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date: 25 February 2021

The Politics of Decolonization in French and British West Africafree

  • Frederick CooperFrederick CooperDepartment of History, New York University


At the end of World War II, Britain and France tried to find new bases for the legitimacy of empire. Their hesitant moves created openings that African political movements exploited. Scholars have tried to capture the excitement of this process, first focusing on the drive to create nation-states, then exploring other possibilities, both regions within territorial states and federations among them. Historians have drawn on archives and interviews as well as a wide variety of texts produced by political movements.

Although Africans had long conducted politics through both local idioms and pan-African connections, the postwar openings led political movements to focus on arenas where they could achieve results. In French Africa, this entailed a partially successful struggle for French citizenship, representation in both the French and territorial legislatures, and social and economic equality with other French citizens. Eventually the French government tried to diffuse claim-making by devolving internal autonomy to territorial governments. When Guinea obtained independence in 1958 and other African leaders differed over whether they should create a francophone African federation within a Franco-African confederation or participate as equals in a French federation, the movements shifted to seeking independence and a new relationship with France.

Britain failed to get African politicians to focus on local governance. Instead, politicians demanded power in each colony. Meanwhile, Britain tried to appease African social movements with a program of economic development only to face escalating demands and heightened conflict. Although fearful of disorder and corruption, the government decided that the best it could hope for was to have attracted Africans to a British way of life and to achieve friendly relations with African governments that, led by Ghana, came into power.

At the end of World War II Britain and France both realized that the colonial world as they knew it could no longer be maintained. The war, in both Asia and Europe, had drained them of military, financial, and political authority, and it confronted them with the necessity to reimpose themselves in places lost to Japanese invasion or ruled by the collaborationist Vichy regime. Both powers wished to reassert their authority in new forms, and they could not know how things would turn out. Africans were in a position to pose new demands, and they too were uncertain of what they wanted and what they could get. If we avoid the temptation to write our history backwards, as if the outcome of struggle could only end up in the transformation of British and French Africa into sovereign nation-states, we can recapture the different futures that people at war’s end imagined might be theirs. We can trace the trajectories, with their openings and closures, that brought Africa to a particular form of decolonization that was not necessarily what its leaders had wanted when their efforts began.

Britain tried to maintain a colonial system by reforming it. It hoped to change its system of governing African communities through their “traditional” rulers—indirect rule—by incorporating educated people from each region into institutions of local governance. It hoped to stem the rising tide of urban unrest and large-scale strikes by implementing effectively the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940, using funds from the British taxpayer to pay for projects intended to improve the welfare as well as the productivity of colonial subjects. Well aware that Britain had lost its aura of might as well as of legitimacy, it hoped to retake the initiative by promoting social and economic change and gradual political progress. That was not the way things turned out.

France, shaken by its defeat by Nazi Germany and its loss of effective control over its richest overseas possession, Indochina, made a more radical departure. It repudiated the name of empire in favor of “French Union,” and it dropped the label “colony” in favor of “overseas territory.” The man who claimed to have led France out of the disgrace of defeat, Charles de Gaulle, talked of “federal” institutions that would retain the empire’s diversity and allow fuller African participation in the affairs of the Union but keep ultimate control in Paris. The openings to which these proposals led would quickly be pried wider than French leaders intended.

Nationalism? Liberation? Decolonization? Perspectives on Political Change

Coming to grips with the possibilities and constraints of the postwar years poses a challenge to historians. Scholarly study of African political activism began just as African states were acquiring independence. A young, vigorous leadership seemed to be coming to power, using Western and African media to make the case for freeing Africa from colonial rule and promoting economic and social progress. The coming of independence captured the minds not only of African participants but also of journalists and political scientists in Europe and North America. The overwhelming focus of scholarship in those years was on nationalist movements and the transition from colonial empire to nation-state. Since then, the heroic story has been complicated by perceptions, widely held inside and outside of Africa, that independence has not produced the kinds of societies its advocates wanted—indeed that the colonial situation continues to have its effects. Recent history might be written as a narrative of triumph followed by disappointment. Another alternative is to rethink the entire story.

A new historiography has begun to question the narrative of empire to nation-state from different angles. Jean Allman found that the same kind of claims to govern the colony of the Gold Coast advanced by Kwame Nkrumah and his nationalist party were being advanced by radical Asante in the name of a different sort of “nation” within the colony of the Gold Coast. Regional and ethnic mobilization—using different political idioms and not just the tropes of “modern” nationalism—complicate narratives that assimilated African politics to supposedly global forms of anticolonial radicalism.1 However, the privileging of nationalism got a new lease on life from Benedict Anderson’s argument, first published in 1983, that saw nationalism as a construction—an “imagined community”—in a pattern that dated at least to the early 19th century and produced a “modular” form that eventually came to Africa.2

That imagined communities were necessarily national eventually came to be questioned, not just in relation to the ethnic (or, better, ethnicizing) conception revealed by Allman, but in relation to efforts to turn empire into some kind of supranational federation of confederation rather than exit from it. The case is clearest for French Africa but Kwame Nkrumah’s call in 1958 for a “United States of Africa” revealed that the national framework was not enough—especially in regard to building strong and coherent strategies of economic development in a hostile world—even for one of Africa’s most reputed nationalists.3 In the mid-1950s, world revolution and an anti-imperialist alliance of formerly colonized states were also attractive to Africans whose connections transcended the continent. The trajectory that ended up in the nation-state might thus be considered in relation to alternatives, both narrower and broader than the territorial state as it exists today.

