The push for political change was less successful elsewhere, and in Nigeria it resulted in another military coup.
Newfound political freedom could not release African nations from their dependence on foreign aid, which came with added strings requiring adherence to Western neo-liberal economics. Some African states had already suffered the imposition of IMF and World Bank economic plans, which proved particularly harsh on the poorest by reversing the benefits they enjoyed, such as free schooling. More countries were forced into privatization programs and other measures that caused hardship and undermined support for newly elected democratic governments.
Mandela was elected South Africa’s president in 1994 and set an example by stepping down five years later. He was replaced by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, regarded in the West as a steady pair of hands with a strong intellect, but his credibility was eroded by outlandish views on the AIDS epidemic and for siding with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
As South Africa celebrated its newfound democracy, Rwanda was descending into its own particular hell. The post-cold war pressure for democratization combined with the legacy of colonial racial theory to prompt Hutu extremists to attempt to cling on to power by engineering the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. The genocide set in motion a series of events that saw the toppling of neighboring Zaire’s longstanding ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, and years of war in what became the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Out of the tragedy emerged a new Rwanda led by one of Africa’s most polarizing leaders, President Paul Kagame.
The Rwandan genocide also helped shape international justice, with a UN tribunal to try the organizers of the slaughter that presaged another in Sierra Leone and the birth of the international criminal court.
African leaders initially welcomed the ICC after it indicted Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army responsible for recruiting child soldiers and other crimes in Uganda. However, the mood changed as the court came to be seen increasingly as exercising a double standard in indicting African leaders, including in Sudan and Kenya, while avoiding investigation of actions of Western leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq.
China is emerging as the new foreign economic and political force in Africa. Some have condemned Beijing’s rising influence as a form of neocolonization. Others praise China for helping to release African nations from their dependence on Western aid.
China’s thirst for minerals and oil, and its hunt for markets for its goods, has seen it develop close ties to Angola, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has bought up copper mines in Zambia and all but killed the textile industry there by flooding the country with cheap clothes.
Critics of Beijing’s expanding influence in Africa say that China is so hungry for resources it does deals with authoritarian regimes and doles out aid without consideration of issues such as good governance.
However, China has also delivered on promises of aid after decades in which Western governments cared more about the political alignments of African leaders than development of their countries. Beijing has built an extensive new network of roads in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, after decades in which the number of paved roads fell sharply despite billions of dollars in western aid.