the population. Louis Serapiao (1998) noted that liberation from colonial rule was perceived as a solution to Africa’s problems. Contrary to the expectations, however, limited resources, power struggles, ethnic conflicts, coups, the use of politics as a source of business and wealth, one-party rule, military rule, lack of strong foundations for economic infrastructures, and limited exports all created complications in Africa following its independence. According to Serapiao, some of the roots of these problems are the legacy of colonialism, the global economy and market systems, environmental challenges, and the problems caused by the leadership of the new African leaders.

In an unfortunate way, Africans never realized the dreams of prosperity, freedom, and peaceful livelihood after independence as they had hoped they would during their struggle for independence. For the most part, Africa became a center of political unrest, civil wars, dictatorship, military coups, poverty, and disease. The state of Africa became one of disillusionment for its children, as many became confused by being oppressed by their own so-called liberators. African leaders deprived their own people of political as well as economic freedom. Many were infected with corruption and diverted state resources to benefit their family members. Africa came to be known for challenges such as coups in Nigeria, Algeria, Togo, Libya, and the Sudan; human suffering in Darfur; genocide in Rwanda and Burundi; civil wars in the Congo and Sierra Leone; and the protracted destabilization of Somalia. According to Falola (2002), there were 21 countries under military rule and 70 cases of military coups on the African continent between 1960 and 1992.

Military regimes that are the outcomes of coups often end up in disaster and further dissatisfaction. Lacking the skill for civilian leadership in matters of economic and social development, military personnel never succeeded in bringing about the desired changes in the lives of millions of Africans. Military regimes have contributed to instability and economic underdevelopment in Africa. These regimes abandoned democratic institutions and multiparty political practices, and they ruined economies through corruption and mismanagement. Poverty has remained an overwhelming challenge for most of the African continent. Fundamental needs for clean water, food, and health services are not met well in the 21st century. The low economic growth rate and unemployment are aggravated by political instability, power struggles, tyrannical leadership, mismanagement, and the embezzlement of resources.

The political ideologies of socialism and communism did not solve the challenges of African people. In the aftermath of the Cold War, since the early 1990s, many of the African countries that had been allies of the former Soviet Union abandoned the communist ideology and began to embrace Western democratic liberalization policies. The reform efforts included the institution of free markets, privatization of state businesses, elections, and multiparty political systems. Despite some success stories, elections have turned out to be less encouraging, having been marred by fraud and voter intimidation. Multiparty systems have resulted in opposition parties whose leaders have sometimes ended up in jails as enemy combatants. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, G8 countries, and recently G20 countries are among the notable international bodies and institutions invested in the efforts that are being made to make changes in the lives of millions of people in Africa. Programs such as the African Development Commission and Millennium Development Goals have been outlined with a target of poverty reduction.

Challenges, Hopes, and Prospects

The end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 marked the beginning of new hopes and prospects in Africa. It brought about not only the freedom of the black majority in South Africa but also an example of the rule of democracy, national reconciliation, and stability for the continent. Some African countries also began the long journey to democracy and human right commitments for their people. Governments in Ghana, Mali, and Botswana are among the promising political developments of rule by the people, free and fair elections, and the accountability of leaders on African soil.

One of the new developments on the African continent is the newly emerging Asian influence. Richard Dowden (2009) wrote that China’s influence on Africa is one of the significant changes in the geopolitics of our recent time. The engagement is based on construction, trade, and raw material extraction. This was marked by the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in November 2006, at which China announced a government fund for Africa of about $5 billion. One of China’s policies of engagement with Africa is the policy of noninterference with the internal affairs of countries. Thus, their funding comes with less stringent preconditions. This policy has been welcomed by African governments. This development, Dowden notes, has created an outside ally for Africa that is an alternative to the traditional Western countries.

Development in communication services is an encouraging sign of progress; it has created contacts within and outside Africa and has many implications for business and the exchange of experiences. Mobile phones are now reaching every corner of the continent. Mobile phones, the Internet, and satellite TV have brought about significant access to information and direct contact with the outside world. It is an encouraging development that access to information is being made available that could make a difference in the lives of millions of Africans.