The Postwar Context

One cannot understand the breakthrough in the politics of empire after 1945 without appreciating the devastation of the war—on its winners as well as its losers. France had come under German domination in 1940 and lost effective control of its most lucrative overseas territory, Indochina, to the Japanese. It never fully reestablished itself in that territory. Britain had also lost territory in Southeast Asia and had to devote enormous resources to holding onto India in the face of Japanese aggression and Indian revolt. Both France and Britain emerged with enormous damage to cities and industries and high debts, particularly to the United States.4 With tenuous hold on Asian colonies, Britain and France needed Africa all the more for their economic recovery. They relied on the sale of agricultural and mineral products from Africa to buyers in the United States to earn dollars. Caught between their greater need for African resources and diminished power, French and British governments accepted that they had to reform their mode of colonial governance to gain a measure of legitimacy among African subjects. They now were willing to employ funds from the metropolitan taxpayer to pay for development initiatives in Africa, in the hope both of enhancing production and improving the standard of living of at least those Africans in the most important and vulnerable ports, railways, and mines.5

The world economy in the postwar years was on the whole favorable for African exports. British and French governments manipulated prices so that much of the development drive was in fact funded by the difference between world prices and the sums paid to African farmers. That turned out to be a mixed blessing for the regimes, for it made clear to African political movements how much was at stake in control of the state. African economies experienced what Morten Jerven calls a “growth spurt.”6

The global political economy was changing in a more fundamental way. Because of the devastation of World War II, European empires were no longer a serious threat to each other. The economic powerhouse was now the United States, and it had a greater interest in a world of many nation-states than a world of a few empires. It could rely on its economic might, with occasional military interventions when things went wrong, to assure its position. Britain and France had limited room for maneuvering, but they also had less fear that the tropical resources their economies needed would be monopolized by another colonial power. In this situation, they could coldly calculate the costs and benefits of retaining particular colonies, something they did not do in such terms before the mid-1950s.

This was the political economic context in which the politics of decolonization played out. For African leaders, taking over the development initiatives of the late colonial state meant that power could be used to provide something for the people they were trying to mobilize. African and European leaders had incentives to find a modus vivendi, a transfer of power that promised both change and continuity—concrete and immediate benefits to leaders and followers that fantasies of world revolution or a pan-African utopia did not offer. The economic basis of this situation was what Jean-François Bayart terms the “extraverted” nature of African economies—their orientation toward exports of raw materials and importation of consumer items.7 In the crucial years of decolonization, the terms of this economic relationship were favorable for Africans with an interest in the export trade. But this structure would eventually haunt African countries, for their extraverted nature made them vulnerable to the ups and downs of world markets and the power of multinational corporations. With this context in mind, we turn to the political situation in British and French West Africa as it stood at the end of World War II.

French West Africa: From Empire to Federation?

The French Empire at the end of World War II was more complicated than a division between colonizer and colonized. It was a complex combination of non-equivalent components, characteristic of empires throughout history. It included the Republic; the “old colonies” of the Antilles whose inhabitants had been accorded the rights of citizens in 1848; the “new colonies,” mainly in Africa, where mo inhabitants were French subjects without the rights of citizens; Algeria, whose territory was part of the Republic, but whose people were divided, with some exceptions, between people of European origin who were citizens and Muslims who were not; protectorates, like Morocco and parts of Indochina, that were governed by France but at least nominally retained their sovereignty and nationality; and the mandated territories of Cameroon and Togo, which France was supposed to prepare to assume their own national status but meanwhile governed as colonies.

All inhabitants of the empire were “French”—and the ideologues of empire insisted they could not be anything else—but they were not French in the same way. The complication was that the different categories contaminated each other; citizenship was for most Africans something theoretically available but in practice withheld. In the Four Communes of Senegal, the “originaires” had for some time possessed the rights of the citizen, including that of electing local officials and a deputy to the French legislature, but unlike in the case of Algeria, they did not have to give up Islamic civil status in order to enjoy these qualities.

Some French leaders, including during World War I, had wanted to extend the Senegalese model to more colonies, but others insisted that Africans could only flourish within their own cultural milieu and that citizenship would disorient them. France represented a distant beacon of civilization, carefully regulating access to its summits while celebrating the cultural integrity of its components. But Paris in the 1930s was also the site of connections of Africans with people from the rest of the empire. Among them were intellectuals like Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and Aimé Césaire of Martinqiue, who claimed the rights of the citizen while insisting on the cultural specificity of black Africans.8

The situation changed again after World War II. Faced with the need for more effective use of imperial resources yet facing an international climate increasingly critical of colonialism, with radical anticolonial movements in North Africa and Indochina already threatening, the French state tried to convince African subjects that they were part of an inclusive political structure. Colonial subjects as well as citizens were allowed to elect deputies to the legislative body that would write a new constitution for a new French republic, although the seats were not allocated in accordance with population. Nonetheless, some of the most able politicians in French Africa—including Senghor and Félix Houphouët-Boigny—took their seats and made it impossible for other deputies to evade difficult questions. Forced labor and the hated separate judicial system for subjects were soon eliminated.

The most difficult debate concerned the extension of citizenship to the overseas territories. Colonial deputies had to stage a brief walkout, but in the end they got their minimum demand: colonial subjects became citizens, and they did not have to give up their right to have their personal status—marriage, inheritance, filiation—regulated under Islamic or “customary” law rather than the French Civil Code. Ambitious programs of economic development and education—refused funding in the 1920s and 1930s—were at last put in place. The Overseas Ministry’s political bureau felt able to proclaim: “the legislature wanted to mark the perfect equality of all in public life, but not the perfect identity of the French of the metropole and the overseas French.”9

Now, African activists had possibilities to use citizenship to make further claims—for fuller political participation, for economic and social programs favorable to African interests. Senghor insisted that a continued connection with France would not only convey material advantages to Africans but would also underscore the contributions of African civilization to humanity.

