When did Africa become independent?


Christine Harjes

To person

Christine Harjes is a freelance radio journalist and specializes in African topics. She travels to various African countries several times a year for reports and training for journalists at the Deutsche Welle Academy.

17 African states are celebrating 50 years of independence this year. But freedom also brought many difficulties. Some countries are still struggling with the consequences of the colonial era.
A Congolese citizen removes the portrait of the Belgian King Baudouin from the wall of the airport in Leopoldville (July 22, 1960). On June 30, 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo officially became independent from the colonial power of Belgium. (& copy AP)

"We prefer poverty in freedom to wealth in slavery." Guinea's President Ahmed Sékou Touré had a clear opinion on French colonial rule as early as 1958. He wanted independence from the so-called "Communauté Française", the community of France with the overseas French colonial territories. In a referendum in 1958, the West and Central African colonies were able to vote on whether they would remain in this community. In eleven countries of the 12 African member states, the population voted against independence. It was hoped that the proximity to France would bring economic advantages. Because membership in the "Communauté" included a whole series of aid and cooperation agreements for the colonies. And France's Prime Minister General Charles de Gaulle promised the member states that they would later achieve independence within this community. Only in Guinea did the referendum result clearly speak against France and in favor of immediate independence.

France reacted harshly: all French aid was stopped immediately. The colonial power immediately called doctors and teachers back home and withdrew medical supplies, teaching utensils and other relief supplies. Administration buildings and army barracks were destroyed.

Even if Guinea's new independence was painful at first, Guinea's President Sékou Touré became the hero of the anti-colonialists. Again and again he called on the members of the Franco-African community to also demand independence from France. The spark jumped: in 1960 the eleven remaining members of the Guinea Community followed to freedom. In the same year Cameroon and Togo also gained independence. Both countries did not belong to the community, but were under French administration as a UN trust territory.

From the French colony to Françafrique

The great wave of independence in 1960 was completely different from Guinea's defection from the Grande Nation two years earlier. Many of the new African leaders came to terms with France and made several agreements with the former colonial power. Léopold Sédar Senghor in Sénégal, Félix Houphouët-Boigny in the Ivory Coast or Léon M'Ba in Gabon traditionally felt close to France and did not want to cut the umbilical cord to the colonial motherland completely. Senghor had studied in France; Houphouët-Boigny had worked in colonial medical care for 15 years and then served in various governments in France. M'Ba had been educated in French mission schools and then served as an official for the colonial authorities in France. France also had a particularly close relationship with M'Ba's successor, Omar Bongo. In 1967 General de Gaulle proteged him in the presidential election. In return, France had priority during Bongo's 40-year tenure when it came to distributing Gabon's rich oil resources.

These often questionable alliances between France and its former colonies persist to this day. They are often criticized under the catchphrase "Françafrique". France still has armies stationed in Africa, and the French central bank still guarantees the convertibility of the CFA franc, the currency of most of the French ex-colonies. This means that France has to keep reserves ready as a payment guarantee for the FCFA countries. From the economy to administrative structures to the school system - French influence is everywhere in the former colonies.

Belgium leaves the Democratic Republic of the Congo

During the great wave of independence in 1960, it was not only France that released its African colonies into freedom. With the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the largest countries in Africa became independent from Belgium.



Independence 1960: An overview of the states

Fifty years ago, 17 former African colonies gained independence, including the ten French colonies of Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and Mauritania. Cameroon and Togo, which had been under French administration as UN trust territory, also achieved independence. In the same year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo liberated itself from Belgium, as well as Nigeria and Somalia, from the colonial countries of England and Italy.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo suffered particularly during the colonial period: the Belgian colonial rulers mercilessly exploited the Congolese. King Leopold II wanted to secure his sphere of influence in Africa. He sent the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to the Congo River and had him sign "territorial agreements" with village chiefs. In 1885 Leopold's "Free State of the Congo" was internationally recognized. An area of ​​more than 1.5 million square kilometers - Belgium would have fit 75 times in this area. Trading in ivory and rubber made Leopold II one of the richest men in Europe. At a high price: an estimated ten million Congolese died under his bloody rule.

The Congo has arguably the most brutal colonial rule in Africa behind it. The transition to independence was anything but smooth: Belgium had to release the Congo into freedom; the public pressure was too great, the anti-colonial movements too strong. Shortly before Independence Day, Patrice Lumumba, an ardent supporter of Pan-Africanism, was elected Prime Minister of the Congo. The conflict between the Congolese and the Belgian King Baudouin became evident as early as the independence ceremony on June 30, 1960. While Baudouin praised the alleged achievements under Belgian rule, Lumumba sharply criticized the repression and exploitation by the Belgians.

His clear stance against the Belgians cost Lumumba his life: in the same year, the later dictator Joseph Mobutu overthrew him with the help of the CIA. Lumumba was first imprisoned in the Congolese capital Léopoldville and then taken to the breakaway province of Katanga in January 1961 by Belgian officers. Lumumba was murdered there. To this day, Patrice Lumumba is regarded as a symbol of the African struggle for independence. His death could never be finally cleared up. In 2001, however, a Belgian commission of inquiry clearly established that Belgian officers, police officers and officials were involved in the murder of Lumumba. Belgium apologized to the Congolese state, the investigation has so far not had any legal consequences.

The assassination of Lumumba was the culmination of the chaos that followed the declaration of independence in June 1960: the civil war-like "Congo turmoil" shook the vast country. Two regions, Katanga and Kasai, tried to split off, UN blue helmets had to intervene and a rebellion broke out in the east of the country. When the Belgians finally left the Congo, chaos remained in the country. To date, the Congo has not recovered from it. Despite its rich mineral resources, the Central African state is sinking into bloody rebel wars, mismanagement and corruption.