Decolonization in Africa could very well have been carried out in a more orderly and less disruptive fashion than did occur. While the British had largely mastered the art of administering colonies throughout its far-flung empire, which largely involved constructing the institutions of government and training locals in the proper way to run them (in effect, the British established professional bureaucracies composed of educated and trained citizens of the colonies), which enabled them to leave behind the semblance of a functioning government, other now-former colonial powers were considerably less diligent in that regard. The Portuguese, in particular, were extraordinarily cavalier regarding the messes they left behind. Former Portuguese colonies in what are now Mozambique and Angola experienced decades of civil strife following Lisbon’s withdrawal from these territories. Angola in particular soon found itself a major battle ground in the Cold War machinations of the Soviet Union and the United States, with each side sponsoring insurgencies that fought a bloody campaign for control.
Similarly, the Belgians, in withdrawing from what was known as the Belgian Congo, then Zaire, and today the Democratic Republic of Congo, left behind the seeds of seemingly eternal conflict, with the eastern regions of that country remaining the site of interminable conflict over natural resources and among warring tribes. That the region’s enormous wealth in natural resources, especially minerals essential to the manufacture of much machinery, as well as diamonds for both industrial and decorative purposes, remain the center of so much bloodshed is a testament in no small part to the tragically irresponsible manner in which the Belgians vacated their colony.
Even the British, the most successful at establishing functioning governments capable of surviving the process of decolonization, were instrumental in planting the seeds for a number of racially-divisive conflicts. As with the modern Middle East, Africa’s borders are a product not of natural demographic dynamics, but of the political jockeying among colonial powers that occurred throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries. These borders were almost always drawn with scant regard for the implications for national unity or ethnicity. The result has been decades of conflict and wide-ranging poverty. Ongoing conflicts in Nigeria between its Muslim north and Christian south are a reminder of the cavalier manner in which the colonial powers approached the issue of borders.
The haphazard manner in which decolonization was carried out in Africa created innumerable power vacuums into which all manner of ideological and ethnic conflict sprang up. British withdrawal from South Africa enabled the ethnic Dutch Boers to take control of the region and establish the system of racial segregation known as apartheid that would become a festering sore for many years. The French, the main colonizers of Africa, at least in terms of square footage, were slightly more successful in easing out of their colonies, with the glaring exception of Algeria, which fought a protracted and bloody war of independence from 1954 to 1962, the end of which resulted in the establishment of dictatorship and a huge migration of North African Muslims to France, thereby threatening that which the French hold most dear, their culture. The Algerian War of Independence, in fact, remains a test case for the difficulties inherent in combating home-grown insurgents employing terrorism and for the use of torture as an instrument of war.
All that aside, the question of what could have been differently remains. Colonization was a fact of life, so we can’t wish it away or pretend it never happened. Measures that could have helped forestall the conflicts that occurred could include a more structured process of withdrawal that involved, as was the case in the British colonies (including in South Asia, mainly India), an effort at ensuring the institutions of government were established and manned by trained bureaucrats; efforts at defining national borders in a way that better reflected ethnic and religious divisions; and the institutionalization of some form of democracy so that serious elections could be held soon upon independence and featuring candidates properly vetted for principle and competency. The process of colonization was, by its nature, brutal and dehumanizing. Measured steps designed to reverse those effects could have gone a long way towards enabling a more efficient and less violent process of decolonization. Unfortunately, the combination of negligence on the part of the Europeans and the Cold War competitions that emerged on the African continent doomed much of that continent to years of neglect and conflict.