Senghor quickly realized that new citizens would be voting and had to be mobilized. Although himself a Christian, he worked through leaders of Islamic brotherhoods who were in influential positions in rural Senegal. The political machine he built eclipsed his rivals, whose base was in the old urban elite of coastal Senegal. Elsewhere in French West Africa, leaders were also building political parties capable of incorporating different social groups. Félix Houphouët-Boigny, for example, drew on the reputation he had established in successfully combating the system of forced labor that had supplied white settlers in the Côte d’Ivoire, obtaining support from both the communities that had supplied the workers and from African cocoa farmers who now had better access to uncoerced labor and who were making themselves into agents of economic advance.

Houphouët-Boigny took the lead in bringing together parties in different territories of French Africa to form the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), whose cross-territorial basis challenged imperial control on the empire’s own structural turf. Like Senghor’s party in Senegal, the RDA was clear that it would struggle for African political rights and voice but not for independence. Its manifesto stated, “We have taken care to avoid equivocation and not to confuse PROGRESSIVE BUT RAPID AUTONOMY within the framework of the French Union with separatism, that is immediate, brutal, total independence. Doing politics, do not forget, is above all to reject chimeras, however seductive they may be and to have the courage to affront hard realities.”10 In the legislature in Paris, the RDA entered a tactical alliance with the French Communist Party.

The state’s attempt to maintain the French Union as a single but differentiated polity was too little, too late in Algeria—where settlers also continued to use their own citizenship rights to prevent Muslims from exercising theirs—but in sub-Saharan Africa political mobilization within the framework of French citizenship eventually began to obtain serious concessions, particularly in the social and economic domains. The demand for “equal pay for equal work” emerged in January 1946 in a general strike in Dakar, Senegal, even as the debates over the constitution were beginning in Paris. The strike was part work stoppage extending from dockworkers to civil servants, part a movement of the urban population as a whole, which gathered in a daily mass meeting to coordinate action. Strike leaders focused on obtaining for the lowest paid African workers similar minimum wages and salary scales to those paid to workers from European France and for civil servants of all ranks the same benefits that Europeans enjoyed. In negotiations, union leaders turned around the development idea by which French officials were justifying their role: “Your goal is to elevate us to your level; without the means, we will never succeed.”11

Strikers did not get equal wages, but they did force officials to apply the metropolitan system of negotiations and wage setting and the basic French framework of collective bargaining agreements to Africa. The 1948–1949 railroad strike deepened the conviction of French officials that they could only manage labor disputes based on the experience of class conflict in Europe, which would at least contain and channel demands. The labor officers agreed with the African unions that France needed a labor code in order both to guarantee workers certain rights and to specify rules of contestation. Given that any labor code could not be racially discriminatory, the stakes in each article were so high that the debate took six years to resolve, and a West Africa–wide general strike of workers was instrumental in giving the code the final push.12

The labor movement won the forty-hour week, collective bargaining rights, paid vacations, and the right to organize and strike. They turned their attention to claiming family allowances—already won in the public sector—and got them extended to wage workers in the private sector in 1956. One can make similar arguments about demands for education and veterans’ pensions.13

The French state was caught between the radicalism of anticolonial movements, which by 1954 had already resulted in the loss of Indochina and the start of a war in Algeria, and the demands of labor unions and political organizations. By the mid-1950s, officials were fed up with the demands being made upon them in the language of citizenship. The costs of modernizing imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa were high, and the promised transformation of the African economy was proving more difficult than expected. An influential report on the modernization of colonial territories in 1953 warned of the danger that the process might result in the “exhaustion of the Metropole.”14 A French minister in 1956 put it bluntly: citizenship had come to mean “equality in wages, equality in labor legislation, in social security benefits, equality in family allowances, in brief, equality in standard of living.”15 The French government was by then looking for a way to back out of the demands of an inclusive imperialism.

Meanwhile, political leaders in French Africa were mobilizing more diverse constituencies, especially as the voter rolls grew larger. The rhetoric of citizenship and equality resonated less with people for whom comparison with French citizens was a remote issue, and assertions of “African unity” against the humiliations of French colonialism counted for more. Even Sékou Touré, who had begun his career by emphasizing the demand for equality for all citizen-workers of Greater France, began to put the accent on the distinct personality and quest for unity of Africans (see Figure 1). Such arguments divided the labor movement into those who stuck by the rhetoric of “class” and “equality” and those who preached “African unity.”

Figure 1. Ahmed Sékou Touré and Kwame Nkrumah at the All African People’s Conference, Accra, Ghana, 1958. Phillip Harrington/Alamy Stock Photo, GF87R2.

The top leaders—more and more interested in electoral office—took the movement in the latter direction despite misgivings from the rank and file.16

French officials were now willing to concede some of the principal demands of African political parties: universal suffrage, the end of reserved seats for settlers in territorial legislatures, and real power to legislatures in each territory elected under universal suffrage, that is, by African voters. The 1956 reforms turned out be a Faustian bargain. The first elections under the new law, in 1957, resulted in victories for African political parties in each of the sub-Saharan territories, and those governments had real power over the budget and real patronage to dispense. They offered tangible power and rewards to a political elite. But the reforms also meant that claims on the resources of the empire as a whole were no longer enabled as they had been before. Each government was responsible to its taxpaying electorate. France might provide a narrower range of services and, if it so chose, aid, but the claims of citizens on their state now had to be focused on territorial entities. The new structure stood in the way of Senghor’s efforts to turn French West Africa as a whole from a unit of administration into a unit of politics with its own legislature and executive.

At the same time, the territorial focus was a big step away from the centralizing tendency of French policy, especially with the desire to keep decisions of economic importance in Paris. Symbolically it undermined what the French Union was intended to make invincible: the notion that France should be the focus of political membership, loyalty, and claim-making.

If imperial citizenship was becoming too much citizenship for France, it was too imperial for many Africans, a humiliation for some who saw the French reference point held up before them. Such issues produced vigorous debate. People later termed “fathers of the nation,” such as Senghor and Houphouët-Boigny, were among the most notable for continuing to assert French citizenship, while Sékou Touré, best known for his dramatic demand for independence in the summer of 1958 was up to that very moment an advocate of a “Franco-African community.”

Senghor and his Senegalese colleague Mamadou Dia (see Figure 2) tried to revive a federalist vision of politics. Along with Sékou Touré, they wanted the territories of francophone Africa (including French Equatorial Africa) to unite in a “primary federation” that would in turn be a component of a “confederation” in which metropolitan France and any other part of the former empire that wanted to join would participate as equals.

Figure 2. Senegal president Léopold Sédar Senghor (left) with Premier Mamadou Dia, in front of Senegal’s National Assembly after Senegal seceded from the Mali Federation and became the Republic of Senegal, September 1960. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-119965.

His three-layer approach—territory, African federation, Franco-African confederation—was opposed by Houphouët-Boigny, who wanted a two-layer approach, each territory directly participating in a federation that included metropolitan France. But the first generation of African rulers now were building constituencies and distributing resources within their respective territories, and federation was becoming more of an ideal than a political base.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Algeria led to a near-collapse of democratic government in France in 1958, but Charles de Gaulle rode to the rescue. He in turn promoted a constitution for yet another French Republic, the Fifth. The constitution-writing process was less open than in 1946, but African leaders still managed to push him to accept that African territories that accepted the constitution would have both the possibility of becoming independent if they so chose and of grouping themselves into a federation if they wished to remain. The overseas territories now became member states of the Community—yet another reconfiguration of what had been the French Empire and the French Union. They would no longer send deputies to the French Parliament, but the leaders of member states would sit alongside the French president in an Executive Council to deliberate over affairs affecting the Community as a whole.

The degree of self-government within this structure was substantial, and the concessions made along the way to African leaders were considerable. But when Sékou Touré of Guinea wanted to modify some of the provisions, de Gaulle huffily refused, leading Sékou Touré to campaign for a “no” vote on the constitution that would bring about the immediate independence of his territory. In all the countries of French West Africa, the vote went overwhelmingly in favor of what the party apparatus proposed—a sign of the extent of political organization.17 In Guinea, that meant a 94 percent vote against the constitution, while even higher percentages in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal went in the other direction. Guinea was immediately cut off from French assistance, while the remaining member states were in a position of significant influence in a France badly shaken by the Algerian war and the weakening of colonialism throughout the world.

Senghor and Dia continued their effort to forge an African federation. For a time it looked as if Senghor could obtain the support of the Sudan, Upper Volta, and Dahomey over the opposition of the Côte d’Ivoire. Senghor tried to form a political party with the goal of backing such a federation, the Parti du Regroupemnent African and later the Parti de la Fédération Africaine. In the end, he would get only one ally, the Sudan, led by Modibo Keita.

Within the Community, Senegal and Sudan formed the Mali Federation (named after an old African empire), so power was put into three lawyers, the individual territory, the Mali Federation, and the (French) Community. But with the member states split over the African federation and Guinea having gone its own way, the dream of African unity, within or for that matter outside of a French confederation, had become unattainable. Without African solidarity, the advantages of sovereignty and membership as an equal in the UN and other international organizations became a more attractive alternative to the community.

The Mali Federation, along with Madagascar, took the initiative in opening negotiations for independence on favorable terms. The other member states followed suit. Because France was anxious to maintain its influence in Africa, the African states were in a strong position in negotiations. The French government was more worried that French citizens would lose the right to settle in, do business, and own property in future African states than about the possibility that former French citizens from Africa might continue to exercise the right they had had to settle in and seek education or jobs in France. The independence treaties ended up providing reciprocal rights—for Africans to enter and reside in France, for French citizens to do likewise in African states. Moreover, former citizens of French Africa born before the date of independence could have their French nationality recognized as long as they became resident in the current boundaries of France; they would not have to go through naturalization to become French citizens. But now these rights were based on treaty and not constitutional law. When France in 1974 decided to go back on its commitments and restrict what was now being called “immigration,” the decision was its to make. France had become a more national political entity.18

So had the new states of francophone Africa. Despite some attempts at forging inter-state cooperation, the temptations of sovereignty and preservation of each leader’s constituency took pride of place. These states, mostly poor, would have great difficulty in putting together resources to transform their economies or respond to the demands of workers and peasants. They would be brittle states, whose rulers were well aware of how few resources they commanded and the dangers that social movements would put demands on them that they could not meet. Senghor himself did not escape from the exigencies of the “balkanization” he had warned against. The Mali Federation broke up two months after independence when Senghor and Modibo Keita began to fear that each would take over the other’s turf. Two years later, when Senghor had a political falling out with his leading supporter, Mamadou Dia, he not only expelled Dia from the government but imprisoned him and suppressed political parties other than his own. Politics had become a zero-sum game for control of states in which sovereignty was the strongest asset.

British West Africa

The government of Great Britain thought it could contain the pressures that built up before and during World War II by a two-pronged strategy. One built on the decentralizing that had long been characteristic of British imperial policy. Each colony, under a powerful governor, would follow its own route and timetable leading toward a fuller role for Africans in government of the colony within the British empire. The process that would start by bringing educated Africans into rural councils heretofore dominated by traditional elites, with perhaps a minority of Africans serving as minority members of the Legislative Council of the colony as a whole and with no clear indication of how long this phase should last. The second prong went under the name of “development,” and it was supposed to put more energy into making Africans more productive while—a new departure—explicitly setting a goal of improving the standard of living of Africans. In 1948 a new element was added with consequences more far-reaching than intended. Well aware that its victory in war owed much to the contributions of the Dominions, India, and the colonies and worried that Dominions were writing their own citizenship laws, Parliament created a new citizenship “of the United Kingdom and the Colonies.” It had an effect comparable to the citizenship law of 1946 in French Africa: giving British Africans the right to move to and settle in the British Isles themselves.19 Unlike the French case, it did not bring Africans into Parliament in London. The focus of African political activity in British West Africa was thus not the metropole, as in France, nor the rural district, as Colonial Office leaders hoped, but the center of power in each colony.

