Modern-Day Borders and the Birth of Neocolonialism

Stephanie Seo, Jan 11, 2024

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, coined the term “neocolonialism” at the 1963 Charter of the Organization of African States. By his definition, neocolonialism describes the condition in which states appear to have international sovereignty from an outside perspective, despite their economic and political activity being directly controlled by external forces [1]. By this definition, neocolonialism is currently rampant across the African continent. But why Africa?


By analyzing the long history of European involvement in the continent, its connections to unlawful neocolonialism today become blatant. Namely, the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century was essentially a precursor to the rise of neocolonialism. With participation mainly from France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal, the Scramble for Africa resulted in the self-absorbed dividing of the continent by European countries who drew arbitrary and heedless border lines. This event during the colonial era had extensively harmful impacts on African societies, which then created conditions for the rise of neocolonialism in the continent today. 


These newly-formed border lines held absolutely no regard for already existing geopolitical borders of Africa, especially for the political and diplomatic relationships between different ethnic groups. Existing ethnic groups and communities were separated by borders due to European greed and ignorance of the nuanced communities within African populations. Some borders, such as Guinea’s, partitioned certain ethnic groups into four or more separate states. As a consequence of partitioning, nations with diverse ethnic makeups experience greater risk for political conflict and instability because of forces such as nationalism and ethnic pride. During the Scramble for Africa, the ethnic Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa were grouped together in current-day Rwanda. These ethnic groups were racialized during the Belgian rule of Rwanda, which resulted in widespread discrimination and major power struggles among the Tutsi and Hutu groups post-independence [2]. Consequently, the nation has experienced extreme ethnic clashes and genocide of the Tutsi people, which led to the murder of roughly 800,000 Tutsis during the Rwandan Genocide. This tragedy was significantly prompted by the effects of colonial rule and the thoughtless borderlines it created. Needless to say, conflict of this sort and scale would leave any nation weak and unstable for many years to follow. Further, these borders have given rise to tense, brittle relationships between nations whose borders split ethnic groups. For instance, if members of the ethnic same group in a neighboring country are experiencing power struggles or conflict due to internal factors, a country may be likely to show support for their group through military interventions. Therefore, African states have an incentive to conduct drastic measures that can be damaging to diplomatic relations. 


From national weakness and high instability levels within governments, African nations that were previously colonies have been unable to maximize their economic and government performance. Since 1990, 21 of 27 coups that took place in sub-Saharan Africa have been in former French colonies, showcasing the debilitating effect of colonial influence [3]. A tense political climate stunts overall growth, with an especially negative effect on economic growth. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology concluded that political instability negatively impacted as much as 33 percent of economic growth in terms of GDP from 1960-1986 due to falls in marginal capital productivity [4]. Also, unstable governments—largely produced from artificial borderlines in Africa’s case—are often characterized by inefficient administration. The resulting susceptibility to corruption and external influence causes political instability to rise and further stunts a nation’s economic growth. 


With borders that disabled these African countries from flourishing into self-sustaining, stable states, it has been easier for strong global presences to infiltrate their economies and consequently their politics in a neocolonialist fashion. In other words, colonialism in the past has produced neocolonialism by creating conditions in which African states are held back from achieving full government and economic strength. Therefore, these disadvantages have allowed powerhouses, such as France and China, to infiltrate the economic and political systems of innumerable African nations primarily for economic gain through African natural resources. 


As a major participant in African colonization, France has maintained influence over its past colonies through monetary policy that ties certain African currencies to the French franc. It has also sustained the presence of its military in previous colonies to continue controlling local politics [5]. It is apparent that the legacy of France’s colonial era has directly made way for its neocolonialist deeds because its past political influence never ceased. This has provided the necessary foundations for its transition to neocolonialist policies in the twenty-first century. 


To uncover the current exploitative activity of France in Africa, it is crucial to understand its dependence on Niger and other West African countries for their uranium supply. In 2020, Niger was France’s biggest exporter of uranium, making up 34.7% of aggregate imports [6]. The problem, however, is that France has been paying Niger outrageously dirt-cheap rates—approximately €0.80 or $0.85 per kilogram—compared to the market price of €200 per kilogram. In fact, over ten years, France has essentially stolen €3.5 billion worth of uranium [7]. Given this sheer robbery, France’s exploitation has arguably fueled Niger’s recent coup in July of 2023.  Many Nigeriens have expressed dissatisfaction with former President Mohamed Bazoum’s allegiance to France, claiming that he was a puppet president for French interests. For Nigeriens, it has felt as though their nation had never actually won independence from colonial France in 1960. They viewed the coup as a strategy to cleanse themselves of France’s sweeping influence, directly linking France’s influence to sparking political instability. 


And, of course, China cannot go unmentioned when discussing neocolonialism. Many have criticized China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a masked form of neocolonialism because of its extensive investments and loans to African states for access to their land and natural resources. Due to the fact that many African states are “cash hungry,” loans offered from China as investments are enticing. They are also enticing because they also invest into higher-risk remote areas that Western countries refrain from—creating for fuller development in terms of the nation as a whole rather than just its promising sectors [8]. Further, African leaders likely feel more inclined to partner up with China, a fellow developing country, rather than first world nations because of the perception that China has more altruistic or genuine intentions. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is the main channel through which China provides African nations with foreign aid, and all but one African nation are members of this organization. This is coupled with generally positive sentiments towards China’s involvement in Africa from the general African population, with around 63% of the surveyed feeling “somewhat positive” or “very positive” [9]. 