One of the chronic problems that has remained as a challenge in Africa is the negative consequence of aid. Foreign aid, despite the good intentions behind it, did more harm than good for African societies. In many cases, the aid is directed to programs that encourage dependence instead of self-reliance. The programs also favor short-term activities, in which corrupt leaders can embezzle money and make fortunes, rather than contributing to long-term development efforts. April and Donald Gordon (2007) likened foreign aid to a two-edged sword in Africa. Although there are some benefits from aid, it is also used to advance donors’ interests. One of the problems of foreign aid is that it comes with conditions that do not reflect the reality of Africa.

The emerging challenges of global warming and climate change are also having impacts on the African continent. Africa is paying the greatest price for climate change and global warming, while contributing the least in terms of carbon emission pollution. Many are making the argument that Africa should get a fair share in overcoming the challenges of global warming in terms of more aid directed to environmental protection and green technology development. In this regard, the shortage of energy is an area that needs to be addressed; electricity supplies are short even in the capital cities of African countries. This is being attributed to the boom in construction, development of diverse companies, growth in urbanization, and greater access to electrical service for the masses, including those in the remote parts of Africa. Although this may be a sign of good development, on the other hand, it is also indicative of the lack of long-term planning to balance investment and its growing demand for energy with an expansion in energy supplies.

While addressing issues of global warming, climate change, green technology, and environmental issues, the challenges of population explosions need to be addressed as well. Regions such as sub-Saharan Africa are leading in high birthrate. In lieu of environmental deterioration and scarcity of resources, high birthrate could pose a challenge to development and stability, as it may lead to crises in the form of hunger, conflict, and massive migration.

On the political front, recent development and democratization processes in some African countries are an encouraging prospect because of their multiparty systems, free and fair elections, limited terms of office, and the transfer of power through peaceful means. Governments in Ghana, Mali, Botswana, and Zambia are some of the examples of promising signs that the African continent is on the way forward to democratic ideals in the political culture. In a related development, as a means of addressing the need for improved governance, the African Peer Review Mechanism has been put in place—a program that came recently as a system of appraising how well African governments are doing in terms of good governance, economic progress, and human rights. With this program, governments will periodically go through a review processes whereby they will be able to get some feedback about their leadership qualities.

The OAU, which was formed in 1963 as a voice to represent independent Africa, has now been replaced by the African Union (AU). Richard Dowden (2009) underscored that this is a step forward for the African countries in addressing common challenges for the common good. The AU has a practice of intervening in cases of genocide or crimes, as opposed to its predecessor, the OAU, which used to remain silent while many were losing their lives. The AU also rejects a coup as a means of power transfer in member countries. It also desires to extend the consolidation of the union further by creating a continental parliament following the example of Europe.

The loss of skilled young intellectuals and productive individuals, who are leaving the continent in greater numbers every year, poses another challenge to Africa. The exodus of its productive and skilled human resources is draining Africa’s crucial asset. This export is not limited to human resources. Dowden (2009) observed that Africans take their money out of the continent and keep it in the outside world. Some of this money is illegally obtained through corrupt practices. Thus, Africa is not only suffering from a brain drain of its skilled human resources but also from a loss of its financial capital. This is a hindrance to development efforts that could bring about changes in the living conditions of Africans.

