7 ‘Lost’ African Countries

Written by | Listicles, Quick Reads

The African continent has had many states and kingdoms. This is a short list of several modern states that are barely known.

By Chris Orwa and Owaahh

7. The Gaza Empire

For most of the 19th Century, there was a powerful kingdom between southeastern Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique known as Gaza. At the peak of its prosperity in the 1860s, it covered most of the land between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers.

The empire was founded by Soshangane, a Nguni chief who fled north to escape upheaveal in modern-day South Africa. He first had to defeat Nxaba, a rival chief who had established a kingdom in Sofala in 1825. Then he established a vast kingdom he named after his grandfather, Gaza (or Gasa). Soshangane’s followers were called the Shangaan.

In his climb to power he fought at least one war with Shaka Zulu, defeating the famous Zulu king because his forces were weakened by malaria and food shortages. He also forced other weaker kingdoms and Europeans to pay tribute to the Gaza kingdom. The Gaza society was divided into three layers: The Nguni made the upper class, the assimilated class the middle class, and slaves the bottom of the base. It thrived on war, and trade on slaves and ivory.

Soshangane died less than two decades later and was succeeded by his son Mzila. Mzila successfully fought off a challenge to his claim by his brother Mawewe with the help of the Portuguese. He then reigned until 1884 and was replaced by Gungunyana, at a time of increased European encroachment. It was under Gungunyana that the Gaza Empire collapsed after he led many wars against the Portuguese and was finally captured. He died in exile in December 1906.

6. The State of Katanga

Flag of the State of Katanga

If you have ever watched the movie The Siege of Jadotville, then you know about one of the defining moments in the war for Katanga. Now simply known as the Katanga Province, Katanga was a short-lived state in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was established in July 1960 in an area rich in copper, gold, and uranium. Its motto was “Force, espoir et Paix dans la Prosperite” (“Power, Hope and Peace in Prosperity”). Its official currency was the Katanganese Franc, and it had support from Belgian troops and business interests. Katanga also had a Belgian-trained army and air force that stood its ground for two years.

Katanga’s leader was Moise Tshombe, who claimed that the new Congolese state was chaotic and that Patrice Lumumba was seeking help from communists. Tshombe’s was not the only secessionist movement in Congo at the time. The other was in South Kasai, led by Albert Kalonji. It was inhabited mainly by the Baluba who were opposed to the secession on the Katanga side of the common border. But Katanga was larger and richer, and was demanding full independence unlike South Kasai that wanted a federated union.

Tshombe demanded official recognition of the new state from the UN, which instead responded by sending assistance to Patrice Lumumba. The region was crucial to the unified Congo because it was rich in minerals, and at the time accounted for half of the country’s revenues. A failed excursion by the disorganized Congolese army only fomented the resolve of the Katanganese.

A UN-led war escalated in late 1962, resulting in the capture of the capital and the resulting siege of Jadotville. Tshombe finally surrendered his last stronghold in late January 1963 and fled. He returned a year later as Prime Minister of the Congo, only to be dismissed in October 1965. He eventually fled again to Spain. He was hijacked in a plane in June 1967 and flown to Algeria where he lived under house arrest until his death in 1969. The conflict of Katanga claimed two prominent lives: Patrice Lumumba, who was executed in Katanga, and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, whose plane was shot down in Zambia on his way to negotiate a ceasefire between Katanga and the UN forces.

5. The Cape of Good Hope

The Cape Colony was one of the first European settlements in Africa. It survived from 1795 until 1910. In that time, it changed hands several times between the British and the Dutch. It was finally dissolved in 1910 with three other colonies to form the Union of South Africa. First established as a trading post by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, the colony was the launching pad of Dutch colonialism in southern Africa. It then got caught up in British and French global supremacy wars for access to India, first changing hands to the British, then back to the Dutch, then back to the British.

It finally came under a ‘responsible government’ under a Prime Minister and the new state grew into a multi-ethnic society with expansionist ideas. The discovery of diamonds and gold changed this dynamic again, leading to a return to hostilities under the premiership of Cecil Rhodes.

By 1904, it had a total population of 2.4 million people, with the black population accounting for nearly 60 percent of that number. It is now simply known as the Cape Province.

4. Equatoria

Long before the Sudan conflict that eventually birthed the state we now know as South Sudan, there was a failed effort to create a model state called Equatoria. In 1870, a man called Samuel Baker established a state called Equatoria, along the White Nile. Its territory stretched to parts of what is now Uganda, especially around Lake Albert. Baker’s original brief had been to establish trading posts.

The region was resistant to Arab influence when it eventually became a province of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. It served as an Egyptian outpost in the larger states network of control over the River Nile but it was isolated and underdeveloped. The state survived until the 1880s when Muhammed Ahmad Abdullah declared himself the Mahdi and begun a jihad to unify tribes in Sudan. What followed was a Mahdist state which included Equatoria, and survived until a successful onslaught by the British from Egypt.

The story of modern South Sudan actually begins here, with a mutiny by the Equatoria Corps, a small military unit that mutinied at Torit on August 18th, 1955. That was the beginning of the First Sudanese Civil War. 

