Neocolonialism: The Remnants of Foreign Exploitation in Africa

Half a century after Europe liberated its colonies in Africa, a new form of foreign oppression has emerged that threatens the sovereignty of the African nations.


A group of Ugandan women and children walk to get water on a dirt road – a common scene throughout much of rural Africa due to a lack of large-scale public infrastructure. (Photo Credit: Jeff Ackley / Unsplash)

Western countries like to believe that they have equipped the African continent with the capability to achieve freedom. But today, more than 60 years after the last European countries relinquished their colonial claims in Africa, the continent is still riddled with corruption, poverty, and turmoil. These problems only exist because the old colonial relationships between Western powers and African nations never truly went away – they are still alive today and just as relevant as ever, only now they are under a new title: neocolonialism. 

The term “neocolonialism” emerged when the world was undergoing massive changes in the mid 20th century and refers to the modern dynamics between Western and African entities that perpetuate exploitation and oppression. In this period, new international treaties and organizations like the United Nations and the The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations meant countries became a part of a global network and were therefore accountable for their actions. The years of crusades, conquests, and coups which had defined European foreign policies since the Middle Ages were replaced by gray areas between diplomacy and war. Power blocs composed of multiple countries that acted as one meant engaging in traditional forms of conflict – invasion, colonialism, and annexation – guaranteed economic and political ruin for the aggressor. For many European countries, especially those whose economies relied heavily on Africa, this meant they needed to find a way to continue to control its former colonies. 

“In 1961, the All African People’s Conferences (AAPC) described neocolonialism as the deliberate and continued survival of the colonial system in independent African states by turning these states into victims of political, mental, economic, social, military, and technical forms of domination carried out through indirect and subtle means that did not include direct violence,” said C. Nichole, the founder of the Pan African Think Tank. “In the short definition, neo-colonialism is the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries, especially former colonies.”

Neocolonialism was initially a natural step forward for newly-independent countries. Logically, some sort of dependency on the parent country would linger since the African colonies had political and economic structures that were geared towards the needs of its colonizers. This meant that frequently, the best opportunities available to the new countries was to allow the previously existing corporations and governments to continue their operations. However, decades later, neocolonialism remained and African countries never truly escaped imperial control.

“African countries started fighting for independence, but the European countries still needed resources to sustain their country economically,” continued C. Nichole. “Coup d’états included ending the leaderships of African presidents and prime ministers whose policies didn’t align with European powers. African countries still rely on military protection and financial assistance (foreign aid), which allows European countries to indirectly maintain their hand over African countries.”

Africa, when examined at surface level, should be significantly wealthier than it actually is. The continent possesses vast natural resources, like the majority of the world’s gold, platinum, diamonds, cobalt, and uranium. Despite this, the entire continent has a GDP that is roughly two trillion dollars less than that of Japan (2.73 trillion compared to 4.94 trillion as of 2021) – a country with a population and land size more than five times smaller than it. This disparity is indicative of the depressed economic state in Africa and reveals the extent to which Africa’s potential as an economic power has been crippled. 

The explanation is simple: more wealth leaves Africa than enters it. This has been allowed to occur because of the historical legacies of colonization and exploitative trade practices that remained after colonialism ended in Africa. Unequal trade relationships, where African nations often export raw materials at low prices while importing finished goods at higher costs, perpetuate this wealth drain. Weak governance, corruption, and inadequate infrastructure hinder local investment and create an environment that is less attractive to foreign investors. That means that even wealth gained in Africa is not frequently re-invested into African cities. Moreover, the limited access to financing, technology, and markets constrains Africa’s ability to harness its resources and develop sustainable industries. 

Africa’s weakened economy and political structures is partially responsible for the fact the continent has the largest wealth disparity in the world. Its economic emphasis on natural resources and essential ecosystem services, with it composing an estimated 60% of its GDP, allows wealth disparities to occur by providing the right conditions for monopolies to form. Instances like South Africa, where the top 10% owns 90% of the entire country’s wealth, display the economic effects of an unequal society. The situation is so dire that there are some undeniable parallels between existing and colonial economies. Clearly, although African governments have had time to establish successful countries, the current system isn’t working; it’s actually sinking. 

The last decades have seen a revival in foreign interest in Africa, and, just as history showed, the interested parties arrived with the intent of exploiting Africa’s natural resources. Countries like Russia and China have created a new “Scramble for Africa,” a circumstance that reflects the situation in Africa after the Berlin Conference of 1884, which partitioned the African continent between European powers. Ever since, African history has been filled with foreign interference and exploitation. 

“The Berlin Conference in 1884 started the “Scramble for Africa.” European countries divided the continent in a meeting that included no African leaders,” explained C. Nichole. “Europe was beginning to grow a deficit due to events such as the Long Depression (1873-1896). Africa offered an open market that would garner a trade surplus for Europe. European countries proclaimed that overseas markets in Africa would solve the problems of low prices and overproduction caused by shrinking continental markets. Surplus capital was often more profitably invested overseas, where cheap materials, limited competition, and abundant raw materials made a more significant premium possible.”

