Contemporary Africa

Contemporary Africa

Africa in the Post-Cold War World


The end of the Cold War brought about a dramatic shift in governments across Africa. No longer did the United States and Russia compete for territory in Africa. In the 1990s, African nations in the Sub-Saharan region of the continent moved away from military dictatorships to multi-party states striving toward democracy. The transition was seldom smooth, but African leaders were fighting to establish their own governments, for the first time in decades without foreign intervention. In contrast, North African nations did not follow the democratic path that countries such as Zambia had. Instead, their populations, who were largely Muslim, rejected Western doctrine in favor of sharia law. However, in North Africa, too, countries established governments without direct foreign intervention for the first time in decades.


Learning Objectives

  • Compare and contrast the processes of modernization in North and Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Evaluate the successes and challenges of contemporary African politics.



Key Terms / Key Concepts

African National Congress: most important political party of South Africa that advocated for the abolition of apartheid, unity between races, and full voting rights for black South Africans

African Union: political and governmental organization similar to the European Union in which major decisions involving continental Africa are evaluated

Arab Spring: series of violent, social and political uprisings by the people against the governments of much of the Muslim world during 2010 – 2012

Democratic Republic of Congo: the state in central Africa, formerly Zaire, formed in 1997

Hosni Mubarak: president of Egypt during the Arab Spring

John Garang: politician from southern Sudan who was instrumental in advocating for

Sudanese unity, and the protection and interests of southern Sudanese people

Joseph Kabila: president of the DRC from 2001 – 2019

Laurent Kabila: president of the DRC from 1997 – 2001 who was assassinated by his bodyguard

Libyan Civil War: Feb. to Oct. 2011 conflict that pitted forces that supported the Gaddafi regime wit anti-Gaddafi forces

sharia law: Muslim code of conduct based on teachings of Muhammed in the Qu’ran and the Sunnah

Sudanese Civil Wars: series of civil wars in Sudan between its northern and southern halves

South Sudan: the youngest country in the world, formed in 2011


The Arab Spring


In the 2010s, much of the Arab world experienced political and social unrest. Across North Africa and into the Middle East, people rioted against economic downturns and corrupt governments. The Arab Spring saw the removal of several heads of state. Beginning in Tunisia, the movement spread, often violently, across Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Smaller insurrections occurred throughout the Arab world. Out of these social and political movements, several large-scale conflicts erupted such as the Egypt Crisis, the Libyan Civil War, and the Syrian Civil War. In several cases, the heads of state used extreme military force to suppress the rioters. By mid-2012, the Arab Spring largely had ended.




Egypt was an ideal country for the Arab Spring to take hold because it was a discontented country on the road to revolution. It was the most populous country in North Africa, and its president, Hosni Mubarak, had governed since 1981. Mubarak had stripped Egypt of many of its progressive measures. In place of the liberalizing government of Anwar Sadat, Mubarak had instituted a government that was militaristic and autocratic.

Moreover, the Egyptian government had to pay for the massively expensive army they had created during the wars against Israel in the 1960s and 1970s. While supporting the costs of the military, the government neglected their attention on the agricultural sector. Food shortages plagued Egypt and forced the country to import up to 80% of its foodstuffs, as well as form close economic ties to the United States, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank. Unemployment and urban slums defined Cairo, Egypt’s capital.

By the 1990s, radical Muslim groups had also moved increasingly into Egypt and launched terror attacks on tourists, decimating the tourist industry. As their presence increased, Mubarak’s ability to control the groups decreased.


Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Cairo. January 2011.


Revolution came in January 2011. Thousands of Egyptians filed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest Mubarak’s government. Initially, President Mubarak resisted the protesters, and promised constitutional reform. Doubting his promise, the protesters increased in their demands. Violent clashes erupted between groups who supported president Mubarak, and those who supported the opposition. Within four weeks, Mubarak resigned, and the military took power in Egypt.

