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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: October 2019

12 - Independent Africa, 1956–1995


INDEPENDENCE BROUGHT GREAT OPTIMISM. UNPRECEDENTED DEMOGRAPHIC growth swelled Africa's population from perhaps 270 million in 1956 to more than 700 million in 1995. A youthful, liberating momentum drove attempts to catch up with other continents and create modern nation-states. A generation of global economic growth brought new prosperity to many parts of the continent. ‘The possibilities for us were endless,’ the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe recalled. Only during the 1970s did the costs of expansion become clear as numbers outran employment and resources, nationalist heroes hardened into ageing autocrats, and global recession precipitated an economic and political decline that was not checked until the mid-1990s.


Around 1950 population growth accelerated swiftly. In the Belgian Congo, for example, the annual growth rate increased between the earlier 1940s and the late 1950s from about 1 per cent to nearly 2.5 per cent. By the 1980s, the African average was 2.8 per cent. In Kenya in 1979, it was 4.1 per cent, the highest figure recorded. The chief reason for acceleration was a continued fall in death-rates, from 26 per thousand in sub-Saharan Africa during the early 1950s to 16 per thousand in the later 1980s. This was due chiefly to lower infant mortality, which fell between 1952 and 1992 from 180 to 105 per thousand in sub-Saharan Africa and from 188 to 67 per thousand in North Africa.

One reason for lower death-rates after 1950 was that crisis mortality, already much reduced between the wars, declined still further. Even the famines that began in 1968 had little lasting impact on population totals, while mass immunisation curbed several epidemic diseases and eradicated smallpox in 1977. Equally important was the use of cheap synthetic drugs developed during the Second World War. Their most spectacular successes were against severe complaints such as tuberculosis and syphilis, but their chief demographic impact was on endemic childhood complaints such as pneumonia and malaria, which could at last be attacked – along with measles, poliomyelitis, diarrhoea, and malnutrition – through the extension of health services to children and mothers.