Africa has the longest human history of any continent. African hominids date from at least 4 million years ago; agriculture, brought from SW Asia, appears to date from the 6th or 5th millennium B.C. Africa's first great civilization began in Egypt in 3400 B.C.; other ancient centers were Kush and Aksum. Phoenicians established Carthage in the 9th cent. B.C. and probably explored the northwestern coast as far as the Canary Islands by the 1st cent. B.C. Romans conquered Carthage in 146 B.C. and controlled N Africa until the 4th cent. A.D. Arabs began their conquest in the 7th cent. and, except in Ethiopia, Muslim traders extended the religion of Islam across N Africa and S across the Sahara into the great medieval kingdoms of the W Sudan. The earliest of these kingdoms, which drew their wealth and power from the control of a lucrative trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and slaves, was ancient Ghana, already thriving when first recorded by Arabs in the 8th cent. In the 13th cent. Ghana was conquered and incorporated into the kingdom of ancient Mali, famous for its gold and its wealthy capital of Timbuktu. In the late 15th cent. Mali was eclipsed by the Songhai empire and lost many provinces but remained an autonomous kingdom.
There are few written accounts of the southern half of the continent before 1500, but it appears from linguistic and archaeological evidence that the older inhabitants were gradually absorbed or displaced by agricultural, iron-working peoples speaking related Bantu languages who originated from near the modern Nigeria-Cameroon border. Between the 1st cent. B.C. and 1500, Bantu-speaking peoples became dominant over most of the continent S of the equator, establishing small farming villages and in places powerful kingdoms, such as Kongo, Luba, and Mwememutapa. Prior to and after 1500, pastoralists moved south until they encountered the various Bantu groups and founded the kingdom of Kitara in the 16th cent. They subsequently founded the kingdoms of Bunyoro, Buganda, Rwanda, and Ankole, all of which had elaborate social structures based on a cattle-owning aristocracy.
The period of European domination of Africa began in the 15th cent. with Portuguese exploration of the coasts of Africa in an attempt to establish a safe route to India and to tap the lucrative gold trade of Sudan and the east coast trade in gold, slaves, and ivory conducted for centuries by Arabs and Swahili. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope; in 1498 Vasco da Gama reached the east coast and, the following year, India. In the centuries that followed, coastal trading stations were established by Portugal and later by the Dutch, English, French, and other European maritime powers; under them the slave trade rapidly expanded. At the same time Ottoman Turks extended their control over N Africa and the shores of the Red Sea, and the Omani Arabs established suzerainty over the east coast as far south as Cape Delgado.
Explorations in the 18th and 19th cent. reported the great natural wealth of the continent while capturing the imagination of Europeans, who viewed Africa as the "Dark Continent." These were key factors in the ensuing wave of European imperialism; between 1880 and 1912 all of Africa except Liberia and Ethiopia fell under control of European powers, with the boundaries of the new colonies often bearing no relationship to the realities of geography or to the political and social organization of the indigenous population. In the northwest and west, France ultimately acquired regions that came to be known as French West Africa, French Equatorial Africa, and the French Cameroons, and established protectorates in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Other French territories were French Somaliland, French Togoland, Madagascar, and Réunion. The main group of British possessions was in E and S Africa; it included the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, British Somaliland, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (after World War I), Zanzibar, Nyasaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Bechuanaland, Basutoland, and Swaziland. Following Britain's victory in the South African War (1899–1902), its South African possessions (Transvaal, Orange Free State, Cape Colony, and Natal) became a dominion within the British Empire. Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, and Nigeria were British possessions on the west coast. Portugal's African empire was made up of Portuguese Guinea, Angola, and Mozambique, in addition to various enclaves and islands on the west coast. Belgium held the Belgian Congo and, after World War I, Ruanda-Urundi. The Spanish possessions in Africa were the smallest, being composed of Spanish Guinea, Spanish Sahara, Ifni, and the protectorate of Spanish Morocco. The extensive German holdings—Togoland, the Cameroons, German South-West Africa, and German East Africa—were lost after World War I and redistributed among the Allies; Italy's empire included Libya, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland.
