Colonialism and the expansion of empires

The ongoing exploitation of Africa

by Marika Sherwood

This article focuses on the continuation of inequalities between Africa and Europe as the result of the racism of transatlantic slavery. Modern racism and images of Africans (for example as corrupt and unable to help or govern themselves) will relate to this. However, we should also remember that despite the ravages of slavery, vibrant, coherent African cultures survived and continue to develop and have a strong dynamic to this day.

Independence and inspirational Africans

Also, we should remember the successful struggles of African nations to organise independence movements and military struggles to overthrow the European masters from their colonies, despite the heavy odds against them and the consequent losses in the process. The leaders that emerged from this period, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara and Nelson Mandela, have become inspirational voices across the world.


The exploitation of Africa began with the wars inspired to procure enslaved people and the export of the most fit and strong members of Africa's population. It continued with colonisation in the nineteenth century.

Map of Africa from Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1890

Colonies were areas of Africa and other regions (such as India) which became placed under direct governmental control by European powers, effectively extensions of those European countries. The Europeans took mineral and agricultural products from these colonies at the cheapest possible price. The colonies also provided markets for manufactured European goods. Manufacturing by Africans in African colonies (and in the Caribbean) was forbidden and African enterprise was diminished or eliminated in every possible way.

Western extortion of Africa continues, as do wars within the continent, often fought with guns supplied by westerners wanting the cheapest access to vital raw materials. The slaughter in Darfur (western Sudan) in the early twenty first century is partly if not mainly due to this, as is, for example, the situation in the Niger delta in Nigeria.

Power struggles

The western powers have also tried to control who runs African countries. The best documented case of western involvement in the murder of elected heads of state is that of Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, murdered with the complicity of Belgium and the USA in 1961. Lumumba was a pan-Africanist and believed in the necessity of freeing Africa from European economic domination. The USA got involved in his removal from power for two reasons.

Firstly, they were interested in the Congo's copper, diamonds, cobalt, oil, uranium, and other minerals. Secondly, the 1960s were the time of the Cold War between the United Soviet States of Russia (the USSR) and the USA. In this paranoid era the USA needed someone it could trust and encourage to derail any moves by the USSR to influence Africa or procure materials. It paid Mobutu Sese Seko to help in the murder of Lumumba and then helped him organise a coup d' état in 1965 (he was given an aeroplane, for example).

The corrupt Mobutu then ruled until 1997, acting as the USA's watchdog. He suppressed all attempts in his own country to stop exploitation by the neo-colonial powers and helped to crush any such movements in neighbouring countries. For this the USA 'gave him well over a billion dollars in civilian and military aid', much of which ended up in his own pocket: his private wealth was 'estimated at $4 billion' (Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghosts, London 2000, p.303).

Congo became impoverished despite its vast mineral wealth, partly because of corruption and partly because of the huge profits permitted to the non taxpaying foreign investors. Riots ensued and Mobutu was overthrown in 1997. (See also 'The Assassination of Lumumba' by Ludo de Witte). China has now been added to the list of foreign investors manipulating Congo.

Recent investigations also confirm the contemporary allegations of the USA's involvement in the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, the socialist, pan-Africanist president of Ghana in 1966.

Climate and food supply

Other forms of exploitation are perhaps less obvious. Climate change, caused mainly by the west, is expected to have the greatest effect on sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. Food prices have risen. As a result, free school meals supplied by the World Food Programme are being cut, for example by 50% in Kenya. Agricultural subsidies by the USA and the EU make imported food cheaper in Africa than locally produced rice, chicken, tomatoes and so on, and limit the export of crops such as cotton.

According to a World Development Movement report it is the EU that benefits from bilateral trade agreements. Assessing the development impacts of two existing EU bilateral trade agreements with South Africa and Mexico, the new report 'Raw Deal' shows how one sided these deals have been in favour of the EU. For example, there has been an almost 50% increase in food and drink imports by South Africa from Europe see: