Sub-Saharan Africa is an expansive land mass demarcated by the Sahara Desert to the north and Atlantic and Indian Oceans on the remaining perimeter. The land is blanketed with a series of plateaus that are separated by plunging escarpments. As a result, land passage is nearly impossible and river navigability is also poor due to the high prevalence of rapids and waterfalls. The plateaus roughly divide sub-Saharan Africa into four decipherable geographic regions: the Western Plateau, the Southern Plateau, the Eastern Plateau, also referred to as the Highlands, and the Congo River Basin. The Eastern Plateau lays along the Indian Ocean south of the Arabian Peninsula. It is separated from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa by the Great Rift Valley, which runs thousands of miles from the Red Sea down to Mozambique. This valley is also home to Africa’s Great Lakes. To the west of the rift in the center of the land mass lays the Congo River Basin. The basin is the area surrounding the horseshoe-shaped Congo River, which is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Southern Plateau lays south of the basin and west of the Great Rift Valley. Just northwest of the river basin are the Western Plateaus, which are comparatively small and less dramatic than their eastern and southern counterparts.

Sub-Saharan Africa occupies a unique space in geopolitics. It has been a main theater for observing the far-reaching effects of major shifts in the imperatives of global powers. For the past 400 years, sub-Saharan Africa’s geopolitics have been strongly shaped by European powers, especially France, Great Britain, Portugal, Germany and Belgium. European arrival and colonization of Africa severely disrupted the natural nation-state development process in the region and imposed artificial borders corresponding to colonial conquests. Strong nation-states evolve organically through conflict because a shared struggle gives people a sense of shared purpose and identity. The process is often violent and can take generations. Prior to European arrival, African kingdoms and chiefdoms were in the middle of this organic nation-state building process through expansion, warfare and integration. The arrival of Europeans interrupted this evolution. It stripped kingdoms of power, established borders that did not align with natural kingdom boundaries and forced divergent groups to coexist under one colonial power. This forced, unnatural division of people and land laid the groundwork for the region to be plagued by instability caused by general lack of coherence. For this reason, the best framework for understanding sub-Saharan Africa today is not by dividing it into geographic parts but rather to understand the region’s evolution under European powers and into the 21st century.

Colonial Beginnings

The relationship between modern European powers and sub-Saharan Africa can best be described as a means to an end. It emerged early on in the European era – a time when the world’s center of gravity was in Europe. Initially, European powers took interest in Africa as part of Europe’s broader ambitions to find sea trading routes with India and East Asia. From the 16th century through the 18th century, major European governments established coastal ports to support long voyages to the East Indies. When we look at the location of former colonies, we can observe how each location served as a resting and refueling point in the long journey east. Parallel to this, these powers were also exploring western routes and establishing colonies in the Americas. Subsequently, Africa not only served as a refueling area, but the native populations were also lucrative sources of labor for other colonies through the slave trade. Nearly 12 million Africans were sent over the Atlantic and sold into slavery. This negatively impacted local economies along the western coast of Africa, which saw a constant drain on its young, healthy labor pool.

Wealth brought in from these trade routes coupled with industrialized economies made European governments very powerful and capable of taking over foreign lands. New territories would be useful sources of raw materials as well as markets for selling finished goods. European imperialism took root and thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sub-Saharan Africa become one of many locations in which European powers competed with one another to grab as much land as possible. This led to frequent fighting throughout sub-Saharan Africa between European powers and local populations, as well as occasional clashes between the European powers themselves. By the early 20th century, European countries had clearly staked their claims in different parts of Africa.

These initial phases of colonization laid the groundwork for multiple geopolitical crises in the region throughout the 20th century. As previously mentioned, the newly established colonial borders reflected European interests and administrative organization. The boundaries and groupings did not take into account natural geographic, cultural or population divisions. This set the stage for recurring conflict among indigenous populations, clashes between local populations and colonial powers, and frequent, massive cross-border migration flows. Additionally, the basic infrastructure developed during this period did little to enhance connectivity within and between colonies. The limited railway systems built in African colonies were exclusively designed to get raw materials from the interior to the coast for export to external markets. The escarpments and plateaus discouraged any further development by colonial powers. To this day, cross-continent connectivity remains a challenge for sub-Saharan African countries attempting to diversify trade routes, especially interior, over-ground routes.

