Prior to European colonization, Sub-Saharan Africa contained a number of independent kingdoms and empires. The period of colonization, however, meant that African states would follow the Western nation-state as a model of political and social organization. In almost every instance, the boundaries between states did not take into account where various groups historically settled and traveled. Religious orientation was also not taken into account when boundaries were set in place.
Only a handful of countries escaped colonization. Liberia, settled by freed American slaves, enjoyed protection from the United States against the colonizing powers. It held a number of resources and rubber plantations desired by Europeans. Ethiopia was not colonized until the 1930s, because it was historically Judeo-Christian and also not seen as a source of wealth at the time.
The first generation of state-builders in Sub-Saharan Africa worked within the context of the Cold War and the decline of European strength in a superpower-dominated world. African nations saw benefits in siding with one side or the other, with both promising lucrative aid packages. In most cases, African national leaders followed their own interests in obtaining as much aid as possible with as little commitment as they needed to extend to get the resources.
In the 1960s and 70s, Sub-Saharan Africa saw the rise of the “Big Man” national leader. These authoritarian regimes mostly served as catalysts to enrich the dictator and his family while trying to project national strength. They organized the economy into parastatal businesses, then stocked their job openings with family and loyalists regardless of qualification. Much of the money they did not steal outright went to buying weapons.
Apartheid relics South Africa and Rhodesia held back the ability of native Africans to help build states that could reflect the aspirations of people of all races. Though they appeared stable to some, resentment seethed within the majority black population against active government oppression of black Africans' rights. Rhodesia recognized the right of the majority to participate in government first, changing its name to Zimbabwe as a symbol of its transformation. Over a decade later, South Africa abandoned its apartheid system after decades of global sanctions and protest.