Since 1964, most of the countries in the Sahel region (a word of Arabic origin, meaning margin, which refers to the northern strip of sub-Saharan Africa) have experienced one or more coups d’état (17 in Sudan alone). Those that have occurred more recently, although with different profiles, have something in common that separates them from previous coups. I’m referring in particular to the coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Let’s look at their reasons in more detail. All these coups, which are promoted by military personnel trained by the former colonizing countries, aim to free the country from its economic and social dependence on the colonizing power (in this case, France), a dependence that has remained largely intact after the political independence processes in the 1960s. They aim to gain control of their natural resources after having come to the conclusion that they have been plundered by companies from the former colonizing power or from other countries in the global North, without any increase in well-being for the people coming from their extraction, even though there may be a source of rent for the corrupt political elites. Secondly, democracy is a farce whenever it is imposed from outside. Whenever it is promoted by the global North, democracy aims to elect politicians who share the same political ideology, who are subservient, and who will guarantee the continuity of the plunder; to do this, it mobilizes all the abundant means at its disposal, both financial and media. Whenever Africans want to take democracy into their own hands and elect politicians who are not on the list of those authorized by neo-colonialism and imperialism, the powers of the global North organize coups d’état to “protect democracy”. Thirdly, the mantra of human rights, universal values, and a rules-based international order (exclusively formulated by the North ) is only really used when it defends imperial and neo-colonial interests. When this is not the case, those interests prevail, principles are forgotten, and violence is resorted to. Take the recent COVID pandemic and the humanitarian crisis it has created. The interests of five pharmaceutical companies from the global North were enough to prevent countries like Brazil, South Africa, and India from producing effective vaccines, en masse and at low cost. How many lives would have been saved? The hypocrisy of the global North has reached limits that the global South will not easily forget.
Are we looking at a second independence for Africa, designed to complete the one that took place at the end of the Second World War and whose promises were deeply frustrating? Perhaps it’s just a new phase in a process that has had other phases in the recent past. This is how we should understand Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal (1956), Muammar Gaddafi’s fatal struggle to change the currency of reference in the international business of the African Union countries (2011), or Robert Mugabe’s struggle in Zimbabwe for the (unsuccessful) return of the land that independence left in the hands of the white minority (2008).
Perhaps it’s legitimate to talk about a new phase because the movement is going through several countries and international conditions may favor the expansion of the movement to many more countries. The objectives of the second independence processes have different characteristics. I distinguish between anti-colonial nationalism, anti-imperial nationalism, and internal colonialism. These are not watertight objectives, as each one has elements of one of the others. In the case of the countries that were subject to French colonialism, the movement is anti-colonial nationalism because it seeks to deepen decolonization. The supposed French decolonization was either bloody (Algeria) or was negotiated on such leonine terms that it left the new countries strictly dependent on France (the Françafrique: control of the currency, reserves at the Bank of France, control of monetary and economic policy, extractive privileges for French multinational or state companies, etc.). The neo-colonial dependence that Nkrumah complained about in 1965 was particularly marked in the case of the French colonies.
In the case of the other African countries that became independent from British and Portuguese colonialism, the profile of the second independence is one of anti-imperial nationalism. The plundering of natural resources by transnational companies based in various countries of the global North (some former colonies of white racist domination such as the USA, Canada and Australia), the (dis)order of IMF impositions, and the first Cold War have contributed to turning the networks of dependency wider and making the former colonizer just one of the beneficiaries of the plunder, and often, as in the Portuguese case, not even the main beneficiary.
South Africa is a special case because, almost since the beginning of the 20th century, it has been dominated by internal colonialism in the particularly violent form of the segregationist policies of Apartheid. The end of Apartheid in 1994 did not mean the end of internal colonialism, although it profoundly altered its modus operandi. This is why the social struggles in South Africa, which can be integrated into the idea of a second independence, take the form of a struggle for the real, and not just formal, end of Apartheid, which has to do with the return of land, the control of natural resources, the fight against inequality, and the corruption of the political elites.
The idea of Africa’s second independence seeks to show that the first was incomplete. Instead of discussing its incompleteness, it might be more important to find out why, despite everything, it was possible. Only then will we be able to analyze the conditions for the possibility of this second independence and, above all, speculate about whether this second phase will be final or whether other phases will follow. Talking about phases is a dangerous generalization when we are dealing with a continent. We only have to remember the case of Egypt, whose independence from Britain had multiple phases from 1922 (formal end of the protectorate with continued occupation) to 1956 (war for the nationalization of the Suez Canal). With all these reservations, it makes sense to talk about a first phase and a second phase if we limit ourselves to sub-Saharan Africa and exclude South Africa.
It is not generally correct to say that independence was possible in the first phase, even though it was incomplete. It is more accurate to say that they were possible because they were incomplete. The case of the transition to independence of the former French colonies is only the most extreme example of the continuity of post-colonial dependence, but it is not unique. Just read the Lancaster House agreement of December 21, 1979 on the independence of Zimbabwe. In fact, Lancaster House was the place where the independence of other British colonies, such as Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania, was negotiated with similar logic. All the African leaders passed through there, from Nkrumah to Nyerere, from Kaunda to Mugabe. Post-independence dependencies were negotiated there. Subsequent negotiations with the new aspirants to power in the former colonies have continued to this day in London, this time at Chatham House.
Independence from Portuguese colonialism was a different situation in Africa. They took place after a long period of liberation wars (Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau) between 1961 and 1975 and ended with the end of the long fascist regime in Portugal (1926-1974). In fact, the two events are closely linked and Portuguese democrats owe more to the heroic struggle of African fighters against colonialism for the restoration of democracy than they might think. Since neither side could be expected to win the war in the short term (except perhaps in Guinea-Bissau, where the PAIGC forces had great operational advantages), some Portuguese soldiers proposed a political solution to the conflict, following on from what had already been tried before. The fascist regime, however, decided not to listen. Faced with this and unable to end the war, the courageous April Captains, as they would come to be known, decided to end the regime at dawn on April 25, 1974. Despite initial hesitations, the decolonization process, as a transition to independence, allowed the new countries to decide their new destinies without Portugal being able to impose conditions. This alone explains why all the former colonies opted for socialist regimes and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Why this choice?
The answer to this question helps to explain the conditions in which the first phase of African independence took place. The post-World War II era was dominated by the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. In April 1955, 29 Asian and African countries (as well as representatives of various nationalist movements) met in Bandung with the aim of discussing the possibility of defining their policies independently and without subordinating themselves to the interests of one of the two great powers that emerged from the war. From Africa, only the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya, Liberia and Sudan took part, because most of the continent was still subject to European colonialism. This meeting and the first conference held in Belgrade in 1961 gave rise to the principle of Non-Alignment and the concept of the Third World. This is not the place to analyze the significance of the Bandung Conference and its evolution over the following decades. I just want to point out that the signal given to African countries still subject to European colonialism was that non-alignment would have to take into account that the colonizing countries belonged to the Western bloc and that, if there were to be negotiations, this factor would weigh heavily. This was the context that dominated the first phase of African independence: on the one hand, the desire for full independence and, on the other, the need to negotiate with the colonizer. One of the first African leaders to denounce the antinomies of this process was Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, in his 1965 book in which he coined the term that would dominate many of the discussions that followed – neo-colonialism (Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism). This term would define the incompleteness of independence.
To escape this straitjacket, the only solution was a war of liberation. This was the solution followed by the leaders of the liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies in Africa, after having tried peaceful and negotiated solutions for a long time. But war was just another arena for the Cold War to assert itself. While the US and Western Europe more or less covertly helped the fascist regime and its colonialist policy, the Soviet Union and later China and other member countries of the Soviet bloc helped the liberation movements. This explains the political profile of the new African countries liberated from Portuguese colonialism.
From all this we can conclude that the Cold War was the major geopolitical conditioning factor in the first phase of African independence. What will be the conditioning factors of the second phase and what possibilities will it offer African countries that the first phase did not allow? Everything suggests that we are entering a new Cold War, this time between the US and its allies, mainly the European Union, and China and its allies, mainly Russia. But since history doesn’t repeat itself, I don’t think this new Cold War will have the same impact as the previous one. The truth is that there is a new fact, the BRICS, the emergence of a group of countries, demographically numerous (47% of the world’s population), and economically powerful (36% of the world’s GDP). The polarization is now ideologically less intense: instead of capitalism versus communism/socialism, multinational capitalism with a mix of pro-Western democracy/autocracy versus state capitalism with a mix of sovereigntist democracy/autocracy mobilized by the idea of the global South. There is no question of a new Bandung Pact because there is now no room for non-alignment. On the other hand, while it is true that China and Russia are part of the BRICS, Russia is no longer the Soviet Union and none of these countries has the autonomy to impose itself unilaterally, since India, Brazil, and South Africa are also part of the group.
The association of African countries that are currently fighting for their second independence is underway. The relations established between these countries and the BRICS will be decisive in determining whether the second independence is the last or just another phase to be overcome by others that will eventually follow. If it is to be the last, it will take place in a vast field of shared sovereignty in which relations of cooperation, mutual aid, horizontal treaties, and fair contracts dominate. We would have then free movement of people as an alternative to immigration and death in the desert, at sea or through barbed wire; a commitment to collective health and a just peace; total refusal of the old recipes of “development aid”, extractivism of natural and human resources, iniquitous accountability for the imminent ecological catastrophe, ecological transitions just so that capitalism can continue smoothly, military bases to protect interests that are already more than protected. Is this possible within the framework of the capitalist system, whether in the global North or the global South? I don’t think so. If I’m right, the second phase of African independence will be followed by other phases, and these will no longer concern Africa, but the world as a whole.
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