Colonial rule over sub-Saharan Africa reached its peak around 1900-1945. The colonial authorities had well developed economic management systems to streamline raw material exports and funnel revenue to the state. Churches and schools were also established in an attempted to help “civilize” the African populations. This had two major implications on the region’s future. First, access to education – and in some cases travel abroad – marked the start of an intellectual awakening among Africans. The establishment of these European-style educational, religious and governmental institutions also created conditions for a cultural crisis in the region that pitted the old against the new. This led to several challenges for these new African states: Traditional kinship and community ties were challenged by impersonal colonial governments; subsistence farming on family plots conflicted with mass landowners demanding laborers; and the double standards between the rights and entitlements of European citizens and indigenous populations became apparent. Even in locations where was no white settlement population existed, colonial rulers were able to exercise their power through indirect rule. In some cases, African societies were able to blend traditional and European models by, for example, adapting Christianity to their own cultural practices. However, in general, conflicting traditions often created high tensions between governments and the public, as well as divides within and among ethnic groups where disagreements on the best path forward were common.

Fallout from WWII

World War II marked an inflection point not just in Europe but also sub-Saharan Africa as the aftermath would fundamentally change the region’s future. After the war, European powers once again viewed sub-Saharan Africa as a means to an end – this time as a tool to help rebuild Europe after the devastating war. However, as a result of both the rising education levels and the Allied messaging against fascism during WWII, African populations quickly pointed out the hypocrisy of European colonialism in the region and began to demand more rights and equal standards of living. In response, European countries adopted the idea of development in Africa. However, they soon realized it was getting too expensive to keep these colonies and meet all the demands. European countries slowly began to wash their hands of the situation by giving up their control of the colonies and not assuming responsibility for their management.

A wave of independence swept though sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, with the final latecomers following suit in the next decade. The end of colonial rule created a power void that ultimately led to a wave of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the region. Colonial rule was a miserable experience for the vast majority of Africans and, therefore, many rejected government institutions and political systems that mirrored those in Europe. In addition, the colonial system created an elite and well-connected group of African leaders, who easily stepped into power positions once the Europeans were gone. This pre-existing relationship, as well as well-established trade partnerships, also helped European powers exert influence and some control over new leaders and systems. Lastly, the conflicts between indigenous groups remained and, in some cases, were made even worse by being forced to coexist within the same, artificial state borders. Those in power found repression to be an easier solution to unruly populations than attempting to settle differences that had existed for centuries.

The exit of European colonial powers and ensuing domestic disorder set the stage for sub-Saharan Africa to become a Cold War battleground between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, civil wars and domestic conflicts raged across sub-Saharan Africa in places like Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania. The local desire for equality and alternative government styles introduced an opportunity for the expansion of communism. In each of these countries, the U.S. backed an emerging bloc of leaders and parties, while the Soviets backed an opposing force. In Angola’s civil war, the U.S. supplied aid and training for both the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). These forces fought against the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which was supported by the Soviets. Initially after WWII, the Ethiopian government was on friendly terms with and supported by the United States. However, civil unrest began to mount after failed political and economic reforms. The military, backed by Communist International – a group that advocated communism and was linked to the Russian regime – staged a coup against Emperor Haile Selassie and replaced the government with a military junta. The South African government under apartheid enjoyed strong ties with the Soviets, while the U.S. led efforts to isolate South Africa, including imposing sanctions.

In the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), shortly after independence, internal divisions emerged between newly elected President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. This opened the door for the U.S. and Soviets to each choose a side and support their own respective allies. In an attempt to avoid a civil war, Colonel Joseph Mobutu of the Congolese National Army carried out a coup and ordered the Soviets out. This action eventually helped him win over the support of Western powers, including the U.S. Once again, African countries and governments saw their politics strongly influenced and controlled by outside powers.

Staggered Economic Development

On the economic front, sub-Saharan Africa was still able to develop but primarily through economic initiatives and models established during colonial times. There was a high dependence on export of raw materials and modest moves towards industrialization. However, industrialization proved difficult for two reasons. First, most goods produced in Africa could already be produced elsewhere for less and with better quality. Governments attempted to compensate with import substitution models but had minimal success. Second, sub-Saharan African countries had a hard time attracting capital because their low-income populations were widely dispersed and had a reputation for difficult labor relations, including rebellions and strikes. For a while, African governments were able to compensate for lack of capital by using funds from raw material exports to help push development forward.

The 1973 oil price spike and subsequent crisis obliterated any progress in economic development and industrialization. The increased price of oil made it unaffordable for most countries because they lacked money reserves. With oil out of financial reach, progress in mechanized agriculture, transportation and infrastructure came to a standstill and deteriorated over time. Governments were forced to take massive loans just to be able to feed their populations. Governments used incoming revenue to line their own pockets and pay rising debt rather than grow their own economies. This problem just compounded itself over time. Massive default risks mounted and spread across the region to a point they could no longer be ignored. The U.S. stepped in to help assume the debt and, in doing so, protected lenders from failing. African populations still struggled to meet their basic needs, which spurred massive international aid and development campaigns. Such efforts failed to bring prosperity and were highly susceptible to corruption. More importantly, they did not address the fundamental problem of the irrationality of African borders.

Favorable commodity prices in the early 2000s, investment from traditional sources such as the UK and U.S., along with the introduction of new major investors like China, have helped these economies gain momentum. However, China’s slowing growth and the recent drop in commodity prices now threaten growth in some African countries. Oil giants Nigeria and Angola have taken financial blows in 2015 and 2014 due to lower oil prices. Nigeria’s oil and gas sector accounts for about 35 percent of GDP, as GDP growth has dropped from 7 percent in 2013 to an estimated 5 percent in 2015. Oil production and related activities account for about 45 percent of GDP in Angola, where growth was 6.8 percent in 2013 and dropped to an estimated 3.8 percent in 2015. Oil/petrol account for 90-95 percent of exports in both countries. Other commodity prices that have tanked in the last year include gold, iron ore, platinum and copper. Production of these materials figure prominently in the GDP of South Africa, the DRC, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique. The economic woes are further exacerbated by China’s slowing economy for countries like Zambia, the DRC and Angola. For example, China is Zambia’s second largest trade partner – a relationship based almost exclusively on copper – which is significant considering that exports account for 39 percent of Zambia’s GDP. In the case of Angola and the DRC, China is their leading trade partner, accounting for nearly 50 percent of exports from each country.

However, one can find a bright spot in East African countries, particularly Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. These three rank as the fourth, fifth and sixth largest economies in sub-Saharan Africa, behind Nigeria, South Africa and Angola. Ethiopia has managed to average a 10 percent growth rate for a decade. Tanzania’s growth rate has been relatively steady near 7 percent over the past few years, while Kenya has regularly grown 5-6 percent. These countries also show relatively high growth rates and have large, low-wage working populations. The combination of these two factors make these countries attractive and promising locations for developing a basic manufacturing industry.

Candidates for Regional Leadership

On the broader geopolitical level, South Africa has strong potential to emerge as a regional power, despite its economic difficulties. It has the second largest GDP in sub-Saharan Africa and ranks fourth in population size. According to the Global Firepower Index, the country has the strongest military in the region. It is home to vast quantities of high-value mineral resources and has ample coastlines, with easy access to the Atlantic and Indian Ocean trade routes. However, domestic social issues, especially related to race, labor and party politics, still remain serious obstacles to establishing good governance and economic growth.

Two other potential regional leaders include Nigeria and Ethiopia. Nigeria boasts the largest population and GDP in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Global Firepower Index, Nigeria has the second strongest military in region. Its vast oil reserves have provided an abundance of state revenue. However, this revenue has exacerbated existing political and social divisions within the country as competing groups want their share of the profits. Additionally, Nigeria currently faces domestic security threats from the Boko Haram terrorist group. As for Ethiopia, historically it has served as a power center for East Africa. It was the only African country able to successfully repel European advances and maintain its sovereignty during the 19th century. The economy appears to be on an upward trajectory. It has the second largest population in sub-Saharan Africa and third strongest military. However, Ethiopia does face two obstacles in becoming a regional leader. First, the country is landlocked and secure port access is fundamental for engaging in large-scale international trade. Second, the country still has a very diverse population. While election coalitions have successfully been formed since the 1994 constitution, frequent charges of election fraud challenge elected leaders’ legitimacy.

Now, at the start of the 21st century, sub-Saharan Africa finds itself in a geopolitical reality it has not seen in 400 years – the absence of any imperial powers in the region. To some degree, international peacekeepers have assumed some responsibility for trying to maintain order in the region. However, peacekeeping only works if the parties involved want peace. The underlying problem of contrived nation-state borders remains. To be effective and powerful, a government must be located in a state that derives from and controls a coherent nation. The state has to preside over people with a sense of shared identity and mutual interests. The current borders in Africa do not meet these conditions. The absence of an imperial power and limited reach of peacekeeping missions open the space for African nations to address and resolve these issues, but this has historically been a long and painful process.