Today, various foreign superpowers are struggling for dominance throughout the continent. Russia has looked to Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and South Africa, for trade opportunities, but more importantly, to spread its anti-Western ideas in an already resentful continent. Russia’s foreign policy in Africa centers around anti-colonialism ideas and continually tries to characterize Russia as a savior from the West. In reality, Russia is trying to rekindle Soviet-era ties with southern Africa to reestablish hegemony in the region. Russia’s pursuit of a vital naval port in Sudan and its continual backing of African coups reveal a more sinister intent in the African region. Through these actions, Russia could be aiming to create a situation similar to US-Latin relations in the 1960’s, where U.S.-backed coups installed governments that were inclined to favor U.S. policies.

However, of these new relationships, China has created the most profound alliances with African nations, and has become Africa’s main trading partner, with their relationship generating a revenue greater than 200 billion dollars per year. In total, Chinese enterprise in Africa since 2005 amounts to a value around 2 trillion dollars, with 43.9 billion dollars existing in direct investment. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is one of the largest steps taken by China in an attempt to better connect African countries with Asia and Europe. In doing this, it proposes to create a framework that would both allow and promote intercontinental trade with Chinese infrastructure being the catalyst. 

Still, there are multiple problems with the idea that could harm Africa’s fragile economy even more. The immediate consequence is that it creates a dependency system similar to that of colonial rule. African nations and companies would only be able to trade along China’s infrastructure, and thus entirely subject to Chinese regulations, laws, and influence. Should the African economy ever increase to a pace where it becomes reliant on commerce, the BRI would have an entire continent’s economy in its control – and therefore its government and people. Even further, African economies haven’t industrialized yet, and therefore another dependency would emerge on China – this time, on manufactured goods. Once factory goods from China are introduced into African economies, China would gain another foothold in the continent’s economy that it could use to leverage against it.

“Many African countries are falling into the same neocolonialism trap with China’s high-interest loans,” warned C. Nichole. “These loans are crippling African countries with debt which put them in a position to have to borrow more money. Some of these loans are being defaulted on, which allows the creditor to collect on whatever collateral was stated in the loan contract.”

China has had a history of trying to exploit African nations. In 2018, it was uncovered that China had bugged the African Union headquarters which they had built and completely funded – a testament to the fact Chinese ambitions in Africa are centered around exploitation, not establishing diplomatic relations. China’s rapidly expanding economy requires the natural resources to sustain it. China understands that if it is to compete with the U.S. to become the greatest economic power in the world, it needs to be able to out resource the U.S. With Africa’s rich deposits of minerals important to technology like lithium for batteries and uranium for nuclear power, China could be able to close the gap between the U.S. and China’s tech sectors. 

Africa’s state of being a rich continent filled with poor people will continue unless the underlying issue of Africa being viewed as a commodity to attain rather than a continent to protect is perpetuated. 

International organizations need to address the issue of global superpowers mistreating African nations, because if left unchecked, neocolonialism will encompass Africa and prevent it from ever reaching its full potential. The problem lies in the fact that the countries that have the power to make change are the very countries that benefit from the status quo. Internally, African nations are governed by aristocrats who don’t want change because it would disadvantage them. From all angles, something seems to resist the change that is necessary to finally help free Africa from colonial influence. 

To break free from this cycle, African nations need to prioritize economic diversification, local empowerment, and sustainable development. By investing in education, innovation, and infrastructure to promote indigenous industries and reduce dependency on external actors, Africa could create a self-sustainable economy. Additionally, to address political factors stifling African progression, strengthening regional cooperation by increasing involvement in Pan-Africanist movements, promoting transparency, and demanding fair trade practices are crucial steps towards countering neocolonialism.

“Some African countries are starting to wake up,” assured C. Nichole. “In 2022, Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo, announced in Switzerland that he would soon end the process of selling raw materials to trade partners for onward value additions. He stated, “There can be no future prosperity if we continue to maintain economic structures that are dependent on the production and export of raw materials. Producing bars at home, rather than exporting raw cocoa, is one way to break neocolonial trading patterns… African countries would be better off by exporting finished products to European countries… Africa needs to engage in inter-trade to rely less on foreign exports. The African education system must be reformed to include more modern-day skills such as technology, supply chain management, and entrepreneurship.”

It is only through collective action and a commitment to rectifying the imbalances of power that Africa can overcome neocolonialism and realize its true potential. The rich resources and human capital of the continent should serve as catalysts for sustainable growth and prosperity, rather than perpetuating a system that enriches a few at the expense of many.

“Some African countries are starting to wake up. In 2022, Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo, announced in Switzerland that he would soon end the process of selling raw materials to trade partners for onward value additions… African countries would be better off by exporting finished products to European countries… Africa needs to engage in inter-trade to rely less on foreign exports. The African education system must be reformed to include more modern-day skills such as technology, supply chain management, and entrepreneurship.,” said C. Nichole, founder of the Pan African Think Tank.