After gaining independence, the new nations of Africa still faced many serious problems. While specific geographical and historical factors made each nation’s problems unique, some common experiences also existed. Practically all the new nations struggled with economic difficulties. Ethnic tensions also racked some of the new countries. In addition, drought, disease, and the Cold War all took their toll on these new nations. Despite these problems, however, the independence that these nations experienced stimulated a revival and development of new cultural expressions throughout much of Africa.
Despite the high hopes with which many Africans greeted independence, the years following the end of colonial rule were not easy ones. The new African leaders were inexperienced in politics and in running the new states they had inherited from the colonial rulers. As they failed to improve the lot of their peoples rapidly enough, in many countries, the military began to intervene. Soon most African countries were being ruled by military dictatorships. The case of Ghana provides a good example of the pattern that emerged in many African states after independence.
Ghana. The early years of Kwame Nkrumah’s rule coincided with high prices on world markets for Ghana’s main cash crop-cocoa. The prosperity that Ghana enjoyed at this time helped make Nkrumah very popular among the people. He exploited this popularity, however, building up a cult of personality around himself. Nkrumah’s drive for absolute power resulted in a new constitution in 1964, which established Ghana as a one-party state. Any challenge to Nkrumah was the equivalent of treason. Yet people continued to criticize, especially after the fall of world prices for cocoa. This price drop, combined with government debt and corruption, caused the Ghanaian economy to collapse. Nkrumah responded by becoming more and more ruthless. His popularity declined rapidly, and in 1966, while on a visit to another country, he was ousted in a military coup.
Although few people in Ghana mourned Nkrumah’s departure, the situation did not improve. Over the next 12 years, Ghana went back and forth between civilian and military rule. This political instability was matched by fluctuations in the economy, which remained tied to cocoa.
In 1979, just before an election designed to return the government to civilian rule, the military stepped in yet again. This takeover was led by Jerry Rawlings, a young air force pilot. Rawlings stated that the present military leaders were corrupt and inefficient and had to go. After public trials, a number of leading military officers were executed. Rawlings then allowed the elections to take place, and the country returned to civilian rule.
A little over a year later, however, Rawlings stepped in once again. He dissolved the civilian government, claiming that it was worse than the military junta it had replaced. Rawlings felt that Ghana should follow socialist policies. After two years of ever worsening economic reports, he changed his opinion. In 1983 he put the country’s economy on a course
toward free enterprise. By 1990 Ghana’s annual rate of economic growth was one of the highest in Africa.
This improvement in the economy, however, came at great cost to the Ghanaian people. They had to endure high taxes on imports, a sales tax, and an income tax. Subsidies on food and fuel were reduced, and the currency was devalued to stimulate exports. Ghanaians grew weary of continued economic measures and Rawlings’ rigid government style. Demands for a return to civilian rule increased. In 1992 a new constitution was adopted, and civilian rule was established. Resigning from the military, Rawlings ran for the presidency and won.
Nigeria. While Ghana’s experience following independence was similar to that of many African nations, some had to deal with special problems. Many of these problems were left over from the days of colonial rule. For example, new national boundaries often were artificial, drawn by the imperialist powers for their own convenience. In some cases, people of similar racial or cultural backgrounds were separated, while people of different heritages were grouped together. In some places, such as Nigeria, these problems soon led to civil war.
At the time of independence in 1960, Nigeria was a federation of three regions, each of which retained a large degree of local independence. A fourth region was created in 1963. Although this situation resulted in strong ethnic and regional differences in the country, the government hoped that this loose federation would prevent warfare among the various groups. It did not, however, prevent conflict.
In 1966 the military took over the government, but it could not overcome the tensions created by the ethnic and regional distrust. After independence, for example, the federal government’s exploitation of major oil deposits, discovered in the late 1950s in the Niger Delta, had increased regional tensions. In 1967 the Eastern Region, home of the Ibo-speaking people, seceded from the federation and declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra. Nigeria plunged into civil war. After more than two years of war and the deaths of as many as several million Biafrans from starvation and disease, Biafra surrendered. Pursuing a policy of conciliation, the Nigerian government gradually restored stability to the country. Nevertheless, ethnicity and regionalism continued to be sensitive issues in Nigeria.
A democratically elected civilian government returned to Nigeria in 1979. At the same time, the country’s oil wealth provided Nigerians with the opportunity to escape the poverty that threatened most other African nations. It also appeared that Nigeria might be the first African nation other than South Africa to achieve a high degree of industrialization.
In the 1980s, however, a drop in the international price of oil-the commodity that accounted for 95 percent of Nigeria’s export revenues-caused Nigeria’s economy to falter. In late 1983, military officers overthrew the civilian government and introduced strict new measures to turn the economy around. In 1983 and again in 1985, the government forced foreigners living illegally in Nigeria, many of them from Ghana, to leave the country.
This government proved very unpopular. In 1985, another military coup, this one led by Major General Ibrahim Babangida, had taken place. Babangida immediately introduced bold new reforms to restore economic and political stability. He renegotiated the country’s foreign loans, applying for assistance from international financial organizations.
In 1992 Babangida fulfilled a promise to return the country to civilian rule. In the elections that followed, Moshood Abiola was elected president. Before he could be inaugurated, however, the military again intervened and declared the election results invalid. When Abiola declared himself president anyway, he was imprisoned. Nevertheless, pressures remained strong to return to civilian rule. In 1997 General Sani Abacha, the current military leader, scheduled elections for sometime in 1998. In mid-1998, however, both Abacha and Abiola died of natural causes. A new military strongman, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, took power, pledging to return the country to civilian rule in the near future.