Africa's last colony wins independence

Published March 21, 1990|Updated Oct. 16, 2005

Today, for the first time in 500 years, Africa is without a colony. Namibia became the world's newest nation when South Africa formally relinquished control shortly after midnight today (5 p.m. EST Tuesday).

So ended an era of colonial rule on a continent once carved up and ruled by European powers hungry for imperial glory.

"This solemn hour is the moment our people have been waiting for for more than a century," President Sam Nujoma, a former guerrilla leader, said in his inaugural address.

He was sworn in by United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, the first time a U.N. official has ever given the oath of office.

The South African flag was lowered for the last time in this country at 12:18 a.m., and the new Namibian flag, a golden sun with diagonal stripes of blue, red, green and white, was raised to a roar of approval from a crowd of thousands.

South African President Frederik de Klerk's eyes brimmed briefly with tears at the lowering of his country's flag. As the Namibian flag went up, many in the crowd wept openly. Others punched their fists in the air in a black power salute.

The celebrations mark the end of more than a century of foreign rule over the desert territory in southwestern Africa, which was colonized first by Germany in the 1880s and by South Africa after 1915.

The end of South African rule marks the end of a process that began in 1957 when Ghana became the first European colony in Africa to become independent. In the years since, some 50 African nations have emerged from colonial rule.

Namibia's peaceful independence after a 23-year bush war between South African forces and nationalist black guerrillas has added to hopes that South Africa's racial divisions may also be resolved peacefully.

Nearly all of Africa except for Ethiopia and Liberia was divided between the European powers in what historians call "The Scramble for Africa," mainly in the 19th century.

The colonization of Africa, according to the historian Basil Davidson, meant Africans "had lost their independence, and, with this, their capacity to develop along their own lines."

"They had lost, in short, the command of their own history," he wrote.

While European colonization of Africa began with the Portuguese in the 15th century, most of the continent was carved up by Britain and France in the late 19th century. The two imperial powers took over huge tracts of territory across the continent, sweeping aside African resistance.

Even minor powers such as Belgium, Spain and Portugal carved out colonies far larger than their own size. The king of Belgium ran the huge Belgian Congo as a private enterprise.

The geography of Africa gives some evidence of these colonial exploits: Leopoldville, named after that Belgian king; Lake Victoria, named after the British monarch, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), named after Cecil Rhodes.

Much of the territory gobbled up by the European powers was jungle, desert and swamps of little value. Few of the colonies ever did more than consume the money of the ruling country and never produced the wealth predicted by colonial officials.

Despite the worthlessness of many of these colonies, the European powers competed frantically to snap up African territory. Empires and colonies gave enormous prestige, and Europeans of all classes gloried in their nation's foreign possessions.

National boundaries were invented to carve out commercial interests rather than to define political entities or shared cultures. Somalia, for instance, was once split into three colonies, ruled side by side by Italy, France and Britain.

Independence from Britain didn't bring a happy unity for all Somalians. There are many Somalians in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, and skirmishes between these countries continue.

Absolute harmony is impossible because of Africa's immense ethnic diversities. Uganda, for example, has 40 ethnic groups. Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo, has 200 languages and dialects and four national languages.

Becoming independent hasn't brought peace in all African nations. Tribal rivalries persist, and nationhood has forced once-feuding tribes to share resources.

In Kenya, for example, the Kikuyu, Luo, Luyia and Masai, who competed with each other for that region's land for farming and grazing, now have the shared responsibility for governing. Because of squabbling among the tribes for political supremacy, Kenya's first president abolished all opposition parties. The recent murder of a minister was perceived by many people of his Luo tribe as part of a conspiracy to mow down their ascendancy.

And in Nigeria (formerly British), which shares the same ethnic composition as neighboring Niger (formerly French), ethnic tensions caused its Ibo minority in the east to secede as Biafra in 1967. A war plowed down Ibo resistance.

In Burundi, inter-tribal feuding killed hundreds of thousands of people in 1972 and 1988. Members of the short Hutu tribe outnumber the tall Tutsis 6 to 1, but Tutsis dominated the country's government and military and massacred their rivals.

Early this century, the pursuit of colonies added to the international tensions that dragged Europe into World War I in 1914. When the war came, small colonial armies fought each other in Africa, with British and French troops seizing Germany's colonies.

A German army of a few thousand men, mainly African troops, held out in East Africa until the end of the war in 1918, fighting off much larger British, South African, Belgian and Portuguese forces.

Namibia, then called South West Africa, was a German colony captured by South African forces during the war.

But the European powers gave up their African colonies relatively easily after World War II when colonialism started to go out of fashion and liberation movements sprang up in Africa.

Britain and France released most of their African colonies. Only Portugal put up a long, bitter fight to try to retain Angola, Mozambique and its other possessions, but conceded defeat in the mid-1970s.

South Africa also fought for years to retain Namibia, until its leaders concluded the war against the South West African Peoples Organization (SWAPO) was no longer feasible. SWAPO won subsequent elections in 1989.

Now South Africa is the sole portion of Africa that remains under white rule. But white South Africans reject radicals' assertions that their nation also is a colony. White settlement in South Africa dates back 350 years, and the politically dominant Afrikaners of Dutch descent regard themselves as Africans with no other home.

_Information from staff writer Reena Shah, AP, Reuters and the Baltimore Sun was used in this report.

Namibia: a new nation

Until today, foreigners had ruled Namibia for more than a century.

The area, a desert territory in southwestern Africa, was colonized first by Germany in 1884 and controlled by South Africa after 1915.

The South West African Peoples Organization (SWAPO) began attacks in 1966, after South Africa rejected a United Nations resolution demanding it give up the territory. An estimated 20,000 people, mostly SWAPO guerrillas, died in the fighting. Peace came in April 1989.