Central to the efforts and discourses about the place of Africa in the new century are issues of poverty reduction, debt relief, trade and investment, and information technology. The goal of reducing poverty is one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). The achievement of this goal requires decreasing the number of poor people who live below the poverty line and increasing the gross national product. This is the hardest target to meet, as it requires so many changes and inputs, including but not limited to good governance that involves the participation of many and the accountability of leaders, viable strategies for trade and investment relevant to the conditions of Africa, and utilization of advances in technology. According to Gordon and Gordon (2007), so far most of the African countries are far behind in meeting the MDG target for 2015. An integral part of the goal is reducing the number of people living in an extreme condition of poverty. With the recent global economic and financial crises coupled with the already existing problems, the trend appears to be one that, instead of reducing, is increasing the number of poor people in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Indebtedness is one of the burning problems of Africa. While the debt is mounting every year, so does the interest that comes with the debt, and debt is an important part of African countries’ budgets. In some cases, the foreign aid that comes from the World Bank and IMF is used to pay already existing debts. This is a vicious cycle that is keeping Africa in the bondage of poverty. Gordon and Gordon (2007) noted that officials of the World Bank and IMF blame African leaders for not using the funding appropriately and wisely. Part of the new initiative to address the problem includes the goals of debt cancellation and increased aid to African countries. The G8 and recently the G20 nations are promising to meet these goals in order to help Africa get out of cyclical poverty.

Increasing trade and investment in Africa are development issues. Africa is being asked to boost its export capacity in order to increase its revenue. Trade with the world outside Africa has been limited to agricultural products, minerals, and fuels. Exports of other industrial products are scarce. The United States is among the major partners in trade with Africa, through its trade liberalization programs. China is becoming visible in trade and investment in African countries as well. Oil is becoming an important export commodity for many African countries, with a growing interest in it from China as well as from the United States. However, Gordon and Gordon (2007) presented the argument, shared by many, that trade liberalization alone is not adequate to relieve Africa of its poverty. Instead, there should be more aid directed toward sustainable development through diversified economies, including local and regional investments in meeting basic needs for heath, education, clean water, energy, and transportation. Such development efforts also include investments in information technology. The growing trends of access to mobile phones, the Internet, and satellite TV are promising indicators of the expansion of information technology in Africa. This development will bring favorable benefits in terms of information sharing with the outside world.


Africa is a center of interest for many. It has been a subject of media coverage more often for the ugly side of human suffering than for its hope for prosperity and opportunity. As the location of the origin of humankind, Africa represents the root of humanity all over the planet. It has also represented the black face of the human race. Africa is known for its ancient civilizations of Egypt and Ethiopia and the famous kingdoms of Ghana. It has attracted major religions of the world—Christianity and Islam right from their very beginning.

Europeans became interested in exploring the continent of Africa as far back as the 15th century. After an ordeal of successful and unsuccessful attempts, Europeans were able to establish contact with Africa—a contact that started at the coastal areas and gradually deepened into the heartland of the continent. They pursued this quest to establish trade relationships, to find new resources for raw materials such as gold, and to satisfy their intellectual curiosity about the unknown world. The contact between Europeans and Africans turned into the worst form of human relationship with the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, in which millions of Africans were exchanged as commodities. The contact underwent changes when Europeans shifted their interest from slavery to the direct rule of Africans on African soil in what is known as colonialism. By the middle of the second half of the 19th century, most of the African continent had fallen into the hands of European colonial rule.

African countries became independent in the 1950s and 1960s after a long struggle for liberation, and, in the aftermath, they came to be administered by their own children. The postcolonial decades were not full of joy and satisfaction for the African societies. The African people faced serious challenges, such as political instability, civil war, poverty, disease, corruption, dictatorship, and underdevelopment in terms of basic services, such as education, clean water, health, and infrastructure. Development efforts of the last six decades have not been in the best interests of the African societies. Foreign aid has not helped the growth of Africa. Debt has become a challenge to many African countries. Trade has been based mainly on the export of agricultural products and oil but not of industrial goods.

Recent encouraging developments for the prospect of Africa lie in the areas of aid for sustainable development, debt relief and cancellation, investment in infrastructure and basic services, good governance, human rights, and accountability. Africa also seems to be benefiting from the current development of Asian interest in investment, and progress in communication technology such as mobile phones, the Internet, and satellite TV. New initiatives, such as the MDG and poverty reduction strategies, could make a difference in the progress of the African continent in the 21st century.

Further inquiry and research are necessary to study the impacts of information technology, Asian interest, liberal democracy, one-party rule, green technology, and global financial and market developments on African societies.