The Union of South Africa was formed and became virtually self-governing in 1910, Egypt achieved a measure of sovereignty in 1922, and in 1925 Tangier, previously attached to Morocco, was made an international zone. At the end of World War II a rise in international trade spurred renewed exploitation of Africa's resources. France and Britain began campaigns to improve conditions in their African holdings, including access to education and investment in infrastructure. Africans were also able to pressure France and Britain into a degree of self-administration. Belgium and Portugal did little in the way of colonial development and sought greater control over their colonies during this period.
In the 1950s and 1960s, in the face of rising nationalism, most of the European powers granted independence to their territories. The sequence of change included independence for Libya in 1951; independence for Eritrea in federation with Ethiopia in 1952 (later absorbed by Ethiopia, Eritrea became fully independent in 1993); in 1956 independence for Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia and the return of Tangier to Morocco; in 1957 independence for Ghana; in 1958 independence for Guinea and the return of Spanish Morocco to Morocco. In 1960 France granted independence to Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Côte d'Ivoire, Dahomey (now Benin), Gabon, the Malagasy Republic (now Madagascar), Mali (briefly merged in 1959–60 with Senegal as the Sudanese Republic), Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso); also newly independent in 1960 were Congo (Kinshasa)—the former Belgian Congo—and Nigeria, Somalia, and Togo. In 1961 Sierra Leone and Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania) became independent, the Portuguese enclave of São João Baptista de Ajudá was seized by Dahomey, the British Cameroons were divided between Nigeria and Cameroon, and South Africa became a republic. In 1962 Algeria, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda became independent nations. Remaining British possessions after 1962 were Zanzibar, which gained independence in 1963 and joined with Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964; Gambia and Kenya, which became independent in 1963; Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) and Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), independent in 1964; Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland) and Lesotho (formerly Basutoland), independent in 1966; and Mauritius and Swaziland, independent in 1968. In 1968 Spain granted independence to Equatorial Guinea, and in 1969 Spain returned Ifni to Morocco.
In 1974 Portuguese Guinea became independent as Guinea-Bissau, and the former Portuguese territories of Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Principe became independent in 1975. After Spain relinquished the Spanish Sahara (Western Sahara) to joint Moroccan-Mauritanian control in 1976, a guerrilla force undertook a struggle for independence there. Under rebel pressure, Mauritania yielded its sector of Western Sahara to Morocco in 1979; Morocco, for its part, built fortifications in the territory and resisted pressures for its independence. A cease-fire (1991) ended the fighting but did not lead to a final resolution. The Seychelles and the Comoros became independent in 1976 from Great Britain and France, respectively, and in 1977 the former French Territory of the Afars and the Issas became independent as Djibouti. When Rhodesia (formerly Southern Rhodesia) unilaterally declared itself independent in 1965, Great Britain termed the act illegal and imposed trade sanctions against the country; after a protracted civil war, however, Rhodesia gained recognized independence in 1980 as Zimbabwe. South West Africa, which had been administered by South Africa since 1922 under an old League of Nations mandate (South Africa's continued administration of the territory was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 1971), won its independence in 1990 as Namibia. Great Britain retains control of the islands of St. Helena and Ascension, and Mayotte and Réunion remain French. Spain retains the Canary Islands and Ceuta and Melilla, two small exclaves on Morocco's coast.
In the early postcolonial period the most pressing problems facing new African states were the need for aid to develop natural resources, provide education, and improve living standards; threats of secession and military coups; and shifting alliances among the states and with outside powers. Recognizing that unity and cooperation were needed, African nations established the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 in Addis Ababa. African nations were also forced to form alliances based on the cold war politics of the USSR, the United States, Cuba, and other countries in order to receive badly needed aid. This period saw the overthrow of democratic forms of government and numerous coups resulting in the installation of military regimes and single-party governments.
Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the mid-1970s, a severe drought desiccated the Sahel region S of the Sahara. The resulting famine, disease, and environmental destruction caused the death of thousands of people and forced the southward migration of additional hundreds of thousands to less affected areas.
From 1975 into the 21st cent., Africa continued to experience political, social, and economic upheaval. The postindependence era has also been marked by a rise in nationalist struggles. Wars in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia continued, and political instability in these nations continued. Civil war in Ethiopia resulted in the birth (1993) of a new country, Eritrea; in 1998–2000 the two nations fought a bloody border war. Beginning in the 1970s, Chad fought Libyan expansionist activity with help of the French military. Relations between Chad and Libya were finally normalized in 1989. Chad remained beset, however, by regional and ethnic fighting, with rebels receiving support from Sudan in the early 21st cent. while Chad supported Sudanese rebels. The conflict between N and S Sudan largely ended with a peace agreement in 2005, and in 2011 South Sudan voted to become an independent nation. Other conflicts within Sudan, most notably in Darfur but also elsewhere, continued to fester.
In the late 1980s, there was a decline of Marxist influence in Angola, from where Cuban troops began to withdraw in 1989, as well as from civil war–torn Mozambique. A UN-aided peace process in Mozambique culminated in peaceful elections there in 1994, but civil conflict continued until 2002 in Angola, as numerous peace agreements between rebels and the government were broken.
South African blacks led an enduring struggle against white domination, with frequent confrontations (such as the Soweto uprising in 1976) leading to government repression and escalating violence. Throughout the 1980s the international community applied pressure in the form of economic sanctions in order to induce the South African government to negotiate with the African National Congress (ANC). In 1989 newly elected Prime Minister F. W. de Klerk promised democratic reforms that would phase out white minority rule, and in 1992 the legal underpinnings of apartheid were largely dismantled. Consequently, South Africa's black majority participated in the country's first fully democratic elections in 1994, which brought Nelson Mandela and the ANC to power.
Other African nations began to introduce democratic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s that included multiparty elections; transitions to democratically elected leadership have taken place in countries such as Mali, Zambia, Benin, and Malawi. Political instability and civil strife continued to plague several regions of the continent into the late 1990s, most notably Liberia and Sierra Leone in W Africa and Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi in the Great Lakes region. Peace treaties signed in Liberia (1997) and Sierra Leone (1999) between those countries' governments and insurgents promised some hope of stability.
In Rwanda in 1994 a Hutu-led government that provoked ethnic tensions leading to the genocide of nearly one million persons was overthrown by Tutsi-led forces; by 1997 there was a growing war between the Rwandan army and Hutu guerrilla bands. Also in 1997, 30 years of dictatorical rule in Zaïre were brought to an end, and the country's name was changed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The new government was soon threatened, however, by mutinous troops who assumed control of large areas of the country; a cease-fire was signed in 1999, but unrest continued in parts of Congo in subsequent years. Nigeria ushered in a new government in 1999 with the first democratically elected president since 1983. Several African countries made positive strides in managing market-oriented economic reform in the 1990s, most notably Ghana, Uganda, and Malawi.
In 1992–93, the worst African drought of the 20th cent. and numerous civil wars were the primary causes of a famine that spread across portions of sub-Saharan Africa and most severely affected the nations of Somalia and Mozambique. The scourge of AIDS has continued to pose a major health threat to many African nations, as a lack of economic resources often has prevented an effective response. Warfare, poverty, and hunger continue to present significant challenges in Africa, where ethnic tensions and political instability, along with the resulting economic disruption, still afflict many countries.
Mindful of the OAU's relative ineffectiveness in dealing with these issues and seeking an organization with greater powers to promote African economic, social, and political integration, African leaders established the African Union (AU), which superseded the OAU in 2002. The AU has proved somewhat more effective than OAU, but has had difficulty in successively confronting and resolving serious political crises (and sometimes civil war) in Somalia, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and other nations.