3. The Republic of Biafra

Probably the most well-known entry on this list, the Republic of Biafra was a secessionist state in the Eastern region of Nigeria. Inhabited mainly by the Igbo, the state survived three short and bloody years after it declared its independence in 1967. In that time, it was officially recognized by Tanzania, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and Haiti.

In 1966, junior Igbo military officers killed 30 Nigerian political leaders in a coup. Seven months later, there was a counter-coup commonly known as the July Rematch. In the aftermath, over 30, 000 Igbo people were killed.

This was followed by an agreement in January 1967 to form a loose confederation. When it failed four months later, Chekwuemeka Ojukwu declared the independence of Biafra at the end of May 1967. That led to the Nigerian Civil War.

Anthem of the Republic of Biafra. [Link]

Sitting on 77, 310km squared of resource-rich land, the Republic of Biafra had a central bank and its own currency. It had an army of 3000 soldiers which would grow to 30, 000 as the war escalated. It also had an air force with an initial force of six planes, and five more nicknamed “Biafra Babies” in 1969. It also had a small navy.

Despite initial successes against the invading Nigerian army, Biafra’s luck soon changed. It lost most of its territory and by the end of 1968 was essentially landlocked. In December 1969, the Nigerian army launched a multipronged attack, cutting the remaining territory in half and forcing Ojukwu to flee. By the time Biafra was subdued, over 2 million people were dead. The crisis inspired the founding of Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders).

In its lifetime, Biafra had two presidents: Ojukwu and his successor, Philip Effiong. Ojukwu died in November 2011.

2. The Republic of Maryland

What we now know as Liberia was once two different settlements of freed slaves. One of them was known as the Republic of Maryland, or the Independent State of Maryland or Maryland in Liberia, or Maryland in Africa, or the Colony of Maryland in Liberia. Its capital was at Harper.

The story of the settlement begins in December 1831, when the Maryland legislature budgeted money for freed slaves to migrate to Africa, establishing the Maryland State Colonization Society (MSCS).

From an original budget of $1, 000 annually, the MSCS allocation was increased to $10, 000 for twenty years. They used this money to purchase land, fund the passage of freed slaves and give them free housing and food for six months. The 20-year state support ended in 1852 but was renewed for another six years. Although uptake was low for emigrants, the total population in Maryland was 51, 392 by 1830, and 83, 942 by 1860. By 1857, it had 900 colonists and 60, 000 natives.

The MSCS kept sending emigrants to the colony, but this ended with fifteen people in 1860, three years before the society ended active operations.

Maryland in Africa had its own constitution. It was ruled by three consecutive Governors, although it was, for at least two months in 1836, ruled by a three-man committee. The flag of this kid state was thirteen horizontal stripes alternating between yellow and white/black.

The better known American Colonization Society, which established Liberia, was founded in 1816 and facilitated separate settlements based on different colonization societies in Monrovia from 1822. They were combined into Liberia in 1838, which declared itself independent nine years later. Because the Maryland settlement wanted to main its trade monopoly, it held a referendum in 1853 on the issue. In 1854, the state declared its independence, marking its boundaries along the coastline. The next three years were tumultuous for the young state, forcing it to seek help from Liberia against its enemies.

Liberia was unwilling to assume any extended control of Maryland, so the smaller state held another referendum in 1857. It then dissolved its government and ceded all its possessions to Liberia. At the time, the state received tax on imports at $1, 800 annually, and had liabilities of $3, 000 against assets of $10, 000.

Maryland in Africa thus became Maryland County.

  1. The Republic of Ambazonia

The only entry on this list that is still an active secession movement, the independence of the Republic of Ambazonia has been declared thrice in fifty years.

In 1858, a British missionary founded a settlement of freed slaves at the Ambas Bay in southwestern Cameroon. The settlement, originally called Victoria, was renamed Ambas Bay in 1884, and ceded to Germany three years later. It then changed hands to British and French occupation as a League of Nations mandate after World War I. It was administered as a UN territory until 1961 when Cameroon became independent as a single state made up of former British Southern Cameroons and French Cameroun.

The problems began with an ultimatum for the Anglophone region to choose between joining either Nigeria or Cameroon. It had been administered independently, and the lack of a third choice (to be a distinctive country) still haunts the region to date. The result was a union with the French-speaking Cameroon. The federal state survived until the early ‘70s when it was replaced by a “United Republic” which was itself replaced by a “Republic” a decade later. The people of Ambazonia saw this change as a planned annexation, and have viewed the central government’s dominance as an attempt to wipe out their contribution to Cameroon as a whole.

In 1984, a lawyer called Fon Gorji Dinka declared the independence of Ambazonia. Dinka issued a pamphlet titled The New Social Order in 1985, before he was arrested and tortured. He was charged with high treason, acquitted, and then had to escape into exile to escape further harassment. One of the main problems is that the English-speaking regions have been marginalized politically and economically. Its cause has now become a multipronged fight on multiple spaces. The use of internet spaces to drive Ambazonia’s cause is the reason why Paul Biya’s government has repeatedly blocked internet access for the region.

The capital of Ambazonia is Buea.

Owaahh, 2017

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Last modified: March 19, 2023