Module Ten, Activity Four

Politics and Government in Post-Colonial Africa

African Independence Map

There are a number of similarities between the political history of the United States and the histories of African countries. One of the most striking similarities is the fact that prior to independence in 1776, the thirteen territories that became the United States were colonies of a European power--Britain. Moreover, the United States gained its political independence only after waging a war for independence.

Of course, all African countries, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, started out as colonies. And just as with the American War for Independence, some African colonies, such as Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, also gained their independence only after waging war against their colonial masters. While the majority of African countries gained independence without having to resort to a revolution, in every African country independence was won only after the people organized themselves in a struggle against colonialism. Module Seven B: History of Africa, provided details of the raise of nationalism within African colonies. As you remember, nationalist political parties and organizations united people in demanding political freedom.

Independence brought great joy to the people of each country that gained independence. There was great optimism that after decades of foreign rule political freedom and independence would provide a voice for all citizens in the political process. Moreover, there was wide-spread belief that with independence, the new African governments would be able to use political and economic resources to provide their citizens with basic social and economic services: education, health care, housing, employment.

The new nation-states of Africa, following the example of nation-states in other regions of the world, developed special symbols to represent their unity and sovereignty. Two important symbols of nationhood are national anthems and flags. Can you think of other important national symbols? Think of how important the U.S. flag is to Americans. It is flown at almost every public building, including your school! Many Americans fly the flag at their homes on special days like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

Similarly, the U.S. national anthem has very special meaning to Americans, we even play it before sporting events!

Why are the flag and national anthem so important to Americans? There are many reasons, aren't there? Americans are not unique in giving special honor to the flag and national anthem. In the new nation-states of Africa, national anthems and national flags are very important symbols of national identity and national unity.

Your Turn

National Anthems: 

Below is the national anthem of Ghana, one of the first African countries to gain independence (1957). Carefully read the text and then answer the following questions. You can hear a musical rendition of the national anthem by going to

God bless our homeland Ghana,
And make our nation great and strong,
Bold to defend forever
The cause of Freedom and of Right.
Fill our hearts with true humility
Make us cherish fearless honesty,
And help us to resist oppressors' rule
With all our will and might evermore.

Hail to thy name, O Ghana
To thee we make our solemn vow;
Steadfast to build together
A nation strong in Unity;
With our gifts of mind and strength of arm,
Whether night or day, in the midst of storm,
In every need whate'er the call may be,
To serve thee, Ghana, now and evermore.

Raise high the flag of Ghana,
And one with Africa advance;
Black star of hope and honor,
To all who thirst for liberty;
Where the banner of Ghana free flies,
May the way to freedom truly lie
Arise, arise, O sons of Ghanaland,
And under God march on forevermore.

1. According to the first stanza, what will help make Ghana a great nation?
2. The second stanza begins with the line "Hail to thy name, O Ghana." Why is it important for citizens in a new nation-state to "hail" or respect the name of the country?
3. According to the anthem, what are the duties of Ghanaian citizens to their country?
4. The third stanza honors the flag of Ghana. Why is this important?

Optional Activity: Go to the website select national anthems from two additional African countries. As you read the anthems, look for the following themes: praise for the people and history of the country; calls for national unity and strength; special duties of citizens to their country.


In addition to being very important symbols of nation-states and national unity, flags are made up of designs that have specific meaning. For example, the flag of the United States is comprised of thirteen stripes representing the 13 original colonies that declared independence from Britain in 1776. The U.S. flag also has 50 stars-one star for each state of the union. Flags of independent countries in Africa are also made up of symbols that have importance to the nation.

Here is an example of the national flag of Zambia, a country you studied in Module Nine: African Economies.

Flag of Zambia

Zambia Flag

Each of the colors of the flag and the eagle in the corner have a meaning:

  •  The Eagle is a strong and powerful bird. It represents the potential power of Zambia, and the country's ability to soar above its problems.
  •  The green backdrop represents the land of Zambia. This color pays tribute to the importance of agriculture and other natural resources to Zambia.
  •  The copper colored bar represents the importance of Zambia's mineral wealth. Remember from the case study in Module Nine how important copper is to the economy of Zambia.
  •  The black bar represents the people of Zambia.
  •  The red bar represents the blood shed by Zambians during their struggle for independence.

Can you see how how a national flag can develop into an important national symbol of a nation-state?

Just for fun, spend some time looking at the national flags of Africa. There are a number of ways you can access these flags. On the web, you can go to the World Flag Database at Or you can go to your school library and look for flags in an encyclopedia. As you look at each flag, identify each symbol and color on the map. Try to figure out what each color and symbol might represent.

Political Issues in Post-Colonial Africa

If you pick up a newspaper in North America or Europe, or watch the news on television, it is not likely that you will hear much news from or about African countries. However, when there is news coverage, it is most likely that it will be a report on a crisis or problem. In recent years, the news media has focused on stories of hunger and HIV-AIDS in Africa, or on political issues such as civil wars or political chaos.

