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First posted on May 16th 2008

East Africa : Periodization, 1914-2008

1914 By the time World War I broke out, Oubangi-Chari (the present Central African Republic), the Middle Congo (present Republic of Congo) and Gabon were French colonies, Equatorial Guinea Spanish colony, the Belgian Congo Belgian, and Angola Portuguese colony.
1914-1918 World War I : the war was not fought on Central African soil, but on its borders : Cameroon, German East Africa and Southwest Africa (modern Namibia) were German colonies; Southwestafrica surrendered in 1915, Cameroon in 1916, the German troops in German East Africa a few weeks after fighting had ceased in Europe. The concept of a large contiguous German colony in Central Africa, connecting Cameroon, German East Africa and South West Africa, established by German politicians during the war as a possible prize in case of victory, did not materialize.
1919-1929 France (i.e. Gabon, Middle Congo, Oubangi-Chari)regained the territory France had ceased to Germany in 1911. Economically the most important part of Central Africa was the Katanga region of Belgian Congo, home to mines producing a range of ores, most notably copper ore. Rail connections to the coast had been established by 1910; the mining industry flourished in the 1920es, while rubber, until 1910 the main export item, had seen a drastic decline. Investment in the infrastructure of the region, by comparison to prewar times, had sharly decreased as much of the rail lines had been laid. A generation of Central African leaders fluent in the language of the colonial master, and at least partially acquainted with knowledge as to how a 19th century administration worked, had grown up. Living in a segregated society sharply discriminating against the Africans, and denied the right to form political parties, they organized cultural or professional organizations.
1930-1939 The Great Depression did affect Central Africa, because prices for exports, as well as overall exports of many items, fell. Congolese copper remained in demand as electricity gained ground.
1939-1945 After France surrendered to Germany in 1940, most French colonies recognized the French Vichy administration. Not so General Charles de Gaulle, in London when the French surrender was announced. He absolutely refused to accept the situation, proclaimed Free France, established his headquarter in Brazzaville, the capital of French Congo and French Equatorial Africa. From here the Free French forces, in alliance with the British and U.S. Americans, moved on toward the liberation of France.
Aware that a handful of French patriots could not dream of liberating their homeland without the support of the native population of French Equatorial Africa in particular and France's colonies in general, he promised a thorough change of France's relation with her colonies.
Belgian Congo recognized the Belgian exile government established in London. Katanga (Belgian Congo) supplied the uranium used in the bombs drpped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the rubber plantations of South East Asia were under Japanese control, the Belgian Congo and adjacent areas saw a brief resurgence of the production and export of wild rubber.
Spain and Portugal remained neutral.
1945-1960 In 1946, France's colonies were elevated to the status of overseas territories. France needed revenue from the colonies to finance reconstruction at home and had a war to fight in Indochina; hence promised changes in the administration of the colonies came slower as expected. Following the French defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954, political expectations in the colonies surged sharply. France realized that it could not hold on to the colonies, and in 1960 released Oubangi-Chari (now renamed Central African Republic), Gabon, the Middle Congo (now Republic of Congo, or Congo Brazzaville) into independence. Belgium granted independence to Belgian Congo (Congo Leopoldville). Many of the Belgian Cngo's white residents left the country. Spain held on to Equatorial Guinea (until 1968), Portugal to Angola (until 1974).
1960-1974 The newly independent states were not prepared for independence; they lacked qualified and experienced administrative and military personnel; administrative and military staff who qualified as African were quickly promoted. The new states also lacked 'national' cohesion; the states had been shaped by the colonial masters; the national language was that of the colonial masters, the techniques requires to run the economy was foreign. Political independence was a mere façade; the national economies, administrations, education systems, armies continued to depend on the former colonial powers, or in a wider sense on "the West". In the richest state of Central Africa, Congo Leopoldville, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba wanted to reduce these dependencies. The key to the problem was the Belgian company Union Miniere. The latter, in order to defend her interest, influenced Moise Tschombe to declare the secession of Katanga, and Congolese President Kasavubu to dismiss PM Lumumba. Lumumba refused to accept; Congo Leopoldville descended into a civil war; Lumumba was killed; Union Miniere maintained her hold on the Katanga mines (Katanga rejoined Congo Leopoldville). A military officer, Mobutu Sese Seko, rose to become president (1965-1997). In 1971 he had the country renamed Zaire.
Portugal, under military dictatorship and economically backward, attempted to hold on to her colonies as long as possible. In the colonies organizations of freedom fighters took up armed struggle; by 1974, the year of the coup in Portugal, the freedom fighters controlled much of Angola. The new Portuguese government agreed to an immediate handover of power. The Portuguese settlers left Angola.
1973-1991 Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko and Central African Republic's Jean Bedel Bokassa may illustrate the problem of newly independent African states. Bokassa ruled for 32 years (1965-1997) and is listed as one of the most successful cleptocrats of all time. Jean Bedel Bokassa came to power in a coup d'etat in 1965, ruled as president until he decided to have the country renamed Central African Empire in 1977, and himself crowned in a lavish coronation ceremony; he was ousted in 1979. Rulers as these treated revenue from the export of copper, uranium, diamonds as their own, neglected the needs of the population.
Africa's revenues from the export of minerals saw a sharp decline due to the fall of prices in the mid 1970es (the U.S. dumped their copper reserves on the market in order to force the copper price down, to harm the Chilean government). The prices stayed low as the suppliers of minerals desparately needed the reduced revenue.
In Angola, three competing organizatiions had fought for independence from Portugal. The largest one (the MPLA) had assumed the government; the others continued to fight, now against the central government. The MPLA was Communist; the government forces were supported by Cuba, their opponents by South Africa. The Angolan Civil War was to last until 2002.
Since 1991 Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko has been much criticized for his many shortcomings; however under him the country was relatively stable. In 1997 he was ousted in a brief civil war. Since, the country renamed Democratic Republic of Congo has descended in a long-lasting civil war (since 1997). The war is less fought over who prevails in the country than over control of mine revenue; the country is in danger of disintegration.
Angola, after a long period of internal violence, has seen peace since 2002. Increasing oil revenue has resulted in a recent improvement of living conditions.

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Country History files at WHKMLA : Angola, Central African Republic (Oubangi-Chari), Rep. Congo (Brazzaville, Middle Congo, French Congo), D.R. Congo (Leopoldville, Belgian Congo), Equatorial Guinea

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