Liberation Conference: Africa’s Challenges Today




The Emancipation of Africa: Retrospect and the Future – by Stan Newens (President, Liberation)

Although Africa was ruthlessly exploited by the Europeans from the 16th century onwards – above all through the slave trade – it was not until the last quarter of the 19th Century that the real scramble to annex African lands and seize control over their resources actually began.

In 1875, less than one tenth of African territory had been colonized by European powers. By 1895, only one tenth remained unappropriated.

Britain annexed 4 ¼ million square miles and 66 million people during this period – Bechuanaland in 1885; Rhodesia in 1887; Nyasaland in 1891, British East Africa in 1888; Uganda in 1894; Sudan in 1898 and Nigeria between 1888 and 1899.

France annexed 3 ½ million square miles and 18 million people – all West of the Sudan, from the coastal states, down to Dakar.

Germany annexed 1 million square miles and 13 million people in S.W Africa (now Namibia), East Africa (Tanganyika) and the Cameroons.

Italy took Eritrea (1885), Asmara (1889), South Somaliland (1889) and aimed to take Abyssinia but was defeated at the Battle of Adowa in 1896.

Belgium – or rather King Leopold II, initially – annexed 400,000 square miles and 8 ½ million people in the Congo.

Conflict amongst European Powers 

The exploitation in all these colonies involved seizure of African lands, forced labour, denial of all rights to subject populations, and ruthless treatment of African workers, including mutilation of rubber collectors in the Congo.

The rivalry over colonies nearly caused war between European powers long before 1914. Britain and France were at daggers drawn at Fashoda in the Sudan in 1898, after Kitchener defeated the Mahdi at the Battle of Omdurman, exacting revenge for the killing of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1885.

Germany and Britain were in danger of clashing over South West Africa. There were serious crises between Germany and France over Morocco in 1905, 1906 and 1911. The last crisis was settled with France obtaining a protectorate over Morocco and Germany getting two strips of land of 100,000 square miles in the French Congo.

The competition between the powers over Africa and other territories in Europe and elsewhere was one of the causes of the First World War (1914 – 1918) in which an estimated 16 million people died and 20 million were maimed or wounded. Large numbers of Africans, recruited as porters or troops, also died in the First World War.

Rise of anti-colonial movements

The war, however, opened the eyes of some Africans to the manner in which they and their homelands were being exploited and the inter-war years 1918 – 1939 saw the initial emergence of independence movements and African leaders like Jomo Kenyatta. Minorities in Europe had long spoken against colonisation of other peoples’ territories and anti-colonial movements also grew in the inter-war period.

The League Against Imperialism was established in Brussels in 1927 and George Padmore (originally from Barbados) built up contacts in Africa linked to British and other European movements. The League Against Imperialism broke up after 1937, partly owing to the efforts of the Soviet Union to tone down conflicts with the West. However, in Britain anti-imperialist activities continued and the British Centre Against Imperialism was formed. After the end of the Second World War, this led to the formation in Paris, of the Congress of Peoples Against Imperialism with Fenner Brockway, a Labour MP and long standing opponent of colonisation, in the chair.

In the 1930s, other anti-imperialist organisations including the International African Bureau, formed against the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the West Africa Student Union (formed in 1923) and the League of Coloured Peoples had been organised. These and others came together at the 5th Pan African Congress held in Manchester in October 1945, which George Padmore organised  and Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Peter Abrahams and other emerging African leaders attended.

After conducting numerous campaigns and being forced to leave France, the Congress of Peoples Against Imperialism convened a very well attended conference in 1954 to form the Movement for Colonial Freedom, which changed its name to Liberation in 1970, and is today the convener of this conference.

In 1947, the Kenya Africa Union under Jomo Kenyatta launched the campaign for the return of alienated land to the indigenous population of Kenya. In the Gold Coast, Kwame Nkrumah campaigned for independence. In Nigeria, Dr Nnamdi Azikwe rallied the Igbos, Chief Obafemi Awolowo the Yorubas and the Northern People’s Congress the Hausa-Fulani peoples of the North in favour of independence.

The Congress of Peoples Against Imperialism and subsequently Movement for Colonial Freedom supported all these movements and others, like that against the attempt to form the Central African Federation, which aimed to unite Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland under white minority rule based in the south.

The struggle came to a-head in Kenya when Mau Mau, an African guerrilla movement, took up arms. A brutal repression followed in which 70, 000 Kenyans were detained in concentration camps; men were mutilated and over 1000 were hanged. The Movement for Colonial Freedom, Fenner Brockway and others campaigned against the repression and eventually, Kenyatta was released and Kenya became independent.

In 1956, Movement for Colonial Freedom was in the vanguard of the movement against British military intervention in the Suez, as part of the Suez Emergency Group. The Trafalgar Square rally was, however, taken over by the Labour Party and timed out to be a seminal event.  The Movement for Colonial Freedom also campaigned against apartheid in South Africa, against Portuguese colonial rule in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea (Equatorial) and everywhere that Africans demanded freedom from colonial rule.

The cost of freedom

History was in our side and the anti-colonial movement triumphed throughout the continent, even in South Africa, where apartheid was eventually overthrown. The cost, however, in terms of blood and suffering was huge.

To cite only a few examples:- in the Congo, the outstanding leader of the liberation movement, Patrice Lumumba, and vast number of others were brutally murdered; In Nigeria, the country was engulfed by civil war; in Rhodesia – afterwards Zimbabwe – a guerrilla war was fought against white minority rule; in the Portuguese colonies, was continued for years after the Portuguese dictator, Caetano, was toppled in 1974. I remember speaking to the beautiful, talented and dedicated Ruth First, to launch a campaign for Namibian independence in Britain. She was later killed by a parcel bomb.

The Challenges Today

As the struggle for political independence proceeded, the economic forces behind imperialism – often vast multi-national companies – sought new methods of retaining control over the assets they were exploiting and a system of neo-colonisation developed, which still dominated the scene. Sadly, many of those who came to power when colonial rule was overthrown, made deals with the exploiters and used their positions to enrich themselves. Elsewhere military officers seized power and the result was mass poverty, ruthless exploitation, appalling abuses of human rights and the degradation of women still prevail over much of the continent.

In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown and a succession of military coups followed. In Uganda, General Amin seized power and Nigeria suffered under military dictators and now Boko Haram. The Congo was subjected to the catastrophic rule of Mobutu and Jehomlse. The Sudan and now the independent South Sudan have been the scene of colossal violence and suffering. In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda was succeeded by a corrupt Chiluba. The appalling massacres which occurred in Rwanda have been followed by continuing violence beyond its borders.

Even in South Africa, despite the heroic endeavours of Nelson Mandela and those who fought to overthrow apartheid, living conditions for many have not improved, striking miners were shot down and the Miners’ Union has been expelled from the trade union movement, Cosatu.

All this and much more represent a huge challenge to the coming generation of young Africans and to all of us who have supported the struggle for the liberation of Africa. A movement dedicated to genuine democratic and socialist ends is required to transform the continent to enable the mass of the people to enjoy the benefits of its rich resources.

The emancipation of African people throughout its many lands from the degrading plight in which so many are still forced to live must be our aim. The success of those who achieved the overthrow of colonial rule should inspire us to emulate their efforts and achieve a better life for all.


Stan Newens





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