In the next section of this module on African politics, you will have the opportunity to explore these stories in a comparative manner. That is, using news web-sites from North America, Europe, and from African countries, you will be able to compare the way in which a particular news story is covered in North America, in Europe, and in Africa.

Are there civil wars in Africa? Yes-currently in the countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Congo, and Angola. These wars have caused tremendous damage and suffering. However, it is important to remember that these countries represent only a small group out of 54 independent countries in Africa.

In trying to understand the causes for political (or economic, or social) problems in Africa, as in North America, Asia, and Europe, it is important not to look for quick and simple answers. The reasons for political violence, authoritarian governments, or corruption in some African countries, are complex and not a reflection of the inability of Africans to govern themselves as some news writers indicate.

How would you feel if news reporters from Europe or Africa indicated in their reports on the recent shootings at American schools that these shootings demonstrate an American tendency towards violence? Such an interpretation hides the fact that the vast majority of American students would never resort to violence. Moreover, such a simplistic interpretation does not recognize that there are many factors that contributed to the shooting at Columbine High School.

Similarly, it is just as important that when we try to understand political crises in Africa we don't use simple explanations. History is one of the keys to understanding politics in post-colonial Africa. The last section in this module dealt with the political legacy of colonialism. The key components of the political legacy of colonialism were:

  •  Colonial states were weak and lacked capacity. With limited capacity, it was very difficult for the first independent governments in Africa to meet the huge social and economic needs of their countries. The inability of governments to meet the legitimate needs of their citizens is a key cause of political dissatisfaction and un-rest.
  •  Colonial states were not democratic and had little respect for human rights. It is difficult, but not impossible, to develop democratic institutions and practices on a "political foundation" that is un-democratic. Moreover, as African leaders faced opposition, partially because of their inability to meet the needs of their citizens, it was easy for them to fall back on the un-democratic examples of the colonial states. Many post-colonial governments resorted to the same undemocratic practices as the colonial states used to control and deal with opposition.
  •  Ethnic conflict is a major political problem in many African countries. Ethnic rivalry over scarce resources and political power to control resources has lead to political conflicts and occasionally to serious violence. Ethnicity and ethnic rivalry are not new developments in Africa, they are often rooted in Colonialism. Remember, the colonial policies of divide and rule and indirect rule? These practices helped to establish ethnic rivalries that have become a common part of politics in post-colonial Africa.

Post-colonial politics 1960 -1990

Given the colonial legacy, the first African governments after independence were faced with a multitude of urgent political problems. Most of these problems come under three large categories:

  • Sovereignty and security. Sovereignty is a fancy term for authority and power to insure security. The brand new African governments inherited countries that were created by colonialism. These colonies were created and maintained by the force of the colonial governments. Not without cause, the new independent governments were concerned that once colonial rule ended, there would be a strong chance that newly independent countries would face the possibility of disintegration. Consequently, one of the top priorities of the new governments was to ensure the sovereignty and security of their new nation-state.
  • National Unity. Remember that. with the exception of a few colonies such as Swaziland and Somalia, European powers created colonies in Africa that were comprised of many different language, religious, and ethnic groups. Moreover, colonial governments through the practice of indirect rule and divide and rule, created colonial societies that were often deeply divided along ethnic lines. However, central to the very idea of a nation-state is the necessity of national unity. A nation-state has no chance of remaining a nation-state if it is deeply divided along ethnic or religious lines. National unity is essential for the success of any country. Consequently, a top priority of the new African governments was the development of national unity. For this goal to be met, citizens have to develop a stronger loyalty and identity to the nation than they do to an ethnic group. Can you imagine how different the history of the United States would be if citizens would not identify themselves as Americans, but rather, would identify themselves as first and foremost belonging to a state, a local area, or ethnic group?
  • Basic human services: Colonial governments paid little attention to meeting the basic social needs of citizens. This was particularly true in the areas of education, health-care, housing and adequate employment opportunities. New nationalist governments came to power on the promise that they would work towards meeting these important needs for all citizens. The legitimacy of the first independent governments in Africa depended on their ability to meet these needs.

What advice would you have given African governments in 1960 on how they should deal with these important issues? What type of policies, programs, and institutions should have been developed to address these very important issues? Take ten minutes to think about this with your teacher. Did you come up with easy answers? Can you understand the political difficulties that confronted the new African governments immediately after independence?

Types of African governments 1960 - 1990

At their independence, each Africa country had a constitution that, like the U.S. Constitution, established the "rules and regulations" of government. These constitutions often reflected the systems of government of the colonial power. You will remember that Britain and France had the most colonies in Africa (Click to see Colonial Map of Africa 1945). The governments of Britain and France are multi-party democracies. In this system, two or more political parties compete in regularly scheduled elections to control the government.

At independence, the French and British territories had a constitution that resembled that of their colonial power. The French system is sometimes called a presidential system that where, like in the United States, the president and executive branch have considerable power. State power is shared by the national assembly, or legislative branch. French colonies, such as Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, and Mali inherited this system in which there is a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government.

Britain, on the other hand, has a parliamentary system. In a parliamentary system, the national assembly (what is called the Congress in the U.S.) selects the executive cabinet from among the members of the national assembly. The head of government in this system is called a Prime Minister. African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone inherited a parliamentary system.

If you looked at these governments in 1980, twenty years after independence, they did not look like what the British and French models imposed at independence. What happened?

The answer to this question is very complex. In fact, professional political scientists studying Africa do not agree on an answer to this question. However, what you have learned so far can provide some good clues.

  • Remember the discussion on the legacy of the colonial state? The government structures inherited by independent governments were weak and lacked capacity. However, governments were called upon to provide social services and develop economic infrastructure. Colonially inherited government structures were not suitable, it would seem, to meet the new political demands of independent African countries.
  • The constitutions that were developed for the newly independent countries were different from the political systems developed by the colonial state. As you can imagine, there was tension between the old colonial system and the new constitutional system.
  • Module Nine: African Economies demonstrated the economic difficulties that faced newly independent African nation-states. Underdeveloped economies provided scarce revenues for governments to use in meeting the great demands for social services and to stimulate economic growth. With limited economic means, governments were not able to meet the legitimate needs of its citizens. Lack of government response led to growing popular dissatisfaction in many African countries. This situation put tremendous strain on the political system.
  • Finally, remember the discussions on ethnicity? One of the most difficult political problems newly independent governments faced was that of developing national unity among people who were divided along ethnic, language and religious lines. Imagine what happened in countries divided along ethnic lines when newly independent governments were not able to meet the expectation of the citizens. Governments faced with growing opposition often used limited government resources on specific groups of people in an attempt to gain support of that group. The favored group was often the ethnic or language group of the political elite. This led to increasing ethnic tensions as the ethnic groups not favored struggled to receive what they considered to be their fair share of government support. At the same time, the favored group not wanting to give up their position of privilege, attempted to maintain their privilege. Do you understand how a weak government, with limited resources can lead to ethnic tensions, that in turn further weaken the political system?

Given these factors many African governments faced serious political problems within a few years of independence. One of the ways to deal with political crisis is to change the system of government. The 1960s witnessed the initiation of two types of governments that were responses to political crisis.

Military Governments

Almost all African countries that gained their independence in the 1960s started out with multiparty systems. However by the end of the 1960s, only a handful of African countries maintained a multiparty system. Indeed by 1970, half of the independent countries in Africa had military governments. That is, the military took over control of the government. Instead of elected civilians, the government was controlled by the military. The process by which a group of military takes control of government is called a coup d'etat -this is a French term that means an overthrow of the state.

Some coup d'etats were quite violent. In the process of taking control, the soldiers involved killed members of the civilian government, including, at times, the president. However, surprisingly, sometimes the coup d'etats were non-violent. In these cases, the military simply surrounded the presidential palace and the civilian government surrendered peacefully.

Why do you think that there were so many military coups just a few years after these countries became independent? Take a few minutes and discuss possible answers with your teacher. In thinking about how to answer this question, think back to the discussions on the legacy of the colonial state and the political demands placed on newly independent governments.

Let us see how the answers you came up with compare to that of political scientists who study African countries. Just as there was probably disagreement among members of your class as to the main reasons for coup d'etats, so too, there is disagreement among political scientists as to the main causes of coups in African countries. Here are a few of the reasons given by some political scientists:

  • African governments inherited a weak political system from the colonial era. Consequently, the first African governments did not have the capacity to govern effectively. Military leaders, afraid that their countries would fall-part politically, decided that they could do a better job of governing.
  • Given the under-developed economic systems they inherited, many African governments were unable to meet the social and economic needs of their countries. This situation often led to a crisis of legitimacy. That is, the citizens became disillusioned --fed-up-- with governments that could not provide basic social and economic services, such as jobs, education, and adequate health-care. Military coup leaders in Africa often justified their taking power on the grounds that the prior civilian government had been unable to meet these basic needs.
  • The political environment of the early post-colonial years gave rise to ethnic tensions that at times became so severe as to threaten the political system. The military claimed a right to intervene and take power in order to stop ethnic and regional rivalries from developing into a civil war.
  • The strains on the political system in the early years of independence provided an environment in which corruption became widely practiced in some African countries. Government officials, often frustrated by their inability to be effective, used their government position to benefit themselves and members of their family. Military leaders often used the pretext of widespread corruption to justify their taking power.