The development strategy had its roots in the late 1930s, when a wave of strikes and riots hit the British West Indies, and strikes took place in the mines of British Central Africa and port cities in East and West Africa. Officials in London realized they had a problem on an imperial scale, and they looked to the concept of “development.” For the first time, metropolitan funding would be directed not just to projects of immediate economic utility but to improving infrastructure and services. After the war, the era of colonial development began in earnest: projects to jump-start production in key domains, state efforts to provide housing and other vital urban services, considerable attention to education, and above all an insistence that each colony enact a plan for the systematic development of its infrastructure, services, and production, with the promise of funding under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act.20

But the problem would not fit entirely into the development framework, for labor in the key communications nodes and in mines posed a specific set of problems. By the late 1940s, the British were rejecting their old policy of encouraging back-and-forth migration between workplace and village and their insistence that Africans might work but could not truly be workers. The new policy went under the name of “stabilization,” although in some places, such as the Copperbelt, it was less a policy than acceptance of the fact that Africans had come to live as well as work, that women as well as men were living in cities and rural chiefs and elders could no longer control gender relations.21 The colonial state was becoming the architect of an African working class, paid enough to live with families in the city, encouraged to separate from a rural Africa now seen as backward, giving rise to a new generation of workers and homemakers acculturated to urban life, organized into trade unions that could provide coherence and predictability to industrial relations.22 The vision of a neatly bounded working class—and the notion of male breadwinner/female homemaker—could not be realized in practice, but even the attempt contributed to the division of African economies into sectors, each of which had its own political and social requirements.23

If the French state portrayed its empire as more unified than it was, Britain portrayed its version as more decentralized than it was. The ruling fiction was that each colony would progress through stages of increasing self-government. The transition that was proposed in 1947 was limited: from indirect rule to “local government.” That meant bringing educated people, not just “traditional” elites into the picture, but keeping the focus on local communities, with a weak, partly appointed, legislative council the only check on the power of the governor at the level of the colonial territory.

Some educated Africans were looking in the opposite direction. They were spending time in London, making connections in rooming houses, bars, and meeting halls with activists from across the British Empire, founding new organizations. They saw how much the racism and exploitation they faced were imperial in scale, and most at this time looked to reform or overthrow the overall structure rather than exit from it. Pan-Africanism or black internationalism brought together Africans, West Indians, and African Americans. For some members of this group Moscow was an important stop on the tour, but despite the appeal of communist ideology the Soviet Union’s shifting and self-interested politics drove people like George Padmore to abandon the communist connection and focus on pan-African mobilization.

The London activists were better able to sew connections across the oceans than with people in the interior of Africa, although the movement led by Marcus Garvey had some success in port cites. That changed in the years after World War II, and future leaders like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah came out of the pan-Africanist ferment to make the necessary connections in African cities and villages. Indeed, the dynamics of politics in African territories proved so rapid and so absorbing that the pan-African dimension that seemed to be at the fore during the Pan-African Conference held in Manchester, England, in 1945, was for a time eclipsed.24

Back in Africa, the British administration soon found that it could not stuff African politics back into a rural bottle. Escalating protests shook the Gold Coast in 1948, beginning as a consumer boycott organized by a populist leader of chiefly origin in the capital city of Accra, focused on urban consumers’ anger at rising prices and the apparent stranglehold of European commercial firms on imported goods. Then, army veterans staged a march to protest the sorry efforts of the government to ensure access to jobs and services to men who had fought for the empire. Panicky soldiers fired on the marchers, killing several, and setting off riots and looting that spread across several of the colony’s major towns. The riots put on the table the substance as well as the process of politics in a colony: demands for higher wages for workers, higher crop prices for farmers, less restricted commercial opportunities for businessmen, better education, and better health services along with the claim that only full African participation in political institutions could address such issues.25

Kwame Nkrumah, from a small ethnic group in southern Ghana, educated in a historically black college in the United States, and a pan-African activist in London, had returned to his home country to foster pan-African organization. He was soon caught up in Gold Coast politics. Neither the government’s local focus nor pan-Africanism could sustain itself in the face of escalating demands and partially positive responses from the British government in the Gold Coast. Nkrumah used the occasion of the 1948 riots to claim that only an African government could address the problems of people of the territory and only it could hope to contain the potential for disorder.

The roots of politics in the Gold Coast were varied, from a relatively well-organized labor movement, to moderately prosperous cocoa farmers, to urban youth available for mobilization. Nkrumah was able to straddle a fine line of mobilizing diverse supporters, posing a radical demand for independence, and yet positioning himself as the only possible way of finding a constitutional, peaceful solution to the tension he had helped to channel. When his party, the Convention People’s Party, won a legislative election in 1951, at a time when Nkrumah was in prison, the British government had to admit it was outmaneuvered, that its attempt to find a manipulable middle had failed, and that Nkrumah was indeed the only alternative to disorder.