Mubarak was later tried for corruption, murder, and embezzlement. While he was acquitted of most charges, he was sentenced to three years in prison. Due to increasing health problems, he spent his final months in a military hospital where he died in 2020. To date, Egypt is governed by authoritarian president, Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, in ways similar to those of Mubarak.




In the spring of 2011, the Arab Spring was unleashed in Libya where long-time military dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ruling. Protests against his rule started as small demonstrations in Benghazi, but quickly escalated. When the demonstrators refused to disperse, Gaddafi unleashed the Libyan military on them. Briefly, it looked as if the Libyan military would triumph.


Protestors take to the streets of Benghazi, Libya. April 2011.


Then, the UN Security Council granted NATO permission to establish a No-Fly Zone over Libya. This gave NATO the right to shoot down any aircraft flying over Libyan airspace. Other Arab states supported the measure enacted by NATO in order to check Gaddafi’s military strikes on the Libyan people.

By February 2011, the first Libyan Civil War had erupted. It pitted the forces loyal to Gaddafi against the anti-Gaddafi forces and their NATO allies. NATO forces, led by Britain and France, and supported by anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya, targeted all military bases operating under Gaddafi. In October 2011, Libyan forces captured the city of Tripoli, and Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. Gaddafi was then captured, and brutally executed.

In 2014, the Second Libyan Civil War erupted between vying political factions. Many of the forces who had been loyal to Gaddafi remained so. Other political factions contested election results. For six years civil war raged in Libya until the formation of a new,  interim government in 2021.


Social Challenges and Prosperity in Nigeria


Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and it rests on Africa’s west coast. It is a bio-rich country of rainforest, mountains, and dry savannahs. It is also one of the most ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse countries in Africa, boasting the largest mixed economy.

In the 1999, Nigeria emerged as a fledgling democratic country with a constitution, free elections, and houses of government. But the road to democracy has not been smooth or easy, as corruption continues to run high in politics at the local and national levels.  Religious tensions have developed between the north, a largely Muslim part of the country, and the south, which was largely Christian. The northern states of Nigeria operate under sharia law while the southern half operates under a common law.


Map of Nigeria. The states in green are those that operate under sharia law. Those in white operate under common law.

Despite religious tension, and political corruption, Nigeria has emerged as one of Africa’s most prosperous and strong states. Its economy continues to grow, based off such industries as the petroleum industry and mining of precious minerals: topaz, gold, and tin.


The Civil Wars in Sudan


Since the mid-1950s, there have been a series of Sudanese Civil Wars. In their simplest understanding, the wars in Sudan have been fought between the (largely) Arab/Muslim North and the Christian/African South. For decades, South Sudan fought for independence from the North. The conflict in Sudan rose sharply in 1983 when oil reserves were discovered just south of the traditional boundary between the northern and southern parts of the country.

In 1989, the government of Ahmad al-Bashir tried to establish an Islamic state in Sudan. This further encouraged the south Sudanese to fight for independence. They abolished sharia law, while the northern half of the country still clung to it. Then, in a surprise move, Sudan held a free election in which al-Bashir was elected president.


John Garang of Sudan. Garang was from southern Sudan and instrumental in promoting the interests of the south Sudanese people.

For the next eighteen years, the conflict between the northern and southern parts of Sudan raged. Oil revenues allowed for the purchase of mass ammunitions to fight the conflict. In 2005, a “power-sharing” agreement between the northern and southern parts of the country was reached. At the time, al-Bashir appointed John Garang as his vice-president; Garang is a politician from southern Sudan who advocated for a unified Sudan above all other things. A peace-settlement was established in which al-Bashir agreed to share power with Garang. But three months later, Garang died in a helicopter crash.

In 2011, the people were offered a referendum that allowed the Sudanese to vote for separation. Overwhelmingly, the people in the south voted in favor of separating from Sudan. In July 2011, South Sudan became an independent country. But tragedy soon struck. Two years later, the country was torn by civil was that raged until 2020 when a fragile peace was achieved.