This is quite a list of weaknesses in the post-independence governments in Africa. Indeed, so fed up were the citizens of some countries, that they actually welcomed the early military coups. However, military regimes are not democratic; indeed, one of the first things that military governments do is dissolve the legislative branch of government. Moreover, military governments in Africa were no more successful than civilian governments at addressing the political, social, and economic issues, which provided the environment in which the coup d'etats took place.

In spite of popular opposition to military rule, between 1960 and 1985 there were 131 attempted coups in Africa, of which 60 were successful! And three countries have had six successful military coups! Indeed, out of 54 independent African countries, only six countries have not experienced an attempted or successful coup since they became independent .

What should we make of this trend between 1960 -1990 towards military governments? Do Africans support democracy? Or is there something about Africa that leads to military regimes? How would you answer these questions, given what you know about the legacy of colonialism and the nature of political and economic systems inherited by the post-independence governments?

These questions will also be partially answered in the last section of this module that looks at the rise of democratic movements all across Africa in the 1990s.

Africas Capitals Map

Table One: Types of African Governments, 1989

Types of African Government 1989 Table Constitutionally, there were two types of single party systems that developed in Africa. Some countries became de jure single party states . That is, the countries changed their constitutions so that only one political party was allowed in the country. Other African countries became de facto single party states . In these countries, the constitution was not changed to mandate one party, but in reality the ruling parties in these countries gained and kept a monopoly power, dominating all branches of government. In the first thirty years of the post-colonial era, more than half of the African countries experienced military rule. Only one African country, Botswana, maintained a multiparty system. What happened in the other twenty African countries that did not have military governments? In the 1960s and 1970s, these countries developed into single or one-party systems. In a one-party system, only one political party exists. The presidents, the cabinet members, the members of the national assembly (legislature) all belong to one political party. When there are elections, all the candidates belong to same party.

Why did single party systems develop in Africa? The answers to this question are similar to those we gave for the rise of military governments. Single parties developed out of the political weaknesses of the post-colonial African political systems.

Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, and Kenneth Kaunda, first president of Zambia, were the most eloquent promoters of the single party state in Africa. Read the attached excerpt by president Kaunda.

Are reasons given in this speech for creating one-party systems? What is the relationship between one-party systems and democracy according to Kaunda? Does he believe that it is necessary to have a multiparty system to realize democracy?

Although it may not be clear from this speech, President Kaunda and other supporters of one-party systems in Africa gave four broad reasons for why it one-party systems were good for African nation states.

1. Tradition: supporters of one-party systems claimed that multi-party systems were not part of Africa's pre-colonial tradition. They argued that traditional African kingdoms were governed by a king or chief and their advisors. The system did not allow for organized opposition to the king. In the many African societies that were de-centralized, decisions were made through discussion and consensus, not through argumentation by opposing groups. Proponents of a one-party system claimed that tradition supported their position.

2. Direct democracy: Proponents of the one-party system argued that the state and government systems inherited from the colonial governments were too far removed from the people to allow for democratic participation. They argued that the Party-often the party that was responsible for winning independence, was a better instrument to listen to and represent the will of the people.

3. National Unity: In the immediate post-independence period, most African countries had multi-party systems. However, many of the political parties were ethnic or region based. This meant that political parties often represented ethnic or regional interests. Proponents of one-party systems argued that multi-party systems in Africa encouraged ethnic and regional rivalries. Only a single national party could heal these divisions and help achieve national unity.

4. Development orientation: Proponents of the one-party system asserted that in a one party system, the ruling party would not have to spend most of its energies on winning elections and staying in power. In a one-party system, a secure Party would focus its energies on listening to the people and developing policies that meet the social and economic needs of the people.

Given these claims for a one-party system, it is fair to ask: what is their record in Africa? The answer to this question is quite complex. But one way to answer this question is to look at the response of the citizens of the countries that had one-party systems. When, in the 1990s, citizens were given the opportunity to choose between the continuation of a one-party system, the citizen of each country overwhelming voted for a system that allowed multiple voices to be heard. We will return to this theme in the next section.

Your Turn

1. Map Work: Use information provided on Table One: Types of African Governments, 1989 (above) to fill in the types on the political map of Africa, for each country in Africa in 1989. When your map work is completed, each country should be identified by one of the four types of government identified on the table: one-party, military, multi-party, settler/racist.

2. Comparative Strength and Weakness Graphic Organizer: Your teacher will distribute three graphic organizers, one for each type of government we have looked at: One-Party, Multi-Party, Military. Based on what you have learned about governments in Africa, in the spaces provided write in all of the strengths and the weaknesses of each type of government.

One-Party Graphic Organizer

Multi-Party Graphic Organizer

Military Graphic Organizer


Go on to Activity Five or go to one of the other activities in this module