Africa is the second-largest continent on the planet (after Asia) in both land area and population—with more than 800 million people living in fifty-four countries. With a total land area of more than eleven million square miles, Africa accounts for 20% of the land on the planet; its population accounts for one-seventh of the population of earth.
Africa is typically discussed as two distinct regions: northern Africa—the area north of the Sahara Desert that is inhabited mostly by Arabic-speaking people whose ancestors come from the Middle East—and sub-Saharan Africa, the area south of the desert, in which many different tribes and nationalities live. These designations are not, however, absolutely definitive because political
regional definitions differ from geographical regional definitions. For example, while the United Nations lists just seven territories as North African (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara), geographically the Azores, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti also are sometimes considered part of the North. Some commentators prefer the term "tropical Africa" to "sub-Saharan Africa," but others note that this excludes the country of South Africa, which falls outside the tropical zone. Regardless of political or geographic designation, however, Africa suffers from the overall highest rate of poverty in the world. Of the continent's fifty-four countries, thirty-four—all typically considered to be part of sub-Saharan Africa—are on the UN's list of least developed countries.
Colonialism and Slavery
Africa is unique in that, between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, a great number of its native inhabitants were enslaved and shipped to other countries and almost the entire continent was colonized by outsiders. In simple terms, colonialism is when representatives of a wealthy country move to an underdeveloped country and set up a branch of their homeland government to rule over the indigenous people, usually profiting from the natural resources and local labor. Often the indigenous people are enslaved; almost always they are exploited and discriminated against. Even when a colonial government is successfully overthrown or voted out of power, poverty and injustice are often so deeply ingrained that liberated countries do not recover from their years as colonies. In the case of Africa—a continent with abundant natural resources such as gold, oil, and diamonds—the worldwide slave trade that relied on labor from the continent lasted for centuries, dispersing millions of native Africans all over the world, and even after the abolishment of slavery and the dismantling of the colonial system, the continent continued to be plagued by war and chronic poverty.
In the late fifteenth century, European slave traders, led by the Spanish and the Portuguese, began importing slaves from Africa. With the colonization of North and South America beginning in the 1500s and 1600s, the African slave trade increased dramatically, and within a century, many countries in Europe as well as North and South America were importing African slaves. The United States in particular relied on slave labor to fuel its southern farming economy. Native Africans were also forced into labor in Africa itself, to work in the burgeoning industries that exploited Africa's natural resources. Estimates vary, but it is believed that at least twenty-eight million Africans were kidnapped and enslaved.
At the same time, the European nations were colonizing African lands, and by the time World War I began in 1914, virtually all of Africa was occupied. The colonizers sought to make native Africans easier to rule by turning native groups against each other, deliberately inflaming old conflicts and creating inter-tribal strife, which later exploded into war and genocide.
By the turn of the twentieth century, public opinion abroad had begun to turn against colonialism, and a move toward independence gained strength in the 1920s and 1930s as descendants of slaves helped raise awareness of the injustices of foreign occupation in Africa. Anticolonialism increased within Africa as well, with frequent strikes and public protests that often ended in violence. In some countries the battle for independence was led by guerilla fighters, while protesters in other countries were inspired by the nonviolent resistance methods of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, who had led his country to independence from British rule in 1947. Most African nations had gained their independence by either peaceful or violent means by the late 1960s.
Cold War Politics
Sadly, the overthrow of the colonial governments did not guarantee a just society for native Africans. The rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as world powers resulted in a state of "neocolonialism," in which the two nations vied to secure allies during the cold war. Agents of both governments—including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States and the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB; "State Security Committee") of the Soviet Union—colluded with African political factions that had little interest in creating just and prosperous societies. The U.S. operatives were more successful than the Soviets in creating allies: helping to overthrow fledgling African governments that were based on Communist principles, the CIA supported the ascent of harsh dictators who would serve U.S. interests. Many of these leaders managed to amass great personal wealth while driving their own countries into economic ruin and further encouraging ethnic violence.
Even after the end of the cold war, the continent was plagued by violence among ethnic groups. Especially noteworthy is the Rwandan genocide of 1994. During that conflict, ethnic tensions between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis led to civil war and mass killings in which an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in just 100 days ("Rwanda: How the Genocide Happened," BBC News Online, April 1, 2004).
Violence in the vast Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC; formerly called Zaire) dates back to the country's independence in 1960. In the late 1990s Rwanda invaded the DRC in search of Hutu extremists in hiding; this
ignited a rebellion that eventually involved Uganda, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, as well as Rwanda and the DRC. In 2003 the war ended in a tentative peace agreement, but not before three million Congolese had died either in the conflict or from the disease and malnutrition that followed its wake.
The East African country of Sudan has been in a near-constant state of civil war since about 1955. In 2003 tensions erupted in country's Darfur region between rebel fighters and the military government. Hostilities between black Arabs and non-Arabs, as well as between cattle herders and farmers fighting for scarce land and resources, turned into attacks on civilians that have been compared to the genocide in Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered and about two million driven into exile. Hundreds of thousands more are expected to die of starvation because of the conflict.
Many other examples of conflict in Africa exist, such as the anarchy in Somalia, the tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and rebel movements in scores of other countries. What all of these conflicts have in common is that they drain the nations involved of precious human, financial, and natural resources, weakening their societies and deepening their poverty.