A Short History of West Africa

This is a very, very short history of West Africa, most taken from the copious research I did for my doctorate. Let us never forget the imperative of studying history.

Beginning of Time or 12,000 BC – 1800 AD

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Most of the precolonial states were established and expanded through conquest or unification in response to invasions, but flourished mainly through controlling trade routes across the Sahara.  The coastal and forest states, such as Benin and Dahomey, were involved in trade along the coast and through the sea routes especially when European traders arrived on West Africa’s shores.  Some states, notably, Kanem-Bornu, augmented their trade revenue by collecting taxes from conquered states or from visitors and traders to the centres of the kingdoms.  Where barter was inappropriate or impossible, cowries were the most prevalent currency of pre-colonial West Africa, as it was universally acceptable throughout West Africa, in some cases, even up till decolonisation.

Askia (King) Mohammed I (1493-1528) of the new Songhai Empire notably divided his empire into regions dedicated to the produce of particular food crops. The Asante (Ashanti) Kingdom was notable for its riches in gold, though most of the states in the Gold Coast region (present day Ghana) were also rich in gold.

Most of the governments of pre-colonial West Africa were created and centred around an absolute monarch who was sometimes regarded as divine (or possessing divine lineage rights)  or a great warrior,  if not both.  Ascension was achieved by inheritance, conquest/usurpation, and kingmakers or in the rare case of the Wolof Empire by election; though the election was conducted only among the noble class and was not truly democratic.  Conversely, the Igbo (Ibo) peoples of the forest region of the easternmost parts of West Africa were mostly non-monarchical in nature as they did not cede any power to chiefs or rulers.  The Hausa states in the north revolved around fortified cities and Islam rather than a revered ruler; leaving them vulnerable to external invasion.  The Mossi states were decentralised though there was a recognised central ruler.

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While many of the West African kingdoms and empires lasted and flourished for hundreds of years, they were susceptible to internal implosion, even though they were usually unified by a common revered leader, common culture and language. Many kingdoms suffered from internal weaknesses due to conflicts over succession, weakened central government, ambitious governors or provincial rulers, violent attempts by vassal or constituent states or provinces to secede,  continuously expanding empires that were difficult to administer and/or defend, incompetent, corrupt, extravagant, tyrannical and/or ineffective rulers who employed questionable imperial administration techniques  ethnic and cultural clashes between heterogeneous peoples of a kingdom  and religious conflict mainly due to the introduction of Islam. These factors were further exacerbated by the risk of external invasion and the influence of European trade.

Contact with Europe was initially confined to trade; the Portuguese were at the forefront of this contact as they discovered the West African coast in the 15th Century.  Trade was initially limited to food produce, gold, ivory, pepper, ostrich feathers in exchange for cheap cloth, beads, iron rods, gunpowder, etc. Before long however, the West African-European trade was dominated by traffic in slaves.  The slave-trade primarily weakened hinterland kingdoms by causing diversion of trade from the Sahara to the Atlantic coast, and in so doing, weakening their control over the trade routes. The end of the slave trade overlaps with the gradual colonisation of West Africa.

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1800-1960

The conquest of West Africa was preceded by a period of wars of resistance and conquest between the European armies and the West African states.  The Europeans prevailed because they had superior military might and strategy.   In some cases treaties were signed which ceded West African territory to European states without the need to resort to military ascendancy; in some cases both were required to ensure colonisation. Through such methods as indirect rule, assimilation and association, the European powers exercised control over their colonies. Colonialism de-emphasized the African identity of their subjects while not allowing them to become sufficiently European.  It deconstructed or disregarded the traditional structures of pre-colonial government in favour of ‘civilised’ Eurocentric governance.