However, these loans come at a price. Some costs include economic compromise and political favoring of China, essentially imposing Chinese control over partaking governments. Economists’ major concerns are that countries loaning from China will not be able to pay off their debts, leading to defaults, other economic crises, and political upheaval. Especially since China holds extremely unforgiving lending policies compared to other top-lending nations, borrowing countries may be forced to cut spending on domestic spending for healthcare, infrastructure, and social services. In the case of default, the unemployment and inflation rates will soar, and overall poverty levels will worsen. Despite these risks, African nations may not necessarily hold the power or backing to resist Chinese advances.  


For instance, China’s presence in Zambia reflects this skewed power dynamic. In recent years, Chinese laborers and equipment were imported into Zambian copper mines, consequently displacing jobs for local laborers and not particularly boosting the local economy. These highly unfavorable economic deals along with the steady flow of Chinese migrants into the country—with the number of migrants quadrupling from 2018 to 2019— threaten Zambian sovereignty. It appears that while China gains economically from African natural resources, Zambia and other involved African states risk great economic damage from loan debt. While China’s foreign policy differs in means from past colonialist efforts in Africa, it still allows itself to gain a sphere of influence within Africa and impact their partnering nations’ politics, which leads to similar conditions to the colonial era.


By investigating the actions of France and China alone, it is apparent that global powers have and continue to spoil African prosperity. From the Scramble for Africa to initiating current-day coups, the African continent has been plagued with foreign interference that has repressed their governments and states as a whole. Particularly, the long-term effects of modern borderlines remain especially damaging. How should these African states move forward, though? 


Although easier said than done, one potential solution to aiding the African continent in breaking free from Western and Eastern influence is reforming the overall orientation of its economies.  


One approach to move away from neocolonialism includes the shifting of consumption from imported goods to domestically produced goods. The focal point of this approach is a genuine prioritization of trade within the continent. According to the Economic Commission of Africa, trade within the African continent involves the exchange of more manufactured goods, greater knowledge transfer, and greater generated value [10]. Therefore, intra-continental trade has the potential to foster significant economic development in the African continent. In addition, countries must focus on diversifying their exports to build strength against economic downturns from changes in prices and decreases in demand for these exports. Once these are accomplished, great increases in innovation and productivity as well as boosts in entrepreneurship can be expected within African nations. 


With Africa’s richness in natural resources and potential in human capital, there is a promising future if—and only if—there is a collective effort to build up domestic industries instead of simply providing raw materials for other nations to manufacture into finished goods and products. This collective effort can look like the work of the African Development Bank Group (ADBG), which focuses on shifting investments and resources from crisis response to crisis prevention. One part of the ADBG’s objective is called the Transition Support Facility (TSF). The TSF is dedicated to capacity-building in order to strengthen climate change mitigation, debt management, and domestic revenue mobilization, among other considerations [11]. Through approaches like this one, African fragility can be resolved as an economic binder, especially given the pressing threats of climate change that can devastate food and energy sources in the future. However, this must be accomplished alongside the creation of strong central governments that are dedicated to national development and are resilient against corruption and mismanagement of economic growth. Additionally, domestic industries can be strengthened through intra-continental trade since it has been found to greatly generate skills and knowledge as well as orienting government objectives to be more strongly focused on fostering innovation and stronger regulation of existing industries. Once domestic industries are established, African countries can shift into export-oriented economies and compete in the world economy by further engaging in inter-trade and foreign trade.


Though these solutions are aimed towards the long-run and will require much effort and trial, they are worth attention and consideration for African states to finally achieve complete sovereignty. Considering Africa’s disastrous borderlines, extensive history of exploitation, and modern instability as an outcome of imperialism, it is vital that a collaborative effort is made by African countries to bolster their economies for the enhanced well-being of not only African citizens but also world citizens. This effort to prevent the fall of Africa into the growing tide of neocolonialism is necessary to avoid replicating the misfortunes of colonialism.


[1] Nkrumah, Kwame. 1965. Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons.

[2] “Rwanda.” College of Liberal Arts. Accessed December 13, 2023.,context%20of%20a%20civil%20war.

[3] Cheeseman, Nic, and Leonard Mbulle-Nziege. “Niger Coup: Is France to Blame for Instability in West Africa?” BBC News, August 6, 2023.

[4] Fosu, Augustin Kwasi. “Political Instability and Economic Growth: Implications of Coup Events in Sub‐saharan Africa.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 61, no. 1 (2002): 329–48.

[5] Joseph, Richard. The Gaullist legacy - JSTOR. Accessed December 22, 2023.

[6] Maad, Assma. “How Dependent Is France on Niger’s Uranium?” Le, August 4, 2023.

[7] Ali, Faizan. “Niger France Uranium: African Country Increases Uranium Price to €200/Kg.” SAMAA. Accessed December 13, 2023.

[8] Hanauer, Larry, and Lyle J. Morris. China in Africa: Implications of a deepening relationship | Rand. Accessed December 22, 2023.

[9] Akeredolu, Fikayo. “African Perception of the United States in an Evolving Geopolitical Landscape.” Wilson Center. Accessed December 13, 2023.

[10] Songwe, Vera. “Intra-African Trade: A Path to Economic Diversification and Inclusion.” Brookings, March 9, 2022.

[11] Bank Group’s strategy for addressing fragility and building resilience ... Accessed December 20, 2023.