History of Africa


An understanding of Africa's recent history helps to explain why many of the continent's nations are still developing, despite the fact that sophisticated African empires and civilisations flourished from medieval times.

Historical discovery

LucyIn this video... Addisu and Habtam visit the National Museum of Ethiopia to visit Lucy. She is around 3.5 millon years old.

Early history

The first banking crisis

In West Africa, the Mali Empire was so rich, in 1324 its king caused inflation in Cairo by the amount of gold he took on his pilgrimage to Mecca. The powerful Songhay and Ashanti kingdoms also flourished in West Africa.

Africa is thought to be the first continent on earth where humans lived. In Africa’s early history, groups were hunter-gatherers following a nomadic lifestyle. Small communities settled in fertile areas and began defending their local territory.

From 1000AD onwards, larger African kingdoms formed. This was partly because Africans saw the need to control land and resources as Arab and European traders came to barter for goods, slaves and gold. The boundaries of African empires changed over time as leaders rose and fell.

A large swathe of North Africa came under the control of Islamic states, while a powerful Christian kingdom formed around Ethiopia in the east.

Takeover by the Europeans

From the 1800s, European countries began to take control of coastal areas in Africa (e.g. French Algeria, the British Cape Colony in modern-day South Africa). Even so, by 1880 only small areas of the African continent were under European rule.


Only Liberia in the west and Abyssinia in the east (modern-day Ethiopia) remained independent from the Europeans, although Ethiopia was briefly under Italian control.

Then, in the space of just 30 years, the whole of Africa was carved up by the main European powers. By 1913, the Europeans had drawn boundaries for their 40 new states or ‘colonies’. These boundaries form the basis of the African nations we have today.

After the destruction of World War II, European countries no longer had the economic muscle or determination to rule Africa. From the 1950s, African countries began to gain their independence.

In 1950, four African countries – Liberia, South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia – were independent. The majority gained their independence over the next 30 years, though Namibia and Eritrea had to wait until the 1990s.

War and the European legacy

Religious split

South Sudanese independence

The mainly Christian peoples of South Sudan voted to split from the mainly Muslim North. In July 2011, one country became two – Sudan and South Sudan.

Certain nations and governments did not want to release their territories, resulting in wars of independence for some African countries.

Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) declared its independence from the UK unilaterally in 1965. However, it was not until 1979 that the country's self-appointed white minority government accepted a democratic constitution following a guerilla war.

The country boundaries created by the Europeans often grouped together African peoples with very different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds.

Tensions between different groups led to a number of civil wars (for example, in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Rwanda). Certain countries with religious divides have particularly struggled with long-running conflicts.

In the most populous state of Nigeria, there are over 250 different language groups and a religious divide between the Muslim north and mainly Christian south.


Fruits of success

At independence in 1966, Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world. Now after decades of stable government, the country has become a middle-income nation. And wealth from Botswana’s natural resources is being used for the benefit of all its citizens.

Stability is critical for the further development of African countries. Strong government and legal systems are needed to grow economies and increase measures to reduce poverty.

However, certain African countries remain unstable with poorly-developed or struggling systems of government. Some suffer repeated cycles of unrest. Civil wars set back a country’s development by an average of 30 years.

Thankfully the number of wars in Africa is declining. Stronger peacekeeping missions and agreements have helped. Outside aid and investment is also dependent in many cases on evidence of good governance.

The Lomé Declaration in 2000 promises a response to military coups or unlawful changes of government. And the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) looks to exert pressure on leaders who take over by force.