Nkrumah soon learned that the quest of diverse people for improvements in their daily lives was only contingently hitched to his national cause. As leader of a self-governing territory moving toward independence, he tried to repress the kinds of social movements, from labor unions to farmers’ organizations, that he had ridden to his party’s victory in 1951. Most important, he had to fight off a movement among one of the largest and most affluent ethnic groups in the Gold Coast, the Asante, for autonomy within the country. When the Gold Coast became independent in 1957 (changing its name to Ghana, like Mali the name of an old African empire), the nation could be celebrated, but its basis was already in question.26

Ghana’s problems were now Nkrumah’s, and British officials had a kind of grudging admiration for Nkrumah’s success in repressing the labor movement—they wished they could have done such a good job themselves. Nkrumah was being reconstructed in British ideology from the dangerous demagogue to the Man of Moderation and Modernization. He himself was trying to construct a state that was anti-imperialist but modernizing, African but not traditional.27

Such a pattern became the model for other colonies: fear of radicals made once radical alternatives look more moderate. In Nigeria, the British tried to manipulate regional divisions. They administered the colony as a federation of three regions, North, West, and East. Each was demographically dominated by a particular ethnic group, which produced tensions within the region and quests for alliances outside it. The North was dominated by Muslim elites who were in firm control of emirates centered on the major cities of the region, and they were able to contain challenges from the poorer and low-status elements of the population, less so in the southern part of the North, where many peoples were not Muslim. In the West, cocoa farming had produced a class of relatively affluent farmers who sought a wider range of opportunities for their children. The East and the West had the best educated population—owing more to missionaries than to the colonial government—and it supplied clerical personnel to the other regions. Between East and West were peoples who worried about being “minorities” in the two big regions and sought regional status for themselves.

All this produced considerable tension within and between regions, and the British hoped that the conservative North would slow down the more educated and more militant East and West. Nigeria went through a series of constitutions as the government found it increasingly hard to contain demands for real power. It was willing to devolve a degree of self-government to the three regions. Soon the NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons), led by the newspaper magnate and political activist Nnamdi Azikiwe; the Action Group under Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba lawyer with a modernizing agenda; and the Northern People’s Congress, led by the conservative scion of the Muslim northern elite, Ahmdu Bello, took control of their respective regions.28 In the East and West, but not the North, providing education became one of the key agendas of the governing parties—Universal Primary Education was the goal. It has, in 2017, yet to be attained, but the numbers of students did rapidly increase, fostering opportunities for the first students who got through the system but later creating pressure on the bottlenecks in the educational field and on the kinds of jobs that people with middling educational attainments could obtain.29 The regional governments also acquired a reputation for corruption, not surprising given that African leaders felt, as Chinua Achebe expressed it, that they had just “come in from the rain”: they cherished what they had acquired and depended for support on distributing resources to clients and kinsmen.30

One could add to the story with the variations in the other British colonies of West Africa, Sierra Leone, and Gambia, but certain tensions were widespread: between elites’ quest for control and their followers’ needs for material benefits, between regional political affiliations and the concentration of resources in colonial capitals. Britain, like France, was facing the fact that in hitching its legitimacy in the postwar situation to allowing Africans more political participation and more “development,” it would have to face continuing escalation of demands that could prove costly. In roughly the same time period as France, Britain began to consider that a managed devolution of power might serve its interests better than tenaciously holding on to colonies.

In 1957, Prime Minister MacMillan commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of the options of granting or refusing independence to each colony. The conclusions of the study were mixed:

Although damage could certainly be done by the premature grant of independence, the economic dangers to the United Kingdom of deferring the grant of independence for her own selfish interests after the country is politically and economically ripe for independence would be far greater than any dangers resulting from an act of independence negotiated in an atmosphere of goodwill such as has been the case with Ghana and the Federation of Malaya. Meanwhile, during the period when we can still exercise control in any territory, it is most important to take every step open to us to ensure, as far as we can, that British standards and methods of business and administration permeate the whole life of the territory.31

The goal now was not to keep colonies in the empire but to keep them tied to a British way of life—something British colonial policy before the war had been intent on keeping Africans away from. Officials could only hope that British practices had framed governance and that ex-colonies would become Western-style nations.

Figure 3. Map of African independence. African Studies Center, Michigan State University.

Officials had long feared that the Colonial Development and Welfare Act could become a colonial “dole,” and by the mid-1950s they had come to grips with the limits of the transformations that were possible. African colonies lacked the physical facilities—transportation and skilled labor—to absorb very much development spending even if Britain were willing to provide it. The stabilization doctrine had not solved the labor problem, and labor costs moved upward in crucial sectors without providing the anticipated breakthroughs in production. The Colonial Secretary said of Nigeria in 1957 that there was danger of “administrative chaos” and “corrupt, inept and opportunist rule.” But the British could not prolong their supposed tutelage:

This is the dilemma with which we are faced: either give independence too soon and risk disintegration and a breakdown of administration; or to hang on too long, risk ill-feeling and disturbances, and eventually to leave bitterness behind, with little hope thereafter at our being able to influence Nigerian thinking in world affairs on lines we would wish.32

London’s negative viewpoint overlooked reports from its own governors that exports were increasing, schools expanding, and workers in key sectors were receiving better pay and operating within the new system of industrial relations. The frustration had much to do with the way the problem was framed: a preconceived concept of “development” bringing together the reconstruction of the British economy, rising standards of living in Africa, responsible trade unions and respectable politicians, and the reorganization of agriculture and industry in accordance with the latest insights of experts. The kinship and clientage networks of Gold Coast or Nigerian cocoa farmers may have been helping to bring in excellent harvests, but they were not what officials meant by development.

African politicians—by virtue of the insistence of British officials that they had to prove their popular mandates via elections—made their connections with African society as it actually was, with all its particularisms and conflicting forms of affinity. Top officials often read this as demagoguery, corruption, and divisiveness. Such observations were not without basis—some of the social and political breakdowns that occurred in the 1960s in Nigeria and elsewhere resemble the predictions of 1957–1959—but the expectations that Africa had failed to fulfill were those of a fantasy of imperial modernization of the 1940s. The British were ready to declare that their job was done, that a future constructive relationship with African states was the best they could hope for.

Sovereignty and the Limits of Change

The British and French governments had faced a challenge at the end of World War II, but each thought that the challenge could be managed within familiar structures: that of modified territorial government in the British case, of a carefully controlled process of expanding citizenship rights in the French case, by newly vigorous development policies in both instances. They could not.

