The countries in Africa that weren’t colonized
Prior to the 18th century, Britain, Portugal and France were the three imperial powers that dominated the landscape of Africa for many centuries. However, as European nations attained greater knowledge of the continent, so did the number and presence of imperial powers from Europe increase. Africa became a very attractive region. Europeans would start scrambling for greater access to the continent’s vast valuable raw materials. Some European nations even felt it was their sacred duty to “civilize” the continent as well as convert the continent to Christianity.
Toward the end of the 19th century, European powers came together at a conference in Berlin to carve up the African continent. Europeans agreed to abide by a set of rules that would prevent them from entering into an open confrontation with one another in Africa. For example, what is now modern day Congo, a vast rainforest region in central Africa, became the personal property of King Leopold II of the Belgians. France and Britain each owned close to one-fourth of the territory of Africa. By the beginning of the 20th century, more than 90% of the continent had become the colonies of many European nations.
However, there were a couple of countries in Africa that were never colonized. Those countries were Liberia in West Africa and Ethiopia in East Africa. Minus the few periods when those countries were invaded and occupied by foreign nations, the two countries that we about to explore remained largely independent for many centuries. The question that begs to be answered is: What were some of the reasons why imperial powers at the time never colonized those two countries, i.e. in the sense of being ruled from overseas?
What is today the West African nation of Liberia was founded by leading U.S. politicians in 1821, i.e. during the presidency of James Monroe, 5th President of the United States. This explains why its present day capital Monrovia was named in honor of Monroe. The U.S. at the time established Liberia to serve as a place where freed slaves and free-borns, especially Blacks, could settle. Those Freed American slaves that settled in Liberia ended up being the upper class of the new country.
Officially, Liberia is said to have gained its full independence in 1847. A year later, in 1848, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a free-born African American from a wealthy family, was elected Liberia’s first president. The independent Republic of Liberia modeled much of its system governance on the United States Constitution. However, it was not until 1862 that the United States would recognize the independence of Liberia.
Liberia is generally considered the first and oldest republic in Africa. Its status as an independent country remained largely intact throughout the scramble for Africa. With aid from the United States in exchange for its support during the Second World War, Liberia was able to manage its affairs in a very effective manner. That in turn spurred the country to economic growth and prosperity. On the global stage, Liberia’s economic riches allowed it to be seen as a shining model for other African countries to follow. Liberia even played a leading role in the founding of many international bodies like the League of Nations (which later morphed into the United Nations) and the Organization of African Unity (the predecessor of the African Union).
Unfortunately for this small country on the West African coast, a severe political instability emerged beginning around the late 1980s. The couple of decades that followed wiped all the economic gains and progress that were made for over a century. It was not until 2005, when peace was able to reign as the former banker-turned-politician Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected the 24th president of Liberia. Sirleaf, who was the first elected female head of state in Africa, introduced a host of reforms that put Liberia on track to gain its former glory.
A landlocked country located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has for many millennia been a place that evokes a strong fascination from people around the world. For starters, the region in the ancient times was the home of powerful kingdoms like D’mt, a 10th century BC to 5th century BC civilization, and Aksum, a civilization that spanned from around 100 BC to 970 AD. The latter was most famous for being a key trading hub that linked Rome and the Indian subcontinent.
The Solomonic dynasty, which was established by Ethiopian Emperor Tasfa Iyasus, would span from around the 13th century AD to 1974, when it’s ruler Haile Selassie was overthrown in a coup d’état. It’s said that the early emperors of Ethiopia were the descendants of Emperor Menelik I, the son of the Biblical figures King Solomon of Israel and Queen of Sheba of South Arabia.
Due to its powerful emperors, Ethiopia was able to remain largely untouched by European powers who carved up the continent in the late 19th century. Ethiopia also fended off attacks from Italy in 1896 only for it to be occupied briefly by Fascist Italy during World War II.
The occupation ended in 1942 after the largely inexperienced Ethiopian Emperor’s army was aided by British forces. About three decades later, some members of the Ethiopian military (i.e. the Derg), backed by their Soviet allies, toppled long-serving emperor Haile Selassie. The Derg was in turn removed from power by a coalition of four Ethiopian political parties, known as the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Republic Front (EPDRF).
In 2019, the EPDRF, without the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, morphed into a new party called the Prosperity Party under the leadership of Oromo-born politician Abiy Ahmed. Premier Abiy Ahmed, a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, although praised for his efforts in securing a peace treaty between Ethiopia and its neighbor Eritrea, struggled to curb the ethnic and political turmoil in Ethiopia, one of Africa’s most populous countries.
Why were Ethiopia and Liberia not ‘colonized’?
Some scholars have stated that the reason Ethiopia and Liberia were able to stay relatively free of Western colonization had to do with its geography. Ethiopia is landlocked East African country. However, this can’t be said about Liberia, which is on the West African coast.
Unlike other countries on the West African coast, Liberia is said to have had a natural harbor that was suitable enough to establish a trading post. Furthermore, European nations did not want to get into a confrontation with the U.S. As stated above, Liberia had strong connections to the United States. This made the country very unattractive to European powers. Those factors made Liberia carry little to no strategic position when Europeans were dividing Africa amongst themselves.
Another commonly stated reason why Ethiopia was not included in the Scramble for Africa has to do with Ethiopia’s few natural resources. Furthermore, Ethiopian rulers tended to band together whenever any region of theirs was threatened by a foreign invasion. This unity among Ethiopians made the country not worth the hassle from the perspective of Europe.
Also Ethiopia’s political ties with many nations abroad made it unappealing for many European countries at the time.
Finally, the fact that Ethiopia and Liberia were basically full-fledged countries made it difficult for Europe to include them in its overseas territories and colonies.
Europe’s Overarching Orbit of Influence
However, it must be noted that although Ethiopia and Liberia weren’t colonized per se, the two countries more or less operated in Europe’s orbit of influence. The Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was certainly grateful to London for supporting Ethiopia drive out Fascist Italy during WWII. And Liberia was partly seen by the U.S. government as heavily under its protection.
There are some who argue that Liberia was a colony of the United States since the U.S. government actively encouraged free borns, freed Blacks and ex-Caribbean slaves to relocate to the West African coast. The relocation was spearheaded by the American Colonization Society (ACS). The society would help more than 14,000 blacks to relocate to Liberia. Once they arrived, the newcomers displaced the local population and even subjugated them. Therefore, in this regard the country was ‘colonized’ by free born African-American merchants and freed American slaves.
In the case of Ethiopia, people who argue that it was “colonized” often tend to cite the five-year period (1936-1941) of occupation by Fascist Italy. Then again, Italy did not establish a colonial administration, a necessary requirement that allowed European monarchs to rule over their overseas colonies.
Did you know?
- Ethiopia is usually described as one of the oldest countries in world history as its origins date all the way back to the BC era. In the ancient era, Ethiopia, in the form of the Kingdom of Axum, rubbed shoulders with ancient empires like Rome, China, and Persia.
- Some historians have described the colonial rule of the West as one the most severe in human history. For many centuries, European powers like Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France and England upended the lives of countless number of people around the world, with Africa being one of the worst sufferers.
- Western Colonization spanned from around the late 15th century to the 20th century. At its peak, which was around the Second World War, the Western powers had colonies in about 40% of the world’s land area. In terms of demographics, the West colonized the combined total of one-third of the world’s population. In the early 20th century, the British Empire was inhabited by more than 400 million people, which translated to close to one-fourth of the world’s population!