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1960 – now

Dissatisfaction with colonial rule evolved into agitation for self-government. The educated class in West Africa sought, within the constitution, assurance that self-government would pass to them, and not the traditional rulers who administered indirect rule. At the end of colonialism, administration of all colonies was placed in the hands of Western-educated Africans.  Not only does the issue of divergence of pre-colonial states and newly independent states based on colonial boundaries seem to influence state fragility in West Africa, the nature of the new ruling class appears to be equally contributory.  Both the natures of the ruling class and the new states suggest that the new states were successor states to the colonial protectorates and not the original states.  The colonial creations were much bigger and more complex than any of the defunct kingdoms had been.  Not only was the state itself a colonial inheritance, but the system of governance and architecture of authority was colonial. Unlike the pre-colonial nation-states that were governed through communal cooperation, in the new West Africa there was a change in the relationship between ‘king’ and ‘community’; these two sectors of society – the government and the people – have become antagonistic to each other.

While West Africa has various factors that are generally recognisable across the sub-region, factors that instigate state collapse and internal conflict are peculiar to each state’s history and political structure. The parameters of state collapse that led to the conflict in Liberia were basically rooted in socio-political disparity along ethnic and historical lines,  exacerbated by economic imbalance.  Guinea-Bissau at independence was a poor, underdeveloped country with a high level of illiteracy.  After independence the situation was worsened by corruption and bad governance.  Due to the colonial administration’s marginalisation of the Balantas and the Majoncos in favour of ethnic Cape Verdeans, there was indigenous resentment against the government, primarily for the misrule of the state,  especially because the Balanta are one of the larger ethnic groups.  The growing resentment was worsened by economic policies which were unfavourable to the people.  Vieira’s coup in 1980 added more autocratic elements of misrule to the mix which eventually led to internal conflict in 1998.  Cote d’Ivoire on the other hand, in the days following independence in 1960, was economically and politically stable.  A short economic crisis in the 1970’s led the country down the path to ethnic intolerance, internal conflict and instability.  Constant marginalisation of ethnic groups has characterised Nigerian politics from the Biafra conflict  to the present day clashes in the oil-rich Niger-Delta region and Jos. Bøas and Jennings state that Nigeria, especially in the conflict areas, is marked by a “combination of poverty, marginalisation, and underemployment, combined with environmental problems, crime, corruption,…”  in addition to this is the fact that the local communities experience few returns from the economic largesse of the nation. It is apparent, therefore, that ethnicity and marginal development are a major fuel to West African economic and political crises.

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During peacetime and conflict the internal politics in the new West Africa is highly suspect and a source of danger to the civilian population. The major political ideology of West Africa is “politics as a contest in which the objective was to seize control of the state and use it for the good of one’s ethnic group.  One of the reasons given for the involvement of the military in post-colonial West African politics is the violent nature of politics in the region; therefore when violence becomes an integral part of West African politics ‘the specialists of warfare’ became specialists and strongmen in politics.  Furthermore, not only has politics become militarized, the military in West African states has become politicized, with political leaders calling on the military to solve personal political problems, as well as ethnic based appointments and promotions within the military.

The postcolonial state mirrored the colonial states in that its executives were intent on controlling the resources of the state. However while in the case of the colonial state the plunder was on the behalf of the mother state, in the case of post-colonial West African states, the plunder was done for personal benefit.  This has caused tensions because the plunder of state resources was now visible to the populace, as opposed to colonial plunder which was not visible. This is because, firstly, a cohesive state did not exist before the independence and state wealth could not be attributed to the people. The paucity of the post-colonial state can be traced to the sudden removal of the financial crutch which the colonial state provided to stabilise the colonies. The fragility of these states on the other hand has been traced to the mode of creation of the states. Since these states never had to justify or struggle for existence and achieved sovereignty as states by default and not by reversion to original entities, they exhibit a weak and unconsolidated nature, without substantial statehood, cultural and political communion and marked by unusual levels of internal competition for resources and control of the state.

To reduce to suffering of civilian populations within West Africa, economic aid alone has proven insufficient and in some cases detrimental. Realistic and in some cases, innovative political solutions are required to halt the wave of conflict, human rights violations and poverty that beset the ordinary people in West Africa.

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4 thoughts on “A Short History of West Africa

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  1. Hello… I am an History Buff and would like to turn this interest in History of mine into a career. I actually studied and am currently practicing Food Technology but all my interest and being is in History. Would you by chance know any online/distance learning History course that you can recommend for me to enable me get a formal study/qualification in History preferably contemporary history. Thanks.

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