African politicians proved adept at working with the possibilities they had. They could work with legislative bodies in the capital cities of African territories or in a legislature in Paris that spoke for all of France. They developed trade unions, political parties, and associations of farmers and other businessmen. But participation in formal institutions did not mean conformity to preset norms. African political leaders built their political apparatus out of the material they had: through ethnic leadership, through religious brotherhoods or networks, through trade unions. The relation of leader to intermediate power broker (chiefs, elders, religious figures) could be personal as well as institutional. The very immersion of French and British policymakers in their visions of modernization and directed change made it very difficult for them to understand the people who were challenging them.

African political and social movements had many objectives: dignity at home, a place in world institutions, better living conditions. What they could get was sovereignty, and sovereignty had its possibilities. The colonial development project had not left African societies with complex networks of transportation, with a well-trained labor force, with multiple linkages among different economic sectors. The rulers of independent Africa had fewer resources than the French or British government to contain the demands of workers and peasants. They had good reason to fear that what seemed to be their strength, the control of a sovereign entity, also gave rise to the danger they faced, that rivals might aspire to control the same narrow set of state institutions. The tensions and conflicts that this structure produced were no longer in West Africa the responsibility of French and British governments. African rulers would take the responsibility for whatever went wrong.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarly study of African political movements began in the 1950s within the discipline of political science. This was a time when that discipline was oriented toward fieldwork, and scholars like James Coleman and Thomas Hodgkin were on the scene in West Africa, collecting political pamphlets, reading African newspapers, and interviewing key actors. They were influenced by modernization theory—a vision of a long-term transition from “traditional” to “modern societies” that presumed a convergence of societies around the globe toward a simplified model of “Western society”—but the empirical orientation of this generation of scholars did more to complicate than confirm the tenets of the theory, as did the sociological research of Georges Balandier in French Africa. In 1966, the Belgian-American political scientist Aristide Zolberg undercut widely held views of mass mobilization by African political parties by suggesting that they were more like brokers that assembled different constituencies, working through intermediaries.33

Most scholars saw political actions as turning colonies into “modern nation-states.” That French Africa fit the narrative less well was sometimes interpreted as a sign that French policy was more retrograde than British, but the fine-grained study of French West Africa by Ruth Schachter Morgenthau suggested that a wider range of alternatives was in play.34

Historians were slower than political scientists to address the politics of the 1940s to 1960s, for they waited for archives to open and had to undertake the collection of oral testimonies. They had to distance themselves from older schools of imperial history whose focus was on the actions of Europeans in Africa, whether it was to praise or condemn them. They did so with a strong focus on African actors in the drama of anticolonial mobilization.35 A tendency to make top leaders and their political movements the center of attention has more recently been opened up by more emphasis on women political activists, on wage workers, and on farmers’ organizations. Attention to social, cultural, and religious factors has broadened the political emphasis of earlier scholarship. More recently still, historians have tried to go beyond the narrative of empire to nation-state. Rather than following a particular trend in historical or theoretical fashions, the most recent phase in the writing of the postwar history of Africa has been the diversity of questions being asked.

Primary Sources

Much information on the decades after World War II has now been opened up in the British National Archives (in Kew) and the Archives d’Outre-Mer (Aix-en-Provence) in France, although some files on sensitive topics like the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya were held back for years.36 Archival sources include police records, which are often among the best sources on African social and political movements. In the British case, an impressive multi-volume selection of documents has been published as British Documents on the End of Empire.37 The breakthrough in the French case is the opening in the Archives Nationales (in Pierrefitte, near Paris) of the papers of Jacques Foccart, the key point of connection between the government and African leaders and architect of post-independence French policy, but these must be consulted in the National Archives.38 African archives are crucial sources for the period leading up to independence but are uneven after that. Some files in the archives of the Government General of French West Africa are available on microfilm in either Paris or Aix-en-Provence as well as Dakar, but the archives of Senegal contain additional files from this source as well as valuable material from the brief existence of the Mali Federation and from the early years of the Republic of Senegal. The national libraries in France and Britain as well as the Hoover Institution and the Library of Congress in the United States and Rhodes House in Great Britain house extensive pamphlet literature coming out of different social and political movements. African newspapers are a rich source, and some are available on microfilm, microform, or digital media. Legislative records from both metropole and colonies are important sources on changing political discourses. Some scholars have made good use of oral sources to get beyond official records, including interviews with ordinary people as well as leaders and activists. Possibilities of using recorded music, works of art, and literature are beginning to be added to the more conventional archival base of historical scholarship.

Further Reading

  • Allman, Jean Marie. The Quills of the Porcupine: Asante Nationalism in an Emergent Ghana. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.
  • Byfield, Judith, Carolyn Brown, Timothy Parsons, and Ahmad Alawad Sikainga. Africa and World War II. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Chafer, Tony. The End of Empire in French West Africa. Oxford: Berg, 2002.
  • Coleman, James S. Nigeria: Background to Nationalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.
  • Cooper, Frederick. Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Cooper, Frederick. Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945–1960. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Darwin, John. The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System 1830–1970. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • De Benoist, Joseph Roger. L’Afrique occidentale française, de la conférence de Brazzaville (1944) à l’indépendance (1960). Dakar: Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1982.
  • Lindsay, Lisa. Working with Gender: Men, Women, and Wage Labour in Southwest Nigeria. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.
  • Mann, Gregory. From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Morgenthau, Ruth Schachter. Political Parties in French-Speaking West Africa. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.
  • Rossi, Benedetta. From Slavery to Aid: Politics, Labour, and Ecology in the Nigerien Sahel, 1800–2000. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Schmidt, Elizabeth. Mobilizing the Masses: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Nationalist Movement in Guinea, 1939–1958. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005.


  • 1. Jean Marie Allman, The Quills of the Porcupine: Asante Nationalism in an Emergent Ghana (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993); and Achille Mbembe, La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun, 1920–1960: Histoire des usages de la raison en colonie (Paris: Karthala, 1996).