The Coming of the Democratic Republic of Congo


The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the heart of Africa. It is a landlocked country in the center of the continent that continues to be enormously wealthy in its natural resources, including copper, cobalt, diamonds, rubber, and wood. Equally, it is rich in its biodiversity, and in its cultural diversity. Despite its resources and richness, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s recent history is fraught with internal and external wars, and excessive violence.


Map showing the Democratic Republic of Congo in green.


Following the Rwandan Genocide of the mid-1990s, the Rwandan Army helped support a rebellion in Zaire (later, the DRC) to remove Rwandan Hutu rebels who were hiding in the country. The leader of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, was deposed and his government dissolved. Congolese military leader, Laurent Kabila, was instilled as president, and the country’s name changed from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kabila expelled foreigners from Congo. The act angered his Ugandan and Rwandan allies and war erupted in Congo once more.

Three years later, Kabila was assassinated by his personal bodyguard. His son, Joseph Kabila succeeded him as president and governed from 2001 – 2019. During his time in office, civil war plagued the country, and continuous warfare between Congo and its eastern neighbors raged.


Joseph Kabila, president of the DRC from 2001 – 2019.


For the first time in more than a century, Congo experienced its first peaceful election in 2019.


South Africa's New Start


It was Nelson Mandela’s mission to unite the races of South Africa on equal footing and to erase racial boundaries. Since the 1990s, reconciliation between the races has proven largely successful. While race relations improved and apartheid was abolished, class boundaries still existed in South Africa.  Black South Africans were no longer physically barred from business ventures and professional practices. But unemployment rose in the early 2000s among both black and white South Africans. Black Africans have joined the middle class of South Africa, but the gap between classes continues to increase.


Signs of prosperity. The Johannesburg stock exchange is the largest on the continent.


Politically, South Africa faces many challenges. One of its greatest achievements has been the strong standing of its chief political party: the African National Congress. Banned until 1990 by the South African government, the African National Congress advocated for unity among the races, full voting rights to black South Africans, and an end to apartheid. It was the party of Nelson Mandela, and it continues to be the dominant party in South Africa.

After Nigeria, South Africa has the largest mixed economy in Africa. Although unemployment and pay inequality remain significant challenges, South Africa has produced strong developments in medicine and technology. Tourism and mining remain two of its largest and most prosperous industries.

In 2010, South Africa became the first African nation to host the FIFA World Cup.


FIFA Logo for the 2010 South Africa World Cup.


China Turns to Africa


In the 1960s, China turned its attention to investment in Africa for the first time since the 1500s. It made small investments in support of communist-backed nations, such as Tanzania. And small financial investments in infrastructure projects.

Then in the early 2000s, China emerged as the fastest-growing economic and industrial power. It began heavily investing in mining operations throughout Africa. In Congo alone, it invested in half of all of the country’s mining and natural resource industries. By 2010, it was the largest investor of the African continent, far surpassing European investment in Africa. Its financial power in Africa has led South Africa to join BRIC—an economic and trading alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

Both nationally, and in the private business world, China continues to invest heavily in Africa, particularly in infrastructure projects and in mining. The natural resources mined in Africa are of critical importance to China’s technology and information sectors. While financial investment has spurred on economic growth for many African nations, human rights organizations are critical of Chinese treatment of African workers. Many groups claim that China is simply exploiting the African people, and that once again, Africa is being financially exploited by a modern-day colonizer.


New Millennium, New Goals for Africa


Following the Cold War, most African nations supported non-alignment with foreign powers, and membership in the African Union—a political organization that promotes Pan-Africanism. Although many countries still face poverty and war, other countries such as Nigeria and South Africa seem on the brink of a new era. An era in which African nations govern and operate independently. An era which prosperity is not a dream, but an emerging reality.

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