  • 2. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

  • 3. Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945–1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

  • 4. On the war’s impact on Africa, see Judith Byfield, Carolyn Brown, Timothy Parsons, and Ahmad Alawad Sikainga, eds., Africa and World War II (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  • 5. Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

  • 6. Morten Jerven, “African Economic Growth Recurring: An Economic History Perspective on African Growth Episodes, 1690–2010,” Economic History of Developing Regions 25 (2010): 127–154.

  • 7. Jean-François Bayart, “Africa in the World: A History of Extroversion,” African Affairs 99 (1999): 217–226.

  • 8. Alice Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998); Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Michael Goebel, Anti-imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third-World Nationalism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Jennifer Boittin, Colonial Metropolis. The Urban Grounds of Anti-imperialism and Feminism in Interwar Paris (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010).

  • 9. AOF, Directeur Général des Affaires Politiques, Administratives et Sociales, note, July 46, 17G 152, Archives du Sénégal. For a detailed discussion of the debates over the constitution, see Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation.

  • 10. RDA manifesto, reproduced in Joseph Roger de Benoist, L’Afrique occidentale française, de la conférence de Brazzaville (1944) à l’indépendance (1960) (Dakar: Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1982), 559–561.

  • 11. Transcript of interview, January 15, 1946, between representatives of the Union des Syndicats of Saint-Louis, and the Director of Personnel and the Director of Finance of the Government General, K 405 (132), Archives du Sénégal.

  • 12. Cooper, Decolonization and African Society.

  • 13. Gregory Mann, Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

  • 14. Commission de modernisation et d’équipement des Territoires d’Outre-Mer, “Rapport général de la sous-Commission de l’intégration métropole Outre-Mer” (1953), PA 19/3/38, Archives d’Outre-Mer.

  • 15. Pierre-Henri Teitgen, Assemblée Nationale, Débats (March 20, 1956): 1072–1073.

  • 16. Cooper, Decolonization, chapter 11.

  • 17. The most contested vote was in Niger, where the “yes” vote garnered a little over 70 percent, thanks in part to French machinations. See Klaas van Walraven, The Yearning for Relief: A History of the Sawaba Movement in Niger (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013). On Guinea, see Elizabeth Schmidt, Mobilizing the Masses: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Nationalist Movement in Guinea, 1939–1958 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005).

  • 18. This story is told in Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation.

  • 19. In Britain, the arrival of non-white migrants exercising their citizenship rights under this act caused considerable anxiety about the process—real enough—of making the British population more diverse. But the logic of imperial inclusion was for a time more powerful than anxieties about race, at least until the 1960s, when there was no longer much of an empire to try to preserve. Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); and Randall Hansen, “The Politics of Citizenship in 1940s Britain: The British Nationality Act,” Twentieth Century British History 10 (1999): 67–95.

  • 20. Cooper, Decolonization.

  • 21. Cooper, Decolonization; and James Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

  • 22. Cooper, Decolonization.

  • 23. Lisa Lindsay, Working with Gender: Men, Women, and Wage Labor in Southwest Nigeria (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).

  • 24. Marc Matera, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).

  • 25. Dennis Austin, Politics in Ghana, 1946–1960 (London: Oxford University Press, 1964).

  • 26. Allman, Quills of the Porcupine. Allman points out that there were tensions within the Asante movement over degrees of militance and alternatives to the territorial nation-state.

  • 27. Chiefly authority was a particular target of Nkrumah, but it was hard to get around. Richard Rathbone, Nkrumah and the Chiefs: The Politics of Chieftaincy in Ghana, 1951–1960 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000).

  • 28. For a recent study, see Wale Adebanwi, Yorùbá Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and Corporate Agency in an African Lifeworld (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Now-classic studies of the politics of decolonization in Nigeria include James S. Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958); C. S. Whitaker, The Politics of Tradition: Continuity and Change in Northern Nigeria, 1946–1966 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970); and Richard Sklar, Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963).

  • 29. David Abernethy, The Political Dilemma of Popular Education: An African Case (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969).

  • 30. Chinua Achebe, Man of the People (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 34.

  • 31. Report by the Chairman of the Official Committee on Colonial Policy (Norman Brook), “Future Constitutional Development in the Colonies,” CPC (57) 30 (September 6, 1957), CAB 134/1556, 5–6, British National Archives.

  • 32. Memorandum by Secretary of State, “Nigeria,” C 57 (120) (May 14, 1957), CAB 129/87, British National Archives.

  • 33. Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism; Georges Balandier, Sociologie des Brazzavilles Noires (Paris: Colin, 1955); Thomas Hodgkin, Nationalism in Colonial Africa (New York: New York University Press, 1957); and Aristide Zolberg, Creating Political Order: The Party States of West Africa (Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1966).

  • 34. Tony Smith, “A Comparative Study of French and British Decolonization,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 20 (1978): 70–102; and Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, Political Parties in French-Speaking West Africa (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964).

  • 35. A pioneering text advocating an African perspective on history, although concerned with an earlier period than this article, is K. O. Dike, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830–1885 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956). For an early synthesis in French of contemporary African history, see Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch and Henri Moniot, L’Afrique noire de 1800 à nos jours (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1974). See also de Benoist, L’Afrique occidentale française.

  • 36. For a review of the historiography of nationalism and decolonization, see Jean Allman, “Between the Present and History: African Nationalism and Decolonization,” in Oxford Handbook of Modern African History, eds. John Parker and Richard Reid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 224–242.

  • 37. British Documents on the End of Empire (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1992–2006).

  • 38. For a view of French policy from an archivist who helped to open the Foccart papers, see Jean-Pierre Bat, Le syndrome Foccart: La politique française en Afrique, de 1958 à nos jours (Paris: Gallimard, 2012).